Pat Taaffe

Pat Taaffe The late Pat Taaffe, who died in 1992 at the age of 62, will be long remembered as the jockey of Arkle – widely acknowledged as the greatest steeplechaser in history – on whom he won RSA Chase in 1963 and the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 1964, 1965 and 1966. In fact, immediately before the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 1966, as Arkle stood on the brink of history, Observer correspondent Hugh McIlvanney paid tribute to Taaffe, writing, “Pat Taaffe is one of the few horsemen in the world who can look Arkle in the eye without feeling inferior.”

 

At 6 ft. 2 ins., Taaffe was uncommonly tall for a jockey, but his unconventional, nay, untidy, style in the saddle – riding a finish was never his specialty – didn’t stop him from becoming Irish National Hunt Champion Jockey nine times or riding 25 winners at the Cheltenham Festival. The brilliance of Arkle may have eclipsed some of his less able companions, but all bar four of those winners were trained by his boss, Tom Dreaper. Remarkably, all bar two – Stroller, trained by Vincent O’Brien, in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle in 1954 and Flyingbolt, trained by Dreaper, in the same race a decade later – came in steeplechases.

 

Arkle aside, Taaffe also won the Cheltenham Gold Cup on his stable companion Fort Leney in 1968, for a total of four wins in the ‘Blue Riband’ event. He bettered that total in the Queen Mother Champion Chase, with five wins, on Fortria in 1960 and 1961, Ben Stack in 1964, Flyingbolt – whom, incidentally, he regarded superior to Arkle – in 1966 and Straight Fort in 1970. Taaffe also won the RSA Chase five times, on Coneyburrow in 1953, Solfen in 1960, Grallagh Cnoc in 1961, Arkle in 1963 and Proud Tarquin in 1970 and remains the leading rider in the history of the premium novices’ staying chase.

Lord Oaksey

Lord Oaksey In the latter part of his career, John Oaksey, or Lord Oaksey, was better known as a journalist, broadcaster and fundraiser for the Injured Jockeys Fund but, in his younger days, was a highly successful amateur jockey. Born John Lawrence in 1929, he adopted the name John Oaksey when he became the third Baron Oaksey, and fourth Baron Trevethin, on the death of his father in 1971.

 

Despite not having “any natural ability”, at least not according to legendary commentator Sir Peter O’Sullevan, Oaksey rode over 200 winners and was Champion Amateur Jump Jockey twice, in 1957/58 and 1970/71. He recorded four victories at the Cheltenham Festival, winning the National Hunt Chase on Sabaria in 1959, the Kim Muir Handicap Chase twice, on Jimmy Scott in 1966 and Black Blaize in 1971 and the Foxhunter Chase on Bullocks Horn in 1973. In so doing, he became the only jockey in the history of the Cheltenham Festival to win all three races reserved, exclusively, for amateur riders.

 

Following his death, after a lengthy illness, in 2012, the National Hunt Chase the following year was run as the John Oaksey National Hunt Chase in his honour. Indeed, his legacy at the Cheltenham Festival continued three years later when Coneygree, whom he bred from his inexpensive mare Plaid Mare, won the Cheltenham Gold Cup for his daughter and son-in-law, Sara and Mark Bradstock. Sara Bradstock said afterwards, “It’s because my father was the greatest. That’s where we’ve got this luck from; he deserved it and he’s looking down. He’s not here, but he is here in spirit.”

Mick Fitzgerald

Mick Fitzgerald In recent years, Mick Fitzgerald has become a familiar face as a television presenter, on At The Races, Channel 4 Racing and, more recently, ITV Racing. However, before being forced to retire after breaking his neck, for a second time, in a fall from L’Ami in the 2008 Grand National, Fizgerald enjoyed a stellar career as a National Hunt jockey.

 

All in all, he rode 1,280 winners – 726 of which were for Nicky Henderson – including 14 at the Cheltenham Festival and, although he never won the jump jockeys’ championship, at the time of his retirement he was, numerically, the fifth most successful National Hunt jockey of all time. Fitzgerald had originally intended to retire at the end of the 2006/07 season, but continued riding until his Aintree mishap. His recovery was painful and slow and he finally called time on his 20-year career after taking medical advice.

 

At that time, Nicky Henderson paid tribute to him, saying, “He’s not only been a great jockey, but a great mate; very reliable, a superstar. Stable jockeys are unfashionable these days, but he’s been an exemplary one, loyal, dedicated to the whole operation, utterly professional.”

 

Fitzgerald rode his first winner, Lover’s Secret, at Ludlow in 1988, but gradually established himself in the upper echelon of National Hunt jockeys and enjoyed associations with Paul Nicholls and, of course, Nicky Henderson. His career highlights included winning the 1996 Grand National on Rough Quest, after which he told Des Lynam, “Sex us an anti-climax after this”. He was leading rider at the Cheltenham Festival twice, in 1999 – when he won the Queen Mother Champion Chase on Call Equiname, for Henderson, and the Cheltenham Gold Cup on See More Business, for Nicholls – and again in 2000.

Toby Balding

Toby Balding The late Gerald Balding OBE, universally known as “Toby”, was the elder brother of the Ian Balding, who saddled Mill Reef to win the Derby in 1971, and a highly successful trainer in his own right. In fact, he had the rare distinction of saddling the winner of the three most important races in British National Hunt racing, the Grand National (twice), the Cheltenham Gold Cup and the Champion Hurdle.

 

Born in the United States, Balding first took out a training licence, while still a teenager, in 1956. His first major success came with Highland Wedding, ridden by Eddie Harty, who won the 1969 Grand National by 12 lengths. Two decades later, Balding repeated the feat with Little Polveir, who won the 1989 renewal of the Aintree marathon by 7 lengths under Jimmy Frost.

 

The previous month, Balding had saddled his first winner of the Champion Hurdle, Beech Road, ridden by Richard Guest, who sprang a major surprise by beating Celtic Shot by 2 lengths at 50/1, with 11/8 favourite Kribensis only seventh of the twelve finishers. His second winner, Morley Street, in 1991, was sent off 4/1 favourite and duly obliged, beating Nomadic Way by 1½ lengths under Jimmy Frost.

 

In 1992, Balding saddled outsider Cool Ground, ridden by his protégé Adrian Maguire, to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup at 25/1. The result was controversial insofar that many observers believed Golden Freeze, the rank outsider at 150/1, was ridden with the deliberate intent of unsettling hot favourite Carvill’s Hill, who eventually finished well beaten.

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