Courage was beginning to fail as we crashed down the back straight on some moderate novice chasers at Cheltenham in December 1962. Then an ever cheerful voice lifted the gloom. “Kick on you old cripple,” shouted Josh Gifford as he swept past and on to victory, “if you don’t hurry up the drinks will have all gone.” He was just 21 and the very image of the old fashioned bold and roistering sportsman who loves life and the game that shapes him. May the image never die.
He was champion jockey that year. The youngest champion for 60 years and unquestionably the last champion to do it whilst still mucking boxes out first thing at Findon after ending the night in the Jermyn Street Turkish Baths. Spending one evening on the lash with him and Terry Biddlecombe would fix most people, how they would do it week after week coming from as far away as Ludlow, Wincanton and Uttoxeter only their livers could ever tell. He was a farmer’s son from Oliver Cromwell’s home of Huntingdon but nobody ever accused Josh Gifford of being a Roundhead. He was a cavalier who wanted to live every day.
By the time he came into our jumping universe he had lived half a racing life already having won big races like the November Handicap, the Chester Cup and the Irish Lincoln when barely 16. If he hadn’t grown heavy he would have been challenging the Piggott class and if you got beside him it showed. I led at the last flight one day at Newbury and suddenly there was this low, thrusting, figure rhythmically powering his horse past. “Got you there,” he said as we pulled the goggles down afterwards. He was happy in victory but never arrogant with it. We were in awe of his talent but we adored him as a man.
His flat racing style adapted brilliantly over hurdles. He was cool enough to sit last on those Ryan Price hotpots and in a finish he had this toe-down, compulsive, pumping, action reminiscent not of today’s short-leathered acrobats but of those flowing, longer legged sepia images of the Smirkes and Donoghues in the thirties. At first he found it much more difficult over fences, never became a “throw your heart over first” man, and would openly say how worried it could make him. But he developed his own extremely effective method whereby he slipped his reins and almost leaned back in the approach to a fence and then scooped them and the horse up in a swooping move on landing.
He was tremendously tough, marvellously strong but there was a wonderful openness about him which added a warmth to his company. He and his brother, my friend Macer Gifford who died of Motor Neurone far too young, were sportsmen from an age that has gone. Hearts of oak and livers of steel men who could not understand why others could not enjoy the simple pleasures of life: friends, family (when those early rompings were done), horses, cricket, shooting and a jar or three with mates. He had his own ideas how racing should be run and in later years loved to chastise me for letting the Racing Post be a “bookies paper all about betting.”
But the real key was that he was a lot more sensitive than that ruddy exterior and old fashioned attitudes might suggest. It showed quite glaringly when he announced in January 1970 that he would stop riding at the end of the season and suddenly he would sit on the bench like a man on death row willing the ordeal to be over. People would give him space as if to avoid the contagion, and yet if you ever doubted what was at the heart of him you should have seen what he did on a horse called Assad. It was in the 1970 Grand National and was to be his last ever ride on a racecourse. Assad was a talented but unreliable jumper whom I remember burying me one day at Folkestone and who seemed the most unsuitable conveyance for a great champion’s swansong. He finished last but to get round at all was a supreme triumph of mind over matter.
That sensitivity was at its finest with Bob Champion and Aldaniti. When Bob was in the Marsden on what many of us thought was his death bed, Josh took his arm and said “when you are better, your job is waiting for you” – and he meant it. When Bob was faltering in his comeback and an owner said he would like another jockey Josh asked which trainer he would like his horse to go to. When Bob and Aldaniti completed the fairy tale at Aintree Josh’s face was awash with tears.
He used to cry quite easily and the winners circle could be a damp spot when the likes of Deep Sensation and Bradbury Star were on their game and of course, it was all but overflowing when those three winners broke the Cheltenham Festival dam in 1988. But think not of him just as a patient and loyal trainer or as a dashing and talented jockey, think of this crackling log fire of a life force of a man.
Josh Gifford warmed our lives now let him warm the memory. And don’t worry if the tears run down.