A FINAL PAT ON THE BACK

9 November 2003

No winners but plenty of applause for the retiring 11-times champion Eddery

Just before Pat Eddery loaded up into the stalls for the very last time, a rabbit ran out from underneath an advertising hoarding and sprinted towards the winning post. Eddery’s mount, Gamut, was odds-on favourite but after 37 years and 4,632 winners, one more conjuring trick was too much to ask.

Eleven championships, three Derbies, four Arc de Triomphes, 73 Royal Ascot victories not to mention 28 seasonal centuries all count for nothing to the horse you walk towards when the mounting bell rings.

Pat’s first partner, Rio Branco, had never been to the racecourse in her life before and it showed. She was a tiny two-year-old filly with a woolly winter coat trace-clipped along her neck. As she left the paddock she jumped right, like a startled cat. Many a younger jockey would tighten the reins with a twinge of terror. Pat stayed limpet still in the saddle, reached out his right hand for a reassuring stroke on the shoulder and set Rio Branco off towards the very first start of her career. She didn’t do at all badly, running on to be seventh after being baffled when the stalls had opened.

Understanding horses has been at the heart of Pat’s genius. When he first came to Frenchie Nicholson’s Cheltenham stables back in 1967 – and I was around to remember – it was immediately obvious that here was a seal in water, a man, or rather a neat, smiling, child-faced 16-year-old, in his element. He did not ride a winner that first year, but by the time Alvaro started off the 4,500 flood that day at Epsom in April 1969, it was already clear that this was a talent that could get a tune out of all sorts of four-legged fiddles.

But not, yesterday, out of a big rather common-looking chesnut called Colourful Life whose career so far has included successes over both hurdles and fences but never yet on the Flat. The booking of Eddery on his bow-out day encouraged many punters and, one rather suspects, the owners to think the omission could now be rectified. Colourful Life looked like a carthorse compared to little Rio Branco but he thundered round close to the leaders and looked a possible winner until appearing to lose his action and hanging badly in towards the rails in the straight. As he galumphed, hind legs swinging awkwardly, past the post back in ninth place another Eddery dream was over.

There have been countless such reverses over the years and not all of them washed easily over the connections. This one did not yesterday. Colourful Life was led back to unsaddle, the jockey dismounted, pulled the elastic girths out to unbuckle and turned to explain about the problems in the straight before ducking under the rails and scuttling back to the weighing room. The large owner clamped a phone to his ear and said “that was the worst f****** ride I have ever seen.”

Such a hilariously downbeat cameo was almost matched when Eddery contested much of the running on the Martin Pipe favourite Chubbes in the next, only to be summoned by the stewards and formally cautioned for excessive use of the whip. Fears that this might be breached into a full-scale suspension if Gamut got into a slogging match for Eddery’s final ride were sadly alleviated three furlongs from the finish when it became clear that the odds-on favourite was never going to have the zip to reel in the front-running Scott’s View.

It was a bad result for conspiracy theorists. This race would surely have been fixed. Instead Pat came back to affectionate cheers while Scott’s View’s rider Joe Fanning had to put up with a round of good-natured booing.

So it was over, four decades of Eddery in the saddle, of the master craftsman who rode in the best sustained duel (Grundy – Bustino) and the best sling-shot waiting race (Dancing Brave’s Arc) that I have ever seen. He could be as brilliant and happy winning a selling race at Salisbury as masterminding something as big time as El Gran Senor’s epic 2,000 Guineas run at Newmarket. He may have been bumping and unorthodox in a finish but over the years he was a pillar of sustained excellence unmatched in the Flat race field.

Easy, genial and modest in private, he was almost Piggott-style monosyllabic in public and beside some generous thanks to those who had supported him he wasn’t any different at Doncaster. The jockeys gathered for an unsaddling enclosure presentation which was almost immediately reduced to chaos when Dettori and Duffield disgraced their seniority by producing foam sprays from their breeches and coating their departing idol.

Back in the weighing room it apparently got worse, Eddery’s socks, scarf, even underpants being cut to pieces, cream cakes put in his shoes. After five minutes Pat had somehow brushed himself down, said his goodbyes and with no ceremony slipped out the backdoor into the night and his new life running an owning operation from his stud farm in Buckinghamshire.

Meanwhile a slightly weird-looking gentleman with lank hair, dark glasses and a cap, on which was emblazoned the statement `Kevin – Pat Eddery’s No 1 Fan – waited stoically for an autograph. After each race he had mistakenly rushed up only to be swatted away as Eddery ran to the weighing room. Alas, poor Kevin. Let’s hope he hasn’t been trying this for 37 years. Treasure the memories, but put yesterday in the comedy tray.

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