The racing saddle was his element. Out there he was a seal in water; the most natural, carefree, match-winning jockey you will ever see. The day came when he had to live only on the land and it would never be so easy. But, oh, how brilliant he was up behind the mane.
He was just a tiny new apprentice over from Ireland when I first met him at Frenchy Nicholson’s schooling field hard by Cheltenham racetrack in the autumn of 1967. Sure, he was Jimmy Eddery’s son, but already there were gifts beyond genetics in the little mini-man amongst us. It was to take more than 18 months for him to get going but there was never any doubt in Frenchy or anyone else’s mind that this was the real thing.
The two qualities that wouldmark him for greatness were already there, the most beautiful pair of “hands” ever seen on a jockey, and an easy going attitude that translated into a rock solid big race temperament and concealed a determination that first won him his “Polyfilla” nickname when as an apprentice he went “to fill all the gaps.”
All sorts of mystical gush can be written about “hands” on a rider but with Pat you only had to take a look at him cantering to post. The moment his horse was released the balance and sympathy were such that all bar the advanced equine nut case would hack down as if they were privileged to have Eddery up top.
Being able to settle horses so well is an asset hugely envied by other riders and too often underrated by those unused to the saddle. But being able to store your powder is no good unless you can hold your trigger finger steady until you need it. Yet Pat wasn’t one of those jockeys who had the late challenge as his default tactic. It was he who at Ascot on Grundy against Bustino in 1975 won the greatest sustained duel in my racing lifetime. But it was also he who produced the finest high pressure waiting race ride I have ever seen when he actually put Dancing Brave back in behind the field before pulling out wide to mow down a string of classic winners in the unforgettable Arc de Triomphe of 1986.
In the interviews that day the jockey was alight– “he was terrific,” he said of Dancing Brave. “He was electrifying, when I asked him he really jumped.” Normally Pat was much less effusive. There was none of the silence and Brandoesque mumbling that you would get with Piggott, nor the often strained reluctance that still happens with Ryan Moore. It was as if what was happening to Pat out there was just a usual day at the office. Five days after the Arc he was back to normal. “When I won on him in the King George,” he said of Dancing Brave, “I thought I got there a bit soon, so at Longchamp I wanted to hold him up a bit.”
While he could thus seem casual in attitude and could be relaxed to the point of ribaldry in his leisure hours, there was always an inbuilt seriousness about his work in his chosen profession. “God knows what else I would have done,” he said to me one day in 1990, “all of my life I have only dreamed of one thing and that is to be a top jockey.” To get there he had to be intensely determined, un-phased by glory and unafraid of minor meetings. “To win the Derby is great,” he said in that same conversation, “but I want to win the championship as much as anything else.” He had indeed won the Derby that year on Quest For Fame for trainer Roger Charlton and on dismounting confined himself to a smile and the words “that was nice wasn’t it Rog?”
The inspirational thing about being around Pat for so many years was that as a jockey he did not have a bad word to say about anyone. He didn’t need to. He was secure in his own abilities without having to shout anything from the rooftops. Most importantly he never lost the boyish thrill that a winner could give how ever small, however big, however far afield.
I was privileged to be with him when he rocketed up the inside to win the Breeders Cup on Pebbles, when he blitzed Jupiter Island home to beat the Japanese in Tokyo and when he landed the biggest bet of my life by winning the Arlington Million on Tolomeo in 1983. By then he had developed his uniquely effective finishing style so bumping-in-the-saddle unorthodox that the NBC commentator mocked “ride him cowboy” in the replay. The development of this technique was a source of much frustration to his original mentor and continued amusement to his protégée. “He always tells me I ought to look like Jimmy Lindley,” said Pat who had started as orthodox as any other Frenchy Nicholson apprentice, “but I like to give them a bit of ‘umph’. Anyway it seems to work, doesn’t it?”
There was no guile in the question. Pat Eddery was anything but Oscar Wilde but like the great wordsmith he had “nothing to declare but his genius.” What he did on the racetrack and how he handled himself around it illuminated so many of our lives that there was a real pain to discover how difficult things were becoming for him away from rails. A top jockey’s life will always have something of “The Portrait of Dorian Gray” about it. Whilst he is riding, he is ever young. But when he finally quits there is a very old picture to come out of the cupboard.
When McCoy gave up in April there was nearly as much worry about how he would cope psychologically as there was relief that he had got out in one piece. When Pat had hung up his boots in 2003 everyone just blithely waved him on his way. Events turned out unhappily and hard though we are hit by the sorrow, it’s best not to linger over what we have lost but to rejoice in what he gave.