Farewell to two giants of the turf
Gary McKenzie pays tribute to two giants of the turf
It is a sad week for racing as we have lost two notable figures.
One was a larger than life character who was so much more than a brilliant punter. And the other was a lot quieter as a person but he was a real stylist in the saddle.
Joe Mercer rode his first winner, Eldorat, in 1950, a month before his 16th birthday. He was Champion Apprentice twice (in 1952 and 1953) and was still an apprentice when he won the Oaks on Ambiguity.
He is probably best known for his association with trainer Major Dick Hern with whom he was stable jockey for the best part of fifteen years. Obviously the horse that we think of when we look at Joe Mercer’s career is the brilliant Brigadier Gerard.
Mercer called him his horse of a lifetime. But he rode some other great horses including Bustino in the St Leger as well as Kris, and Le Moss for Henry Cecil.
He was only Champion Jockey once, in 1979, with 164 winners but he was unlucky to be around in the era of Lester Piggott, Doug Smith, Scobie Breasley, and later, Willie Carson and Pat Eddery.
He was a suprem stylist who just looked natural on a horse
He also seemed to be a decent guy and that has been born out by the comments and tributes from those at the top of the racing tree
Phillip Robinson was among the younger jockeys who called him Uncle Joe because he was always available for advice and a friendly ear.
He retired in 1985, winner the November Handicap on his final mount Bold Rex. That brought his total winners to 2,810.
He became racing manager to Maktoum Al Maktoum’s Gainsborough Stud and was involved with many equine stars including another of my favourite colts in Zilzal.
I saw a programme a few years ago where Joe Mercer, Willie Carson, and Pat Eddery were reminiscing about their riding days and Joe was typically modest giving the credit to the horses and trainers he worked with.
They showed part of a recent interview he gave on ITV Racing last weekend and his last quote was just perfect.
“I’ve had a wonderful life”
What more could anyone ask for.
Bookies wondered what hit them
Barney Curley will be remembered for his well executed gambles that had bookies wondering what had hit them.
It was in 1975 that the legend really began when a horse by the name of Yellow Sam won at Bellestown in an amateur riders hurdle at odds of 20/1.
The horse should not have gone off at such a price but the only phone box at the course was being used by a rather large man and the on course layers could not hedge their sums.
Added to the fact that Curley had employees placing bets in shops around Ireland and you can see how he managed to win £306,000 (which is estimated to be two million in todays money).
This did not enamour him to the big bookmakers and it wasn’t the last time he pulled one over “the old enemy”.
As a young man Barney Curley was supposed to become a Jesuit priest but while studying he contracted tuberculosis which almost killed him, and he had to postpone his studies.
He dabbled in the pop business, managing bands, as well as pub ownership and he also had betting shops for a while.
Loved to land a gamble
But he loved to land a gamble and he decided training his horses himself gave him total control of where and when to run them.
He had been “burgling races” for years and in 2010 he won another big pot when three of four horses he had backed in multiples won.
Had the fourth come in it rumoured he would have collected close to twenty million.
But he did say once that “I will do anything I can to beat the layers except fix races… that is morally and legally wrong.”
He was not a fan of the authorities who made it difficult for him to get a licence in the first place and of course the high street betting companies were fair game to him.
But there was so much more to this man. He helped nurture some of the top jockeys of our era including Frankie Dettori, Jamie Spencer and Tom Queally. And not just on the track. Dettori called him a friend and mentor over thirty years and Spencer said he “had a heart the size of the universe”.
Curley set up the charity Direct Aid For Africa (DAFA) which raised millions for communities in Zambia. Some would call him a devil but to many others he was angel. I think he could definitely be described as a rogue but he didn’t seem to be a bad man at heart.
He was always interesting and the “discussion” he had with John McCririck at Folkestone will be replayed on YouTube plenty of times this week.
They will be missed by family and friends but also by us racing fans.