Bill Shankly was wrong. For all its wonders football is not, as the great Liverpool legend so famously said “much, much more important” than life and death. Neither is racing, however high you may soar, however thrilling the ride. But lots of us laugh along with old Bill’s words. Lots of us didn’t realize what they and the demon drink could do to Pat Eddery.
For more than 30 seasons he had been a shining light in the jockeys’ firmament. You had only to look at him on a horse, as I first did as when he was a 15 year old apprentice riding beside me at Frenchy Nicholson’s stable next to Cheltenham racetrack, to understand that he was a genius with the reins in his hands. He had been born to it. His father Jimmy was an Irish classic winning jockey. Pat would prove a far greater rider. But in the end no worse a drunk.
Sport is a delusion and the better you are at it the more deluding it can be. On a horse Pat could do anything. Off it he was easy, unassuming, and generous but there was always the sense that whatever else happened, and at times, however much he drank, it would all come right when he got back in the saddle. Because, with his talent, it usually did.
He was extraordinary. He could ride any horse, any track, any type of race. He was the most natural and the most consistent of all the great jockeys of the modern era. Between 1973 and 2001 he rode a century of winners every season bar 1982 in which year he was champion jockey in Ireland the only rider to do that as well as win the British title which Pat did 11 times. His 4,633 wins in Britain are second only to Gordon Richards. He won 14 classics, three Derbies and four Arc De Triomphes but better than statistics was the style, tactical flair, determination and unflappable temperament which drew the most eloquent of tributes from such as Steve Cauthen, Frankie Dettori and Lester Piggott.
But the most perceptive of all came from 5 times champion Wilie Carson. “He was the ultimate jockey, a true professional,” Willie said of his friend and rival. “That was his life and when he retired nothing could really catch his imagination. He was told many times that all he had to do was to pick the telephone up and we would come running, which we did a few times, but it didn’t work.”
In 1990 Pat was at his absolute zenith. He won the clean sweep of the English, Irish and French Derbies and his 209 winner British total was to be the best of his career. He was already 16 years on from becoming, at 22, the youngest champion since the war. This was what he existed for and there was deep fulfillment as we sat on a bench in the weighing room after another raft of winners at Royal Ascot. “God knows what else I would have done,” he said, “all of my life I have only dreamed of one thing and that is to be a top jockey.”
At that stage it seemed that Pat could go on for ever. Indeed it would be thirteen more success-packed seasons before he finally hung up his riding boots. But in 1990 he was already 38, four years older than the now normally referred to as football’s “ageing” John Terry and in that gap lies the flat race champion’s biggest trap. For, however they handle the transition, athletes dependent on only their own powers have to face reality when their legs start to betray them. A top jockey gets a fresh pair of legs at every start. The fateful day, the cut off from the winning drug, can be postponed into their fifties.
When it came Pat seemed prepared for it. He loved driving the tractor on the finely appointed 100 acre stud he had built up in beautiful rolling Buckinghamshire countryside and declared himself immune to the dangerous lure of the torments of training. But two years later he had succumbed and while he did get up to 25 winners in 2010, he had been down to single figures for the past three seasons. There had been personal problems, marital breakdown and a losing battle with the bottle. Most of all there had been emptiness in the after life.
Which is something every sportsman, every jockey, has to face. Yet the very nature of what you do encourages an obsessive, blinkered approach to the outside world and the longer you go on the harder it is to start again. In that sense I was one of the lucky ones proving neither good enough nor tough enough and at 28 was already broken on the wheel. There had to be something else.
Attitudes have changed dramatically in recent years. JETS (Jockeys Education and Training Scheme) celebrates 20 years at Cheltenham this afternoon. None of today’s riders can be unaware of the dangers of an undisciplined life style whether it be in accounts or alcohol, nor of the aid that is available to beat the problems. It helps that in Ryan Moore British flat race jockeys have the most rock solid of examples but as in all métiers of daring there is only so much seriousness one can take.
Many will still cheer on Bill Shankly’s dictum. For the greatest of joy comes from watching the freest of spirits. What delight and wonder we had as Pat Eddery spun brilliantly through the afternoons and was often unafraid to carouse away the night. He gave us so much but the payback was the brutal, tragic irony of this week’s news. That someone so much the symbol of life when in the saddle could be so bereft when out of it.