EULOGY – ALL SAINTS CHURCH, NEWMARKET – 3rd JULY 2019
One of the very best assessments of someone is whether you feel better for having met them. With Willie it was better every time.
Mind you I didn’t get to meet him until he was in his 40s, but I had known about Willie since I was a kid. For I was a geeky little boy who followed racing with his Dad. I read everything about him in the papers. Racing was big news and so I knew about Willie and Foi Ami’s Pitman’s Derby, Sugar Bowl’s Stewards Cup and all about Bebe Grande’s Gimcrack and Champagne in her extraordinary eight win two year old season in 1952 – which included getting beat at odds on second time out at Ally Pally. And, since some of you might be thinking it, no, we understand that it wasn’t crooked!
Mind you that Bebe Grande must have been some filly. Next Spring Willie rode her to be second in the 2,000 Guineas and two days later ran again to be third in the 1,000.
I remember Willie’s second Stewards Cup on Palpitate, the Hunt Cup on Nicholas Nickleby, the Portland on Epaulette, the Nunthorpes on Royal Palm and Gratitude, and of course the never to be forgotten Sussex Stakes in 1954 on the Queen’s colt Landau. It was just about his proudest moment and the royal colours deck the coffin today in tribute. The papers had good nicknames for sportsmen back then. They called him ‘The Pocket Hercules.’ Yes Willie Snaith was one of my boyhood heroes.
Of course, for me he was a hero from afar but for those closest to him he was a hero from the beginning. He was born in Gateshead on May 23, 1928 and it was not exactly a silver spoon childhood, as his Dad, who was a cobbler, died when Willie was only five and his Mum put food on the table by cleaning trams between 10 at night and six in the morning.
At 15, after an unlikely spell working in a wool shop, Willie was apprenticed to Sam Armstrong at Middleham and a year later moved with him when Sam came to Newmarket to train for the Maharajah of Baroda. It was here, at the Guineas meeting in 1946, still a month shy of his 16th birthday that Wille had his first ride carrying 6 stone 13 in a 13 runner Apprentice Handicap up the Rowley Mile – and got left at the start.
But you can’t keep a good man down and it was back here on the 22nd of August 1946 that Willie rode his first winner on a horse of Sam Armstrong’s called Chhota Sahib, the outsider of five on which he scored with Gordon Richards third and Harry Wragg last.
Things soon began to look up for the tiny kid from Gateshead and in 1949 they took off when he ended the season as Champion Apprentice and, better still, he had met Silvia Jonwa. Or rather Silvia had seen him. The story has it that she so liked the look of the ‘boy at Armstrong’s’ that she got two tickets for – of all things – The Young Conservative’s Dance – and cupid fired his dart.
Willie and Silvia were married on the 10th September 1961 and while they had 61 wonderful years together, one has to say their marriage hardly had the most romantic of starts. Because their honeymoon consisted of Willie leaving for the St Leger meeting before moving on for 10 days on the Scottish circuit and I should think the sexiest thing on display at Doncaster was the French horse Talma. The foreign colt arrived in the paddock covered in sweat, sporting a massive erection, was backed off the boards, won by almost 20 lengths and was never any good again. We think they must have given him some of Willie’s viagra!
Despite all this, Helen, John and Derek duly appeared and it says a lot about Willie and particularly about Silvia that the kids remember a warm and happy family life even if the demands of racing meant that Sundays were spent with Dad on the phone all morning booking rides – no jockey’s agents then – and Helen’s sole memory of him joining them on a Summer holiday was a day out at Clacton On Sea. How proud Willie would be to see his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren here today.
But race riding was what ‘The Pocket Hercules’ had signed up to and he became very good at it. 1954 was Gordon Richards last year as a jockey and Willie deputised for him on the Queen’s Landau in the Derby, making the running before someone called Lester Piggott swept past on the 33-1 shot Never Say Die. When Gordon Richards was then injured after finishing third on Landau in the Eclipse, Willie took over again to win the Sussex Stakes at Goodwood and then went to America for the Washington International.
Things didn’t go too well out there as Landau finished last but they could have gone even worse beforehand. Willie went out of the hotel determined to buy Silvia a pair of American nylons and promptly got hopelessly lost only to be rescued by an enormous Washington policeman who said; “you must be the jock who is riding for the Queen of England.”
It’s often forgotten that at this time Noel Murless asked Willie to succeed Gordon Richards as stable jockey and Willie declined leaving the way open for the aforementioned Mr Piggott.
In all Willie rode some 900 winners over here and plenty more in India where he spent more than a dozen winters. Although he had some terrible falls, most notably a punctured lung and ruptured spleen when going through the rails at Lingfield, it was actually a dreadful asthma attack which finally stopped his race riding in 1973. A long while later it would be another near fatal attack on the Heath that closed out his work riding career at Warren Place in which he had played so important a role first for Noel Murless and then for 16 years with Henry Cecil. He and the likes of Snowy Fawdon and John Higgins were a formidable team and were not above having one or two touches for themselves.
Fred Cowie was part of the gang and was telling me this morning that when Willie was in a good mood, which was practically always but especially after a ‘touch’ had been landed, he liked to sing that Geordie anthem ‘Blaydon Races’ as he was riding out. Think of them all when we play it again after this.
By the time he stopped, Willie had long become a fixture of good cheer and it was an inspired appointment that placed him as a helper in the Racing Museum. Since he was to have a road called after him at Newmarket you could almost call Willie Snaith a human exhibit – but all those who met him realised that this was no fossil – this was a little man with a big smile and a bigger heart. In the last years I remember him and Silvia coming on our Injured Jockeys Fund Holiday in Tenerife and singing that heart out doing pilates in the pool!
The words of the commendation for the MBE which he received from the Queen in 2004 were carefully chosen. They were: “For Services to Racing and the Community ”.
They say you should never meet your heroes. But I met Willie Snaith. And felt better every time.