HORSE AND HOUND 10-3-2011
Last week the Cheltenham inspiration was sitting by the pool in Tenerife. Next Tuesday it will be 55 years since Harry Sprague won the Champion Hurdle on Doorknocker and, spry and sharp at 90, Harry himself still carries the flame for what a love of horses can do.
Beside him at the pool side was the now super tanned former top trainer Jack Berry who had the original idea of taking a group of Injured Jockeys Fund beneficiaries to the winter sunshine of the Mar Y Sol centre some 16 years back and who in 1956 was the Charlie Hall stable lad who led Doorknocker out on to the course. What’s more the only tenner that Jack had in the world was going on Doorknocker’s white nosebanded head and since his weekly wage was just 5 shillings, the 130 pounds he drew represented something akin to a decent car in today’s terms.
Which was extremely useful in light of wealthy but skinflint owner Clifford Nicholson declining to give Harry Sprague a present from his own winnings so there was not much heart in Jack’s own grumble that he had himself not received anything from Doorknocker’s rider. If any Nicholson relatives are reading this they should thank their lucky stars for the statute of limitations.
But the real fascination about talking to Harry last week was not just the Cheltenham Festival of 55 years back albeit that he also won the Spa Hurdle for Vincent O’Brien on Stroller, who had been favourite but a faller in the Champion Hurdle, and the Grand Annual for Bob Turnell on Rosenkavalier despite never having seen the horse before or rarely riding over fences. What was truly extraordinary about Harry Sprague at Cheltenham in 1956 was the road and the gifts that had got him there.
For despite having absolutely nothing equestrian in his background, this tiny Devon born son of a merchant seaman and grandson of a local shoemaker knew from the moment he first met the local cart horse that he had an affinity with the animals. With zero tuition he would ride big monsters home from the fields, tame wild Shetlands for local ladies, and in one glorious tale, land a major coup on a grey pony at a local flapping track.
By the time he was twelve years old his loving father and mother had abandoned hope of a “proper job” and written off to trainer Jack Reardon at Epsom and so two days after Hyperion won the 1933 Derby Mrs Sprague took little Harry (all 4foot and 4 stone of him) to Exeter station and entrusted him and a whole shilling to the guard with the request he be put on the Epsom train on arrival (as it was then) at Waterloo. What would nowadays be a matter of child abandonment then ran its perfectly efficient course although on first sight of the Reardon thoroughbreds our diminutive Devonian asked “them tiny little things?”
Whatever the size he had no trouble in riding them. By the time war came he had been Champion Apprentice, had twice ridden in the Derby and also, incredibly in view of his size and weight, won over hurdles and fences too. A five year gap in the Far East where he survived both a snake bite in India, a bullet through his motorbike in Thailand and a Japanese bombing in Burma, ended with him returning to beat Gordon Richards an extremely well backed short head at Bath.
His natural balance and independent mind made him a “turn to” jockey. Paddy Prendergast even flew him to Ireland to ride a horse no one could hold and even at the close Ryan Price plucked him out of retirement for one last glory day on Done Up in the 1959 Whitbread. No wonder that the mysterious voice on the phone which booked him for Doorknocker in the 1956 Champion Hurdle asked Harry Sprague to “keep it under your hat.”
Such secrecy would not be sanctioned now and Harry’s secret is