24 December 2006

The handshake betrayed him. From the outside Scobie Breasley was a small, lean, beautifully-suited, Bentley-driving perfectionist who even in the saddle was much more elegance than energy. But then he shook your hand. Yes, there was iron in that velvet glove.

Scobie Breasley, who died in his native Australia on Tuesday aged 92, was one of the greatest jockeys of his or any era. He was born to a sheep droving family in Wagga Wagga way back in 1914. He rode his first winner when he was 12. He rode against Phar Lap in the Melbourne Cup. He won four Victoria riding championships and a record five Caulfield Cups among his 1,000 domestic winners before coming to England for a further 2,000 successes including two Derbys, the first when he was already 50 years old. But those are just statistics. What was unique about Scobie was his style.

It had as much to do with him as a person than as a jockey. He did not rush around riding gallops of a morning. He preferred to have a boiled egg in bed at his luxury home in Putney. He would not tear to the front when the tapes went up, he would drop quietly in behind the pack and then stealthily pick his way through the field. So iron-nerved stealthy that when he landed that last-to-first Derby on Santa Claus in 1964 he became the only Epsom-winning jockey to be sacked because the owner thought he had been trying to lose.

His style was to stroke his shots not club them. He would finesse his horses not force them. For Scobie desperate situations never called for desperate measures. Even in extremis he would keep up the same, flicking, rail-hugging rhythm. When he won his second Derby, on Charlottown in 1966, it was by knifing impossibly up the inside to lead in the last 50 yards. He was always the artist not the artisan.

But the trick was how hard he was underneath. Three days after winning the 1954 1,000 Guineas on Festoon he had such a serious skull fracture (no helmets in those days) at Alexandra Park that the doctors said he would never walk let alone ride again. He was already 40 years old. He was back winning races before the leaves were off the trees.

Scobie had a quiet, smiling, hunger for the slide-the-knife-in satisfaction of getting a horse past the post. He was the greatest of all the great Australians who came after him. But, best and most memorably, he was the ultimate foil for the unique talent that was Lester Piggott. Nothing so completely gives Breasley’s measure than to understand that his four riding championships between 1957 and 1963 were achieved when he was giving away 19 years to Piggott at his absolute peak.

When Scobie retired he trained big winners in England, Ireland, France, America and, for a few golden sunset years, in Barbados. But it is not for his training, his golf, or even that deep, slow, chuckling laugh that we will most remember him. What will linger is the way he rode them.

In any sport, the great ones sear something in the memory. I can see him now coming up the long Newbury straight. The money might be down, his position far back, the other fancies way up ahead but there is that old flicking rhythm just as if he was rolling up a ball of string. Into the final furlong he is still rolling but it’s going to be close. The rhythm tightens just a fraction and he has it by a neck at the post.

We used to shake our heads. It should not happen but it did. It was some sort of galloping conjuring trick. No, no one ever rode like Scobie did.

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