By the time Geoff Lewis stepped up for the interview his was already the best-loved stutter in racing. This was 1971, Mill Reef had just won the Derby and the question was a stuffy one. Why, the jockey was asked, had he shown such ‘punch-the-air’ emotion at the winning post? “Wh-wh-what’s the p-p-p-point of having e-e-emotions,” said Geoff, “if you never e-e-effing show them?”
As so often with Geoff there was quite a bit more to it than that. A month before the Derby he had endured the most disappointing moment of his racing life when Mill Reef had been beaten by Brigadier Gerard in the 2,000 Guineas. Two races later things got considerably worse when his horse came down a mile from home and there was such a delay with the ambulance that it was almost midnight before he was examined at the Atkinson Morley Hospital in Wimbledon. They thought he had broken his neck.
In fact he had “only” trapped a nerve but the damage kept him in hospital for 4 days and has limited his left hand ever since. Undeterred Geoff was in the saddle seven days later and rode a horse for Noel Murless at Brighton 11 days after Newmarket. “It was a huge b-b-big thing that looked as if it n-n-needed 8 f-f-fences in front of it,” remembers the jockey. “But it went to post like a park hack and p-p-pissed up.”
Examination of Geoff Lewis’ ride on Mill Reef at Epsom and the pair’s subsequent stellar progress in the Eclipse, the “King George” at Ascot and the Arc de Triomphe still leaves you with wonder. But study how the little man from Talgarth in Wales got to the Derby winners circle and you can only shake your head in astonishment.
Geoff Lewis was born 80 years ago today in the small Welsh town of Talgarth on the edge of the Brecon Beacons. He was the 6th of 13 children. In the war years four older siblings were in the services and in 1945 the remaining family moved to Shepherds Bush where his father had work as a painter and decorator and Geoff and his remaining brothers scoured the bomb sites for odd bits of furniture to make scooters and karts. There was absolutely no connection with racing but on Derby Day 1950 the tiny Welsh boy and two other kids got a bus from Shepherds Bush to Malden to link with another to Epsom Downs.
“There was a queue 50 yards long,” he remembers Geoff, “so I said let’s go to the next stop but that also had a queue so we finished up walking 6 miles to get to the racetrack and just when we reached the stand the race was off. I could not see a thing, (at 14 he was not 5 foot and scarcely 4 stone), and this big feller picked me up and put me on his shoulders. Rae Johnstone on the French horse (Galcador) beat Harry Carr a neck on the favourite (Prince Simon). We walked back into Epsom and got on a train.”
Something must have stuck in the little mite’s memory because 8 month later he had an idea. Geoff was in his first job as a page-boy at the Waldorf and was hating it. “I came home and told my Mum and Dad that the famous jump jockey Tim Molony had been in the hotel and he had told me that with my size I ought to go to Epsom to be an apprentice. I had made this up but they had heard of Tim Molony and wrote off to Victor Smyth who said that he was full but that his cousin Ron Smyth would take me.”
It was certainly different from the Waldorf. “I had seen welsh ponies but I had never sat on a horse,” says Geoff. “At Ron’s I did not get on the pony until April, nor a racehorse until August and that was only on the roads. I had a month’s trial and then five years apprenticeship; 10 shillings a week the first year, £1 for the second then up to £3 a week when you finished your time. In those days you got nothing if you rode for your guvnor and if you rode for anybody else he got 50%. It might sound tough but it was fine by me. I was as h-h-h-happy as a pig in sh-sh-shit.”
Apart from the horses Geoff excelled at two qualities easily instilled into small boys in large families in chapel filled war time Wales – scrapping and singing. Once he reached the 4 stone 9lb minimum weight the young Lewis went on to win 15 Stable Lads Boxing Cups and his rendering of “Bless This House” was good enough to have him shipped up to London for a special performance one Christmas. “We helped build our own club next to Staff Ingham’s house,” says Geoff, “we had a gym at the back and also a dart board, table tennis and a snooker table although I had trouble in reaching that. I used to sing in the choir. That’s when I could sing. Later the only times I would sing would be after playing golf at Robert Sangster’s Tournament in B-B-Barbados.”
The tales come tumbling out with all the gleeful detail and lip smacking punch lines of the natural story-teller. At 80 Geoff still gets up before 6 of a morning and keeps trim with two hours walking a day, the short bouncing gait recalling the purposeful little figure that strutted into the paddock during his glory days in the 60s and 70s. Arthritis in both hands has ended the golf games he so loved and fate has not always been kind, most especially when his son Gary died suddenly of a cerebral haemorrhage in the 1980s and when financial difficulties closed a successful training career and saw him and his wife Noelene move to Spain in 1999. But now back in England to be with Gary’s sister Mary and her children in Surrey, Geoff will not let any melancholy in. “There’s no point in worrying about getting old,” he says. “Look you are lucky to get to 80. A couple of months ago somebody said I was 6/4 to get to 10 I said “I am not 4/6 to m-m- make 80 !”
The voice retains the slight Australian tinge acquired through his visits to Noelene’s family (her father Jim Munro was a dual Melbourne Cup winner) and his own hero worship of Australia’s greatest racing export, Scobie Breasley. Listening to him reminds you that he was not just one of the finest jockeys of his era but a real life enhancer as a personality. “When he started he was quite a shy boy,” says Jimmy Lindley, who although only 6 months older than Geoff was, like their fellow octogenarian Lester Piggott, several years ahead in getting going as a jockey. “The stutter could hold him back – especially when he got angry in the Stewards Room. But even as an apprentice he had an affinity with horses and rode with a lot of confidence. He was a very good shape for a jockey and was small enough not to bend his hip. He rode a bad horse like a good horse and he never abused them with the whip and got all his body weight behind them. He was also a very kind boy. He would help any lame dog, any lad going bad and nobody ever celebrated a big winner better. We had quite a party after Mill Reef’s Derby.”
One Sunday in 1975 Jimmy, Geoff and Joe Mercer gave me a lift in a small plane to Baden Baden. All three rode winners and on the flight home the champagne and the stories were flowing. Geoff had a great talent for friendship. His great golfing mates included Ronnie Corbett, Jimmy Tarbuck and the Australian cricketing legend Keith Miller. On one Ashes tour the Aussie wicket keeper Wally Grout owed so much that the bookies would not let him out of the country. A conference was called between Wally and Keith and Geoff and Scobie Breasley. Keith would handle the bets but only on the jockeys’ instructions. The bookies got paid.
Such friendships would not alter the notoriously low Lewis flashpoint. At one party Geoff took against some other massive cricketer and said, “c-c-come outside and I will h-h-have you, you b-b-bastard.” When Keith Miller tried to intervene he was told: “and you can be e-e-effing s-s-seconds”. Fortunately such moments blew over as quickly as they came but still glow so bright in the memory that it’s easy to forget quite how good a jockey Geoff became.
His first winner did not come until April 1953 when he had bulked up to all of 5st 10 lbs and guided a hefty Ron Smyth sprinter round the downhill helter skelter six furlong that is the Epsom six furlong track. A further 15 winners came that first season, another 37 the next and by 1957 he had impressed enough to be appointed first jockey to Peter Hastings Bass’ powerful stable at Kingsclere. He promptly won Royal Ascot’s Coronation Stakes for them on Lord Sefton’s St Lucia. “Peter Hastings Bass was like a father to me. He was a lovely man – and Lord Sefton too. Not everyone took to his lordship but he was great when you got to know him.”
One morning early in 1964 Geoff said cheerily to an ailing Peter Hastings Bass, “what’s this thing you have got, is it hepatitis.” The trainer looked sad and said, “no Geoff, I am afraid it’s rather worse than that.” Peter was dead by June. The jockey and the rest of the racing world were devastated and had to take solace with the victory of Silly Season in the Coventry Stakes and the Dewhurst under the name of Ian Balding who had been the stable’s assistant.
Silly Season ran in the black and gold Mill Reef colours of Paul Mellon one of the distinguished roster of Kingsclere owners that included The Queen for whom Geoff won the Ascot Stakes and Doncaster Cup in 1970. This completed the rare double of riding winners for both monarch and Prime Minister, Geoff having taken the 1959 Stewards Cup on Tudor Monarch for Sir Winston Churchill. Lewis was a man in demand and it says much for his good nature and professionalism that he was able to dovetail in commitments for competing major stables. Whilst still keeping the Kingsclere connection he actually had a retainer for John Sutcliffe for whom in 1969 he rode both Right Tack to win the English and Irish 2,000 Guineas and St James Palace Stakes and Jimmy Reppin to take the Sussex Stakes at Goodwood and the QE II at Ascot. What’s more, by Mill Reef’s Derby winning season of 1971, he had become first jockey to Noel Murless for whom that year he rode Altesse Royale in the Oaks and Lupe in the Coronation Cup to give him the clean sweep of the Epsom’s three golden prizes.
He later won two more classics for Murless, the 1,000 Gns and Oaks in 1973 on Mysterious, and also had three successful years with Bruce Hobbs before finally retiring in 1979 to take over what had been Staff Ingham’s Thirty Acre Barn at Epsom and make a pretty good fist of training. Over 20 years he trained almost 500 winners most notably the 1992 Derby third Silver Wisp the brilliant sprinter Lake Coniston with whom he took 8 races including the Prix de Meutry, the Diadem Stakes and the 1995 July Cup at Newmarket.
But it is to Mill Reef and his trainer that we have to return. “We all loved Geoff,” says Ian Balding. “He was a wonderful stable jockey, immaculately turned out , loyal to a degree, and very generous to all the lads. He was not as brainy as Scobie, nor as gifted as Lester but he was a bloody good jockey and he was dead unlucky not to be champion. One year he was 19 ahead and Frank Durr got hurt, Lester rode the Robinson horses and had 13 winners in a week. “
Mill Reef, of course, remains extra special in the memory. “He was so lovely,” says Geoff, “he was small but you wanted to have been on him. He improved in stature between two and three and had a great neck on him. You had to give him a bit of rein and he could do anything. He was the easiest ride ever. Look what he did to Pistol Packer in the Arc, gave her 3 lengths and kicked her out of the way.” Geoff knew Mill Reef was different from the very beginning. He had never sat on the horse before the little colt hacked up first time at Salisbury. “This is not just the b-b-best horse you have trained,” he said to Ian Balding afterwards, “it’s the best horse you will e-e-ever e-e-effing train.”
But few things in Geoff Lewis’ riding career were better than the way he left it. In preparation for a full season of training in 1980, Geoff had been honoured with a final retirement day at Epsom in August. One Thursday, a few weeks later, Geoff took a phone call whilst entertaining some guests to dinner and returned full of excitement to tell him that trainer Fulke Johnson Houghton had offered him the ride on his good horse Double Form on Saturday week. They all raised their glasses but one guest helpfully pointed out that the race was actually on the day after tomorrow.
“Crikey” says Geoff. “I had not sat on a horse for a fortnight so next morning I rode three lots of work and just about got through it. Got up to Haydock and Fulke was very confident said he was a lovely old horse but when the thing arrived it was so big it looked as if it should have been at Cheltenham. Then Fulke said he was a bit lazy and he might be slow out of the stalls. That made things worse because six furlong races are the hardest to ride in, you don’t get a breather. But down at the gate he was very relaxed and he jumped out and was always cruising. I didn’t need to be f-f-f-fit at all.”