Old and little and a bit white-haired frail though he may be, Stan Mellor remains much more than a milestone. 40 year ago this afternoon he became the first jockey to ride a thousand jumping winners but long before that he had set examples in and out of the saddle that remain unmatched to this day.
No one, not even McCoy or Walsh, has ever ridden into and over the last fence with quite the unique match winning flair of Mellor at his best. And nobody ever better served the interest of his fellow riders than Stan did when he became the first chairman of the Jockeys Association and used his intelligence and determination and charm to equal effect. But we will come to that. Let’s start with the 1,000 winner milestone which Stan eventually passed at Nottingham on a grey horse called Ouzo in the appropriately named Christmas Spirit Novice Chase at Nottingham. It was a week late.
It was all meant to happen on the previous Saturday at Cheltenham. The 999th winner had come on a chaser called Prairie Dog on the Friday and with five good rides, BBC cameras and clear cold December air everything seemed set to spray Stan with the waiting champagne. Even the as yet not-in-service Concorde swirled majestically and noisily across the Cotswold sky in what seemed appropriate supersonic appreciation.
It all went wrong. The big chestnut Ben Dearg was hot favourite in the first but went out like a light when cruising at the top of the hill. A horse called Night and Day ran badly in the next, Orient War never featured in the Massey Ferguson Gold Cup, Charlie Potheen ended off the course after swerving freakishly at the second last, and finally the blinkered Westward Lad stumbled on landing when challenging at the final flight. But it was almost 18 years since a 16 year old Stan Mellor had ridden the selling hurdler Straight Border to land the first winner at Wolverhampton on January 19th 1954. He could wait.
“I thought I could knock it off in the first, it was a big shock when Ben Dearg got beat,” said Stan last week smiling wryly at the memory as we sat in his and Elaine’s immaculate little house at the foot of the Downs on the other side of Lambourn. “After the 999th winner on the Friday everything appeared laid on. There was huge expectation in the papers and the media as whole. It would have been great, but it just didn’t happen and they had to cart that champagne around for a week.”
It is very precious to sit beside a history maker as he remembers his moment – particularly someone who delves back the way Stan does. “I got lots of offers of rides to make the 1,000,” he remembers. “People would ring up and say ‘this will win – you can have it’. But I wanted to do it for one of my main stables, Tom Jones, Roddy Armytage, Fulke Walwyn or Frank Cundell. In the end it was for Tom Jones and then I rode another winner, Clear Cut for Charlie Hall, a couple of races later. It was an extraordinary day.”
It was also the climax of one of the most extraordinary and indeed unlikely stories in the whole jump racing cannon. For a start Stan Mellor should have been a flat jockey. Throughout his twenty year career Stan never weighed more than 8 stone 10 and freely admits that he only got into jump racing through ignorance. The little Manchester boy had taken brilliantly to show jumping and twice won the Cheshire Championship which takes place inside Chester racecourse on the Roodee. But his timber merchant father pointed out that a show jumper only got £14 a week, just £1 less than the still capped maximum wage for a footballer, and suggested that his horse friendly son “try racing.”
“If I had known anything about it I would have gone to a flat trainer,” says Stan, “but as I was into jumping horses I thought it was natural to try for a jumping trainer. I wrote to three people, one got warned off, the other went bust and the third was George Owen. At first the stable all thought I was much too small but George always supported me and I was there for ten years and ended up as champion for the last three seasons.”
Who knows how many more championships there might have been but for the uncharacteristic fall from the white muzzled bay called Eastern Harvest at Liverpool in March 1963. It was the very first flight of the first running of the Schweppes Hurde, now the Tote Gold Trophy moved the next year to Newbury. In 1963 there were more than 30 runners and Eastern Harvest was up with the leaders. Stan bounced athletically on the turf. But when his face came up it was looking into the horses. The hooves smashed it to pieces.
His jaw was fractured in 14 places, at least 6 of his teeth were missing and when I first saw him some three weeks later he looked like a doll that had been broken under a wheel. You wished him a future. But it was hard to imagine it would be in the brutally unforgiving world of jump racing where the smacks are always going to come.
Yet on August 21st of that summer he was back in the winner’s circle on a selling hurdler called Ben Gets Busy at Devon and Exeter. Amazingly he rode 46 winners that season, had his most famous years ahead of him and rode as many as 90 winners as late as 1969-70. As a deeply impressionable beginner I was both fascinated by his amazingly effective technique and his uniquely intelligent analysis. But I have always felt that the Liverpool fall robbed him of a vital fraction of his youthful zest. It is a measure of the man that without it he still became a great jockey. With it he could have done anything.
What he did do was to think through the mechanics of his profession better than anyone I have ever met before or since. Heavily outmuscled by the Brookshaws and Biddlecombes he was always going to have to beat them by guile as much as graft. With his show jumping background he concentrated on trying to get inside his horse’s head to aid their jumping and to stir them after the last. With his upright stance, banshee yells and threading and re-threading of the reins it was not always a pretty sight but it was extraordinary effective and, over the last fence, had a panache and precision unmatched before or since.
To watch, or even better to ride against, Stan Mellor at the last was something else. Somehow he used to wind his horses up so that he could literally hurl them into the fence gaining such momentum in the air that they were away and uncatchable on the run in. The most famous coup of all was the switch and ambush which got Stalbridge Colonist up and past the mighty Arkle in the 1966 Hennessy Gold Cup, but by then they had become a trademark which then and now no one has ever been able to master.
“My idea,” said Stan with soft and unfussy authority last week, “was that if a horse has got one blinding bit of speed you would need to save it. If there was a horse upsides I would take mine back and then produce that blinding bit of speed going to the last. I used to call it ‘the real thing.’ It didn’t make for pretty pictures because you would be getting such a big leap out of them. But they never fell. I beat Arkle with Stalbridge Colonist that way, and the early Mill House at Kempton with Kings Nephew, and Rondetto at Newbury with Ballygowan. And they never fell. We would be just too mentally together.”
Which brings Stan on to his favourite theme – that a jockey should be riding thinking for the horse not for himself. He believes very strongly that this comes first of all from a jockey balancing himself within and around the horse, not coiled up hanging on to the reins. In brief, although he takes a lot of coaxing to say this, he thinks that “present day riding is in turmoil” and that the emphasis on short stirrups and having the toe in the iron is “a disease.” He says, “there are some great jockeys who can get away with it but they are not doing what is best to help the horse.”
His key phrase is “getting into a horse’s brain”. He picks up a photo of himself and with no false modesty says “look, an independent balance, both hands on the rein so you have communication with the horse’s head, and looking forwards so that you are taking decisions for him.” The memories flood back of the little figure shifting and inspiring the horse beneath and even on occasions winning races by another manoeuvre unseen before or since – the switch back behind the leader on the run in.
Upsides but getting the worst of things at a place like Sandown, Stan would pull his horse behind you and then launch him with a flourish on the other side. “The horse would be beginning to think he couldn’t do it,” he would say, “And by switching and gathering your reins you could get the belief back into him. I was never a great whip man but a jockey should know if a horse is not giving everything. He should be riding for the horse, not counting how many hits.”
Listening to that it is hard to escape the belief that if we had been back in the days when Stan first chaired The Jockeys Association the recent whip furore would never have been allowed to run away with us. Nobody has ever matched the quiet, unblinking lucidity with which Stan could put over a rider’s point of view even in the most intimidating of environments. The new crash helmets, the principles of jockeys insurance and pensions, the vastly improved rails and fences, the start of the back protectors, all got going because Stan Mellor was prepared to snatch time to shift the suffocating blankets that well intentioned committees usually bring.
In the picture lined gym in which he used to instruct young protégées, he has the cork lined skull cap which used to be the only head protection during his first few seasons. “It came off and rolled across the grass when I had a fall one day at Cheltenham”, he says with a gallows smile, “Somebody in the stand said ‘look, they have cut his head off”. I was very proud to be involved with the Jockeys Association and to get things started. But then one year I began to feel that trainers were thinking I was getting distracted. I needed to delegate, get others involved, concentrate on my main job. I am glad I did.” So, as we celebrate 40 years of the 1,000 winner milestone, should we.
Time not been entirely kind to Stan and on occasion he can look a touch older and more wistful than his 74 years. But just because his heyday was long ago is all the more reason to appreciate the enormity of his achievements. To do that there can be no more appropriate way than to quote the golden words of Stan’s great admirer John Oaksey who sadly can no longer wield the pen.
But he could on December 18th 1971, oh how he could. No one ever has or ever will write as first person evocative a racing report as John Oaksey did. His account of his ride on Carrickbeg to be second in the 1963 Grand National remains the finest participant report of any major sporting occasion ever filed. John brought unique skill, experience, sympathy and literacy to the table. They never looked like failing him as he sat down in the Press Room that afternoon in Nottingham.
He started: “Anyone who suggested eight years ago that Stan Mellor might one day become the first man ever to ride 1,000 jumping winners in Great Britain would have been dismissed as a hopelessly unrealistic dreamer. At the end of March 1963, the question at issue was not so much whether he would ride another 400 odd winners but whether he would ride at all.”
After putting Stan’s recovery from that face-smashing fall at Liverpool into the context that it only seemed fractionally more unlikely than that the tiny 15 year old who walked into George Owen’s stable would ever be man enough to be a jump jockey – John took his readers off into the most wonderful of all his tributes:
“In fact the thought of giving up never entered Stan’s head, either at Liverpool or since in a dozen similar spells of painful idleness. And no one who has watched him ride this season needs telling how little effect 19 years and upwards of 400 falls have had upon his nerve.
He has of course, no monopoly of nerve, will to win and highly developed technique. There may have been better or stronger horsemen in the past and there have certainly been more stylish jockeys. But in my time at least, no one, not even Fred Winter himself, has reflected more credit on his profession or done more for those who follow it.
Often over the past few years I have sat with Stan in rooms full of highly qualified men, lawyers, doctors, vets and the like, experts on whose education many thousands of pounds were spent. And looking back now, I recall with wonder and respect how many times the clearest, shortest and most commonsensical view of the problem in hand came not from one of these pundits.
It came instead from behind the twinkling eyes of a man who left school in Manchester at the age of 14 and whose education since has been the cheerful, fatalistic friendship of the weighing room, the crash and fury of a 1,001 hard fought races and the smell of ether when you wake up wondering where you are.
It has polished him without making him proud, toughened him without making him hard, and taught him more about life than most of us will ever know without making him unkind or cynical. It has produced Stan Mellor C.B.E, a great jockey and, far rarer, a great man.”
40 years on let us all say “Amen” to that.