On Thursday, 5th May 1904 there were, I am sure, quite a few male children being born. One of them was born in Ivy Row – known to the locals as Potato Row – in Donnington Wood, Oakengates, just outside Telford in Shropshire. He was baptised Gordon, the son of Mr & Mrs Richards, and would take some while to grab headlines – but there is no doubt that, when he did, everyone knew about it. This son of a Shropshire coal miner had an early relationship with horses – his father reared some pit-ponies at home. The young Gordon was soon riding them bareback and, aged 7, he was driving the pony and trap passenger service his family ran between Wrockwardine Wood and Oakengate station.
He became a stable boy at 15 and won his first race at Leicester in March 1921. Four years later, in 1925, he became a full-fledged jockey and won 118 races. Those wins made him Champion Jockey, in his first full year of race riding! The rest, as they say, is history.
He was the British flat racing jockey champion 26 times during his career; is often considered the worlds’ greatest ever jockey and he remains the only jockey to have been Knighted – arise Sir Gordon Richards. Early in 1926, Gordon contracted tuberculosis and had to take time out from racing. But it was while he recuperated from the debilitating disease in a Norfolk sanatorium he met Bill Rowell, a fellow patient. Bill was to have a major influence on Gordon’s life being something of a mentor, teaching the young jockey how to cope with the riches that would come his way, as well as his popularity with high society in the class-ridden system that prevailed in Britain between the wars. The two became firm friends.
Gordon returned to winning ways in the 1927 season and, in 1932, he became stable jockey to Fred Darling. He finished that season with 259 winners – the record for the greatest number of wins in a year, a record he was to keep for nearly 50 years. He broke his own record in 1947 when he rode 269 winners. In 1948 Gordon set a world record winning twelve consecutive races including riding all six winners at Chepstow on 4 October.
Achievement followed achievement, with Gordon winning the 1947 2,000 Guineas at Newmarket with Tudor Minstrel by 8 lengths, the largest winning margin in the race since 1900!
Despite these huge successes, there was still one race where a win had always eluded him: – the Epson Derby! The 1953 Derby occurred on a week of great national and personal celebration for Gordon Richards himself, as he became the first jockey to receive a knighthood. In the race Sir Gordon was riding Pinza – a huge horse for a flat-thoroughbred at 16 hands high. The pair ran a terrific race. Pinza was in second position through much of the mile and a half course, competing against the Queen’s own horse Aureole. Gordon and Pinza swept past the Aga Khan’s horse, Shikampur, into first place with just two furlongs remaining.
The long-awaited win was accompanied by thunderous cheers from the frenzied crowd. Winning ‘The Derby’ was undoubtedly Sir Gordon’s crowning victory, and he was promptly summoned from the winners’ enclosure to be congratulated by the Queen herself.
Sir Gordon’s riding career ended in 1954 following a pelvis injury, but he continued to indulge his passion for racing, by becoming a horse trainer and advisor. He died in 1986 and his total of 4,870 winners remains a British Record to this day.