FRED RICKABY trained two Durban July winners including Jollify, who dead-heated with Sea Cottage in the most famous renewal of them all in 1967. Over a period of 30 years Fred carved his name as one of South Africa’s greatest conditioners. MIKE MOON remembers a legend.
IF EVER anyone was bred into racing it was Fred Rickaby, who had jockeys and trainers on both sides of his pedigree.
His great-great grandfather Fred trained 1855 Epsom Derby winner Wild Dayrell. Three generations of sons thereafter were successful jockeys – all named Fred. His grandfather won the 1896 Oaks and his father the 1000 Guineas four times.
His mother was Grace Griggs, sister of jockeys and trainers. His cousin was Lester Piggott, the most famous jockey of all.
Frederick Arthur Rickaby was born at Newmarket, England, in February 1916 during the World War I. His father was killed in action in France when he and younger brother Bill were babies.
The Rickaby brothers learnt to ride horses before they could walk and left school in their early teens to become jockeys, apprenticed to Uncle Walter Griggs.
Fred’s first winner was at Newmarket in 1930 on Fifty-50 and he was Britain’s champion apprentice the following year, with 44 wins, and again in 1932 with 37. He became first jockey to Lord Glanely, in succession to Sir Gordon Richards, but was forced out of Flat racing by weight issues.
For a while he was a pupil trainer at Lord Derby’s stable, during which time he became the last person to ride famed horse, Hyperion.
He took up jumps race-riding, winning the 1939 International Hurdle on Carton and partnering the same horse to third in the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham. He was one of few riders to contest both the Epsom Derby and the Champion Hurdle.
A burgeoning jumps career was interrupted by the World War II. Fred piloted Spitfires in the Royal Air Force and his bravery won him the Air Force Cross and Bar. He barely mentioned his war experiences in books he later wrote about his life, referring only to “six years of stooging around the sky”.
Returning to racing, he found he’d lost his touch. “The horse and I were seldom co-ordinated when we met the hurdles.”
To secure a home and income for his wife, Dorothy, and two young sons Fred became landlord of The Wheatsheaf pub near Peterborough.
Riding engagements still came in and he regained something of his knack in the saddle. For two years he was both jockey and publican, but post-war austerity in England got him thinking of emigration.
South Africa’s champion jockey Tiger Wright was in England at that time, trying his luck, and Fred was much impressed by his ability.
The two men hit it off and formulated a plan to travel to South Africa and take the local racing scene by storm – Fred training and Tiger riding the winners.
Of South Africa in 1946, Fred wrote: “I had expected it to be different from England … but the contrast was extreme.” He wasn’t disappointed, though. “The glorious climate and general love of life was infectious. By God! I was glad to be here.”
Things weren’t glorious on the racing front. Tiger’s plan for a state-of-the-art training centre at Nottingham Road was downgraded to partnership in a mealie farm 50km east of Johannesburg – he and Fred set up operations with no stables, training track, horse transport, decent roads or nearby vet.
“Our enthusiasm blinded us to the impossibility of the whole thing and we battled on regardless,” wrote Fred.
Between Tiger’s Highveld contacts and Fred’s English connections the team gathered together a few horses. The first winner was Trunk Call, after four months of struggle.
Eventually it dawned on the new trainer that the farm would never work out and he and Tiger parted ways amicably. His English patrons came with him when he moved to a smallholding near Newmarket racecourse in Alberton.
A handful of winners over a few years barely kept Fred afloat and he had to be bailed out by patron Warwick Bryant. His best horse was Country Fair, who won 13 times for Sir Francis de Guingand, the Jockey Club chairman.
Fred never fitted in with the Highveld racing set-up, which he saw as rife with crookedness and official controls as “a joke”.
He discovered his “Shangri-La” in Durban and after five years in Johannesburg, relocated to yet another Newmarket – the old stables near Greyville. He became good friends with Syd Garrett, later lauding him as the best trainer he ever encountered.
Fred’s big break came in landing Hulett sugar baron Douglas Saunders as a principal owner.
The first major win was with Aztec in the 1958 Cape Derby. Another good horse was Savonarola, who trounced then unbeaten Sea Cottage in the Cape Guineas.
Despite his deep background in the game, Fred credited Saunders with teaching him how to race properly. A Saunders dictum was that young horses must be allowed to develop “as nature intended”. Douglas, his son Chris and Fred visited stud farms and selected many great horses as youngsters, notably at Birch Brothers at Dordrecht.
Among these was a colt who won six in a row, including the Guineas and Derby, before the 1967 Durban July. In that race, second-favourite Jollify dead-heated with Sea Cottage – the most celebrated horse in South Africa following the infamous shooting before the previous year’s race.
“It was a never to be forgotten race,” said Fred. “… they flashed past the post together. All hell broke loose, and there was pandemonium as we waited for the photo-finish… It was a glorious result for all concerned – except the bookmakers…”
Jollify went on to race in the USA, travelling by cargo ship with Fred as groom, feeding him, massaging his legs to prevent humour and mucking out his crate-stable on the deck every day. “I misjudged the wind direction one day, throwing manure overboard, and got the whole lot back in my face.” Fred wept as the Americans drove his beloved horse away from Newark harbour and he realised he’d never see him again.
Two years later Fred and the Saunders white, red and green silks were back in the July winner’s enclosure after three-year-old Naval Escort triumphed over brilliant Home Guard.
In 1970 Cyril Hurvitz, the Bull Brand meat mogul and one of SA’s biggest owners and gamblers, asked Fred to train for him. The partnership became a powerhouse and at one time in adjoining boxes at Fred’s Summerveld stables, stood Majestic Crown, sprinter King Of Tonga and mighty Sledgehammer – all champions in their own right.
New Zealand-bred Sledgehammer was the best horse Fred ever trained. In five seasons, the colt won 21 of 31 starts. Victories included the Met, two Queen’s Plates, the Clairwood Winter Handicap and the Transvaal Champion Stakes.
Majestic Crown won the Holiday Inns at Turffontein, then the country’s richest race.
The exploits of these giants saw Fred Rickaby win the South African trainers’ championship in 1975-76. Despite all the honours and being feted by rich people, he always remained close to his horses, sometimes even travelling with them in the back of horseboxes on long road trips.
He retired in 1978 and became a bloodstock adviser; also racing in his own colours.
He penned his memoirs, “More Trying Horses”. This was a sequel to his earlier “Are Your Horses Trying?” – a book more technical in nature, detailing things Fred had learnt about horse physiology.
He was persuaded into writing by his second wife, journalist Molly Reinhardt, who had a popular “Sunday Times” column called “With Love and Hisses” and also wrote a best-selling history of the Durban July.
Fred was strongly inclined towards natural methods and compassion in caring for horses. He was against “firing” shins of young horses and vociferously condemned use of steroids, and even analgesics. A chapter of his, entitled “Training With A Syringe”, rails against prepping horses for sales and rushing immature two-year-olds into racing.
He absorbed everything he could about healing racehorses, becoming skilled at physiotherapy.
Once, when Sledgehammer dislocated his near-hind leg in training, Fred calmed the panicking horse with soothing words before suddenly shoving the patella back into place with a loud click – all before an astonished crowd of Summerveld onlookers. “Sledge” walked away as if nothing had happened.
The trainer was also good at developing young jockeys. John Gorton was his apprentice, triumphing with Jollify before moving to England and winning the Epsom Oaks on Sleeping Partner.
Michael Roberts was apprenticed to Herman Brown, but rode a lot for Fred as a youngster and became his No 1 jockey, regularly partnering Sledgehammer.
Roberts remembered Rickaby as “probably the best I worked for” and “unbelievable in preparing horses” – high praise indeed from a world-renowned champion.
An obituary for Fred in 2010 quoted Roberts as saying: “He was an absolute perfectionist. His horses were turned out immaculately and his yard was always in showpiece condition. When the horses walked to the track, the string resembled soldiers going to war, in a straight line.”
At the height of Fred’s success, he had Cousin Lester out on several visits, sometimes to ride in international jockeys’ races but also to win on his own, specially prepared charges.
Fred returned to live in England in 1986, but couldn’t keep away from racing even in retirement. He owned runners and became a sought-after chiropractor and general healer of ailing horses.
At one stage he owned a filly called Hamerkop, a relative of Sledgehammer, and got Roberts to ride her in a race for old times’ sake.
Fred Rickaby died in January 2010 in Newmarket at the age of 93. His obituary in the UK’s “Independent” newspaper described his life as being “successful and fulfilled as it was long”.