The 1970s must have been a very special era for jumps racing fans. The Champion Hurdle picture was never rosier and over time, became known as the Golden Era for hurdling.
But what was it like for jumps jockeys?
Course-Specialist was hugely privileged recently to catch up with Ian Watkinson, who partnered two of the great Champion Hurdle winners, a future Gold Cup winner and the unforgettable two mile chaser Tingle Creek.
Ian very kindly afforded me his time to recall some extraordinary events and memories. I hope I have done him justice.
Ian’s career and life could have taken a very different path before he ever sat on a horse.
His father was in the Royal Navy and the young Ian harboured similar ambitions to join the Navy, as he passed his time at school in Suffolk.
Having learned to ride at the age of ten, in his early teens, Ian managed to secure a Saturday job working in some nearby stables.
The turning point came when he got to ride in a point to point, at the tender age of fifteen, having lied about his age!
“That was it, I was hooked. Maurice Bailey was a permit holder and gave me my first ride – as he did with my good friend Sir Mark Prescott.
“After I had finished school, I went to work for the late John Powney. John and another trainer, Pat Moore, taught me to ride when I was 11 or 12 years-old.”
Around this time, one of Ian’s school chums was also starting to make his way into the world of horse racing’ His name was Bill O’Gorman and he would go on to become a top class flat trainer thanks to the likes of Superlative, Timeless Times, Provideo and Sayf Al Arab. But that was all in the future.
Ian recalls Bill’s outstanding 100% record as a jumps trainer:
“He had a 100% record with a steeplechaser called Strong Heart – and I got to ride him! He was a five year-old colt and one day, Bill asked me if he would jump a fence.
“We took him to Nottingham and being entire, he was slow over his fences, but he had miles per hour in between. Nottingham’s jumps track had one of the longest run-ins in the country and we jumped the last fence five lengths behind Jeff King, but then beat him by a head on the flat! He never ran over fences again, hence Bill’s 100% record with chasers!”
Having decided his destiny lay with racing rather than the Navy, Ian wrote to three trainers to see if there were opportunities: Tommy Robson, who trained at Greystoke in Penrith, Fred Winter in Lambourn and George Owen.
“Tommy said: “If you are any good, I’ll get you going or you can go back to Newmarket;”” Ian recalls. “It was always going to be jumps racing for me as I was 9 stone even when I was 15 years-old.
“I figured that if I worked hard for Tommy, then he might give me a chance and I rode a winner on my first ride, a horse called Charles Cotton, at Hexham, when I was 17 years-old, on the Whitsun Bank Holiday.
“My second ride would have been a winner too, but he sadly broke down. However I also won on my third ride, a horse called Sundowner.”
It was a terrific start to an embryonic career, but Robson restricted Ian to riding over hurdles and chances were few and far between.
“My first ride over fences was on an old horse at Kelso, for a small Scottish trainer, John McMurchie who had a good ‘chaser called Devon Blue for the Queen Mother.
“In my second season, I was allowed to ride over fences – but only on the older, more experienced horses. I struck up a partnership with a 12 year-old horse called Punion and we won four chases. I have a picture of us being led in by Maurice Barnes, who would go on to ride Rubstic to win the Grand National,” Ian recalls.
“Even so, it was very difficult. I was away from home and it was a culture shock, moving to the north, but I kept myself to myself and eventually things picked up. By my third season, I was riding virtually all of Tommy’s horses, including a smart Ascot Stakes winner called Harvest Gold. I won a chase on him.
“Then in 1968, I was offered a ride for Ken Oliver at Wetherby and he offered me the job as second jockey in September of that year.”
Wetherby would provide mixed memories for Ian down the years. On one occasion he recalls breaking his arm having fallen at the last on a horse trained by Pat Moore. He was carted off to North Allerton Hospital but remarkably drove himself home, with his arm in a plaster and sling.
On another occasion, Ian believes he rode Night Nurse and Tingle Creek to a double at the Yorkshire track.
However, before that glorious day, Ian had his moments of doubt.
“After Tommy packed up training, I became disillusioned. I left racing for six months and became a Beatnic, a hippy. I grew my hair long and followed the trend of the time to put flower transfers on my car. I also put on weight.
“One night I was at a dance near Lake Ullswater. I was sat in a car at about 3am with a friend. My parents lived in Cambridge and with my friend, we decided to drive to Newmarket that night.
“I stayed at my parents and went to visit Bill O’Gorman. I got the racing bug again thanks to Bill. I think the catalyst for my ‘second coming’ as a jockey might well have been Bill O’Gorman, by offering me the rides on his jumpers and working beside him I rekindled my enthusiasm, got fit . . . . . the rest is history!”
As Ian got started back, he also rode for a trainer called Peter Ransom, based near Ludlow.
“I rode a couple of races for him and a winner. He was a hard task master but fair and that helped to give me the impetus again.
“I later returned to Newmarket and rode for Bill and rode a few winners for him too. However, on one occasion I remember riding at Southwell over hurdles. I got run out of it late on and Bill later showed me that he had backed the horse to the tune of £25 at 33/1, This was in the early Seventies, so he stood to win an astronomical sum of money!”
In 1972, Ian decided to try his luck in America for a while, moving to Belmont Park, New York. Because of his weight, he could only do slow work on the track, but he worked for Elliott Birch, who’s assistant was John Veitch.
Ian soon discovered that he was in the presence of greatness.
“Every morning I saw Secretariat working.”
However, Ian missed jumps racing and moved back to the UK, working for Bill O’Gorman and David Thom.
One one occasion, Ian managed to win a Plumpton novice chase, despite remounting twice during the race.
“I was riding for Eddie McNally, who trained near Findon. I remember that some of the fences had been rebuilt and were rock hard. Some of the jockeys went on strike because of it.
“I was going to ride either way but fell twice, the second time was at the last. But I remounted, which of course you can’t do nowadays – and won.
“However, the best thing about Plumpton, was the shellfish stall at the back of the stands, which was patronised by the top jockeys of the day like David Mould and Terry Biddlecombe.”
Of course when he started out as a jockey, Ian was very much working on the Northern circuits. His first trip south was an occasion etched indelibly in his memory:
“It was 1969 and I was riding down south for the first time, at Sandown Park.
“So I was sat in the weighing room in the corner, staring at all these famous jockeys like Terry Biddlecombe, Jeff King, Johnny Haine, David Mould and Paul Kelleway.
“Paul Kelleway was at the bar and the younger southern jockeys were complaining about the first fence, racing downhill away from the stands.
“Paul Kelleway said: “I’d rather jump that fence 10 times than go round that bend AFTER it once, it’s f———ng deadly at speed.” Many horses slipped up on that bend.”
In 1973, Ian joined Tom Jones at Newmarket as a lad, riding horses at home, but with no real thought of getting rides.
“However, in 1974, I did get a couple of rides over the Bank Holidays. Then on the last day of 1974, Tom had a runner at Newbury, called Artogan.
“Tom had also bought a hunter chaser from Scotland, called Fezeyot.
“David Mould got off Artogan at Newbury, on a Saturday, and told Tom Jones he didn’t want to starve over the weekend to ride Fezeyot at 10stone and said,”Let Ian ride him”.
“Tom’s routine was to call you into his office every Sunday morning at 9.30, to give you your orders for the week. It was probably the same for Richard Hills, many years later when he worked for Tom on the flat.
“Anyway, Tom said to me on this particular Sunday “You can ride Fezeyot tomorrow at Leicester.”
“The problem was, that he had 10 stone 1lb in the handicap and I weighed 10 stone 9lbs.
“I went for two runs and took laxatives and drove to the races in a sweatsuit. I went into the race having gone from 10 stone 7lbs to 9 stone 12lbs and felt very unwell.
“It was a three mile chase and I managed to dead-heat with Lord Oaksey. He later sent me a picture with the inscription “Best jockey I ever dead-heated with” – of course I was the only jockey he ever dead-heated with!
“Tom Jones nearly said well done to me afterwards! I got more rides that season after that.
“Then one Sunday, Tom told me that he wanted me to ride his horses the next year, with the exception of Zongalero, Garnishee and Tingle Creek, who he said I would get into trouble with.
“Even so, I won on Zongalero two or three times, although I remember turning him over at Cheltenham on one occasion, when we were racing against that good mare Grangewood Girl.
“Afterwards Tom gave me a dressing down and told me to ride the horses more sympathetically.
“In all I rode 45 winners for him.”
But whilst a jockey’s achievements and fulfilment are often accomplished on the racetrack, Ian’s memories also unsurprisingly hark back to the Newmarket gallops at that time in his life.
“I rode Tingle Creek every day at home. He was a nightmare. I never schooled him over a fence at home. Tingle Creek knew everything.
“When I rode him to finish fourth in the Benson & Hedges Chase, it was the first time I had jumped anything with him.
“But Tom said of schooling him: “He knows more about jumping than you’ll ever know.”
“He used to get so wound up and Tom would deliberately wind him up the day before a race so that he would get to the races and just bolt.
“He didn’t really jump as other horses did, he would literally run over the top of fences. He was extremely clever and could fiddle a fence if he needed to. But when he stood off, he stood off miles. He was something else.
“David Mould has often said to me: “Bloody two-mile chasers, they’re all forgotten. People forget just how great a horse he was. Nobody could touch him on good ground, he was unbeatable and he was like an out of control car.
“Steve Smith Eccles once said of Tingle Creek: “He goes long, very long … and fucking hell!”.
“Another occasion I remember well was the last time I rode him. It was a handicap chase at Fontwell (the meeting had been transferred from Plumpton). He was conceding three stone to all of his rivals and was ten years old by this time.
“There were four runners and one of them was ridden by lady rider Nicky Ledger, who I knew very well.
“However, she obviously didn’t know Tingle Creek so well! There were extra people on the gate who had come, just to see the great Tingle Creek.
“But Nicky wasn’t familiar with his style of running! She asked me down at the start what my plans were for the race! I told her I would bowl along.
“Her reply was: “I’ll probably be in front of you but please don’t chase me!”
“I said “If you are within 20 lengths of me by the third fence, I’ll buy that horse!”
“However, due to the configuration of the Fontwell course, Tingle Creek couldn’t see a fence so initially, he wasn’t as fast. I could imagine the other riders all thinking that Tingle Creek was past his best and not the horse of old.
“But then they took the bend and he saw the line of four fences and just took off. He went from five lengths clear to a fence clear.”
In all, Ian partnered Tingle Creek to eight chase victories, including the Express Chase at Sandown Park, which now bears the great horse’s name.
But what was it like to go out and ride a horse who had become public property, at a time when there were only three television channels and stars and famous names were magnified into the public conscience?
“I was always anxious that I didn’t fall off him, but I never did.
“I was always aware when I went back up north, that I could feel the other jockey’s eyes burning into my back, thinking me a lucky so and so. But a lot of the northern jockeys were my friends too.
“I am pretty sure that one day I rode both Tingle Creek and Night Nurse on the same Wetherby card.”
For his incredible endeavours, Tingle Creek never quite seemed the same at Cheltenham. Ian has his thoughts on why that was – and on one occasion nearly changed tactics on the great two-miler.
“I remember riding him once in the Champion Chase and at the top of the hill you could see half of Gloucestershire in front of you and it was like he sighed and just ran flat. He didn’t get a yard after two miles and perhaps the hill finish also didn’t play to his strengths.
“At the 1977 Cheltenham Festival, on one of the days I had two booked rides, aboard John Cherry and Tingle Creek.
“It poured with rain and John Cherry ran an awful race and got stuck in the mud. Tom then took Tingle Creek out of the Champion Chase.
“Before that race, about ten days before, Tom asked me if I could hold Tingle Creek up in a race. I told him that if there was one place it might be possible, then it was Cheltenham. But we never got the chance to try it.”
As Tingle Creek’s glorious career came to an end, Ian began to forge partnerships with two of the great Champion Hurdlers, Night Nurse and Sea Pigeon.
Both were trained in Yorkshire by Peter Easterby, one of the big powerhouse stables in the country at the time.
His opportunity arose after he had ridden that good chaser Canadius in the 1976 King George VI Chase, finishing just behind Bula, as Royal Marshall landed the Boxing Day feature.
“I rode him again at Haydock Park in the New Year. He had leg trouble and Peter told me not to hit him. I jumped the last upside Michael Dickinson on Shifting Gold and suddenly saw Michael’s elbows going up and down and he beat me a neck, with a crack of the whip.
“I then got the call to ride Night Nurse in the Scottish Champion Hurdle of 1978. Sea Pigeon was in the line-up too, but Golden Cygnet, that crack novice, would have beaten us both. He was cantering all over us when he tragically fell.
“Later that year I got to ride Night Nurse over fences and I also rode him in that epic race for the Embassy Premier Chase Final, at Haydock Park, in early 1979. It was a harsh winter and he hadn’t run for 11 weeks, while Silver Buck had recently run at Windsor and had race-fitness and just beat us.
“I rode Sea Pigeon three times and won all three. While Night Nurse would go a relentless gallop and got two miles well, Sea Pigeon had to be switched off.
“One day I rode Night Nurse at Newcastle in an Embassy Premier Chase Qualifier and later also won the Fighting Fifth Hurdle on Sea Pigeon. That was a great day. I pulled Night Nurse up on the run-in and he still won by 12 lengths.
“Then in the last race of the day, Johnny Haine had a runner in the novice hurdle. He got well beaten and connections looked at me disappointed. All I could say was: “Sorry, this wasn’t the best horse I’ve ridden today!”.”
Ian also nearly changed the course of history in a very negative way.
In 1977, Red Rum unforgettably won his third Grand National. But when Ian fell at the Chair on Sage Merlin, he all but brought down the great horse.
“Red Rum was right behind me and just landed and side-stepped me. Otherwise that would have been that,” Ian reflects.
But the fine margins and fickle nature of fate were lying in wait for Ian and dealt him a brutal blow in early 1979.
“With the Cheltenham Festival fast-approaching, I took a ride for Johnny Haine at Towcester, in a three-mile novice chase on a horse called Regal Choice.
“I’d never ridden him before and he fell at the last ditch. I was later told by Colin Astbury that he never took off at the fence.
“I was left unconscious and suffered a serious concussion which ultimately ended my career as a jockey.
“I was told that a couple of inches one way and I would have been a goner, a couple of inches the other way and I might have escaped unscathed.
“I was examined and sat down and the doctor told me there would be no jockey’s licence again. Another fall on my head would have killed me or left me a vegetable for the rest of my life.
“I was wheelchair-bound afterwards and because of the brain damage I suffered, I had to re-learn basic skills like brushing my teeth, shaving and using a knife and fork.
“Once I was able to, I didn’t stay around. JETS (Jockeys Education and Training Scheme) visited me (I think it was one of Stan Mellor’s daughters). But I couldn’t mentally settle and ended up going to Australia for six years.
“I trained whilst I was out there. Mrs Thomson-Jones (who owned Snailwell Stud – I rode their Gold Cup winner Alverton and also the smart Major Thompson to victories), arranged a job for me through Alan Lillingston, in Cootamundra. Alan had ridden Winning Fair to land the Champion Hurdle in 1963.
“I eventually trained horses for 2 ½ years and in my second season had 71 winners, including five in one day, on two occasions. We only raced three times a fortnight. I also trained four winners in Sydney.
“I was a private trainer and just looked after the horses, the office side of things was taken care of.”
Then in September 1981, Ian briefly returned to England.
“Bob (Champion) had won the Grand National that year on Aldaniti and Thames Television flew me over to London for an episode of ‘This Is Your Life’.”
Australia gave Ian plenty of life experiences and he partook in rodeo riding, sky and scuba diving and white water rafting exploits!
Ian later worked with his friend Josh Gifford, in Findon.
He now lives with his wife in Newmarket and I was privileged to meet Ian through our mutual friend, author and racing historian Chris Pitt, at the Rowley Mile, in September 2018.
Ian has lived the life of twelve people and filled his own with wonderful memories.
Of all the great races he rode in, the great horses he rode, the memory he is most proud of is that of a little staying chaser from the late 1970s, called Prince Rock.
“I used to ride Prince Rock for Peter Bailey. Back in those days, there was a four-mile chase at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day. I rode in it twice and won both times.
“Peter and I planned that race for Prince Rock and we planned the tactics. It went like clockwork and that was my proudest moment in racing.”
Ian’s story is one of perseverance and hope, but also camaraderie. Today’s jump jockeys live very differently, although the risk is inherently there.
But Ian’s stories deserve to be shared to different generations. There are lessons to be learned, but also a flavour for a very different era, when titans of the turf like Tingle Creek, Sea Pigeon and Night Nurse, etched their names in racing history.