Royal rides: interview with Willie Carson
Willie Carson lit up Her Majesty’s Silver Jubilee by riding her horse to victory in the Oaks. This year the Derby Festival and Diamond Jubilee coincide. Samantha Laurie meets the five-time Champion Jockey ahead of a very special Epsom weekend
There is a clip on YouTube of the Queen in the Royal Box at Epsom, watching the racing on the TV screen inside. As the horses enter the final straight, she bounds away from the TV and dashes onto the private balcony, pushing in front of the late Queen Mother to witness the finish. Her excitement is palpable.
“Look,” she cries with delight in that unmistakable voice, pointing down at the melee after the race. “There’s my friend, the one that kissed my hand!”
Her pleasure is compounded when she learns that she has won the £16 Royal Box sweepstake.
It’s a rare glimpse of Her Majesty’s personal side, expressed through her passion and enthusiasm for the sport she loves. And one man who has had more opportunity than most to see this is Willie Carson: five-time Champion Jockey, four times winner of the Epsom Derby and the man who secured the Queen her most memorable prize, seizing the Epsom Oaks on her filly, Dunfermline, during Silver Jubilee Week in 1977.
“It was one of the biggest things that ever happened to me,” recalls the diminutive Scotsman. “The timing was just perfect. But the Queen couldn’t be there herself because she was busy with Jubilee engagements. So, after the win, I went up to see the Queen Mother, who was beaming from ear to ear, and we called Her Majesty there and then on the phone.”
Later that year, the Queen missed a second Classic win when Carson rode the same filly to a dramatic Doncaster triumph in the St Leger.
That she’ll be in the Royal Box at this year’s Investec Derby on June 2, however, is a certainty. Derby Day, like Royal Ascot, is generally ringfenced in her diary. She’s only missed a couple in 60 years and this one is more special than most: as the first official engagement of the Diamond Jubilee weekend, it will kick-start the festivities and attract an array of royalty, old and young.
A royal win in the Derby itself is unlikely. In the past, Her Majesty has secured four of the five Classic flat races, but she has never won the most prestigious of them all. In a race exclusively for three year olds, horses get only one chance, and the Queen’s best hope for some time was last year’s runner, Carlton House, who came home third.
According to Carson, however, she is sanguine about such disappointments.
“I believe that for her, like me, the racing is secondary to the breeding side. I never realized quite how much pleasure there is in watching a foal develop into a truly great racehorse.”
Since retiring 16 years ago, 69-year-old Carson has balanced work as a racing pundit for the BBC with running his own successful breeding farm, the 60-acre Minster House Stud at Cirencester in Gloucestershire.
“I’m at a good place in my life,” he smiles. “I was a snotty-nosed kid from Stirling, bullied for being so small. All my racing life I played catch-up to the likes of Lester Piggott. I felt like the underdog; always with a chip on my shoulder. Now I’m happy, I’m relaxed. I’ve found that I love breeding even more than racing – even if my bank manager doesn’t.”
Being a successful breeder and owner, however, is rather more complicated if you’re the Queen.
“Bloodstock is big business – a Derby winner can fetch an £80,000 fee per ‘covering’. Good horses fetch high prices, but the Queen cannot be seen to spend large sums of money on her interests.”
Having inherited a string of racehorses from her father in 1952, Her Majesty runs a small, but successful breeding operation, with five trainers in the UK who look after the horses she sends them. In a typical year she will have 20-30 horses in training.
She has all the talent and knowledge of the leading breeders, says Carson, although her best horses have often been gifts. Carlton House was a present from Sheikh Mohammed, the ruler of Dubai. And Her Majesty may yet eclipse the memories of last year’s Derby defeat. This year her horse Set To Music lines up in the Coronation Cup, a prestigious Epsom race for older horses, renamed for 2012 the Diamond Jubilee Coronation Cup and rescheduled to run the same day as the Derby.
Carson rode often under the Queen’s distinctive racing colours: purple with gold braid, scarlet sleeves and black velvet hat. As an owner, he says, she was appreciative and understanding, though there was less “intimacy” with her than with the Queen Mother. But on one occasion, following a horrific fall at York in 1981, he was to find that the Queen’s reach extended beyond the track. Unconscious and hospitalized with a fractured skull, Carson received a visit from Her Majesty’s personal neurologist.
“I didn’t know anything about it until he sent me the bill,” he admits.
Did Carson not send it on to the Palace?
“Oh no! But I might do now though,” he chortles.
For 34 years Carson rode his way into racing history, his latter years proving to be some of the best. At 51, in one of the roughest ever Derbies that saw many top riders unseated, he rode Erhaab to a stunning victory in what many rate his best ever ride. So confident was he that he had already instructed his valet to bring champagne into the weighing room to avoid paying Epsom prices.
“But I never let people see all that belief. I always played the fool, made out that I wasn’t really paying attention. But oh boy, I certainly was!”
Indeed. He won 28 Classics – 17 British, 11 Irish – and his total of 3,828 wins makes him the fourth most successful Flat jockey in history. His advice to young riders is to “work hard, keep your head down and be prepared for big sacrifices”.
What kind of sacrifices?
“Family life, for sure,” he says, referring not only to his failed first marriage, but also perhaps to the illegitimate daughter he sired as a teenager, whom he “blotted out” of his life to concentrate on his sport.
Racing, he says, is about expecting the unexpected. Certainly he has had his own fair share of surprises. In 1974 he lost the saddle on Dibidale and rode bareback to apparent victory in the Oaks – only to be disqualified. Then, in 1990, Dayjur – “the fastest horse I’ve ever ridden” – jumped at a shadow 150 yards from the end of the Breeders Cup, in New York. An almost guaranteed win vanished amid clouds of Belmont Park dirt.
Similarly for the Royals. Ian Balding, the Queen’s trainer for 35 years, once noted that the Queen and her late mother had “between them had as many disasters as it is possible to have” in racing. The most infamous was Devon Loch, the Queen Mother’s grand chaser, in the 1956 Grand National. Fifty yards from the finish, and with a five-length lead, the horse inexplicably jumped in the air and landed on its stomach. Jockey Dick Francis believed that it had been distracted by the cheering for an apparent royal win.
Either way, there will be no shortage of cheering at Epsom if Her Majesty’s horse romps home in the Coronation Cup. As for the Derby itself, it is a curious beast: a once-in-a-lifetime race for fledgling horses largely untested and far from their physical peak. For guest of honour Willie Carson, that means some of the finest and most exciting racing in the world.
Investec Derby Festival, Jun 1 & 2. Visit: the Epsom Downs website