Joe Mercer was the jockey we all tried to model ourselves on

The Times, 18th May 2021

Brough Scott recalls the brave and stylish rider of Brigadier Gerard, who died yesterday

Joe Mercer has left the best of memories. For me, one from 50 years ago, and then another just last month. Fifty years since his finest hour and four weeks since our final interview. He was as spruce and sharp a pipe-smoking 86-year-old as you would ever see. But now he’s gone.

So we are left with the memories, and they are great ones. Of course the best of all was at Newmarket, where that recent interview took place, to commemorate Joe and Brigadier Gerard’s 1971 defeat of Mill Reef in the greatest 2,000 Guineas.

It was the sunniest of April mornings. Joe’s daughter, Sarah, had driven him over from Newbury and, along with that trusty pipe, he was carrying a leather-bound copy of the owner John Hislop’s renowned biography of Brigadier Gerard. Joe was ready to sing.

He told of growing up in Bradford, of the Sparsholt apprenticeship on two shillings and sixpence a week, of a first race ride at 15, first winner at 16, champion apprentice at 18, the year he landed his first classic, the 1953 Oaks, on the filly Ambiguity.

By then Joe was already retained by the West Ilsley trainer Jack Colling, for whom he would ride for 22 more seasons — latterly for Jack’s successor, Dick Hern — until his controversial replacement by Willie Carson at the end of 1976. Moving to Henry Cecil’s stable was hardly a demotion, as it provided him with three more classic winners and, in 1979, a champion jockey’s title in an annus mirabilis that included One In A Million’s 1,000 Guineas, the top stayers Le Moss and Buckskin, topped off by Kris, the champion miler.

At 45 he was the oldest first-time champion and he rode on undimmed until 1985, 2,810 winners over 36 seasons sealing one of the most illustrious careers in the whole history of the game. But the winners, which included an English 1,000 Guineas and French Oaks for the Queen in that heady summer of 1974, were only a part of it. The real measure of Joe Mercer’s legacy was his style in the saddle and his qualities as a man.

His all-round technique was the most complete of his, or arguably any, era. He fitted himself quite perfectly in behind the mane. His balance was around the horse, not perched above it. There was always a rhythm to his finishing drive in which, equally adept in either hand, the whip was much more a conductor’s baton than an enforcer’s battering stick.

Frenchie Nicholson was the greatest mentor of jockeys during the Sixties and Seventies — he must have been to get 100 winners out of me. But to all his riders, which included the infinitely more distinguished but all sadly departed Tony Murray, Pat Eddery and Walter Swinburn, Frenchie had one piece of advice: “Look at Joe Mercer.”

He may not have had the unorthodox, all-dominating genius of Lester Piggott, or quite the flair of Eddery or even of his own older brother, Manny Mercer, who was killed at Ascot in 1959 on a day when Joe won the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes on Rosalba. I was too young to be there but it was a tragedy that no spectator, let alone his brother, could ever forget.

In today’s roster he would not have the extraordinary double-jointed balance and big-race inspiration of Frankie Dettori or the implacable mind and method of Ryan Moore.

But Joe Mercer on a racehorse, from leaving the paddock to his trademark hissing-through-the-teeth finishing drive — that was the template we modelled ourselves on.

Have a look at two races of the century, Brigadier Gerard’s 2,000 Guineas and Joe and Bustino’s unavailing duel with Grundy in the 1975 King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot, and see what I mean.

He was as organised out of the saddle as he was in it. He was someone you could rely on, who was not flash but lived life with a bit of style. On the way back from a victory, once, I remember, in a small aircraft from Baden-Baden, there would be a glass of champagne to celebrate.

He had courage too, and not just that in the thundering drama of the horse race. In 1972, two weeks before riding Brigadier Gerard to win the King George at Ascot, he had a far unhappier trip in another light aircraft. It crashed shortly after take-off at Newbury, killing the pilot. The three other passengers owed their lives to Joe’s determination to save them.

At Newmarket last month we sat for nearly an hour in the sun. I asked him if there were any regrets. “None,” he said. “I have had a wonderful career, a happy marriage and a loving family. I have had a great life.” It was a contentment he was entitled to and which has given us moments we will take to the grave. Farewell, Joe, may the pipe and the style and our grateful memories ride with you.

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