A Day At The Races: Youngest jockey to win the Eclipse Stakes
Peter May tells the story of the 1951 Eclipse Stakes, which witnessed the arrival of a teenage riding sensation who would become a legend in the saddle.
14 July 1951, Sandown Park
Just after three o’clock on the 14th July 1951 a round-faced fifteen-year-old boy perched atop the French-owned horse, Mystery IX, was being led around the paddock at Sandown racecourse in preparation for the Eclipse Stakes.
The previous day the apprentice had won the Commonwealth Stakes on Zucchero and was undoubtedly hoping for a quick double. As he looked around the ring he could see the Champion Jockeys Gordon Richards and Charlie Elliott, and not far away the great Doug Smith was looking particularly confident on the favourite, Mossborough.
One notable absentee was Scobie Breasley who was prevented from riding due to ill health. He should have been on Mystery IX. The teenager was in exalted company; the Eclipse Stakes wasn’t a run-of-the-mill handicap at a low grade mid-week meeting. Poor races were not named in honour of great horses, and Eclipse was one of the greatest racehorses of all time. With a pedigree stretching back to 1886 when it was first won by Bendigo, the Eclipse had become as highly prized by owners and trainers as any Classic. The race had prestige, history, and a prize worth winning: in 1951 the race offered a purse of £9,440 [£300,000 in today's terms] to the winner.
Soon after leaving the starting gate, it was clear that the three-year-old colt, Llanstephan, would make the contest a true test of endurance. His aim was to set the race up for his stablemate, Sybil’s Nephew, who possessed stamina in abundance and had recorded two wide margin victories over Mystery IX earlier in the season.
With four furlongs to run the pace-setter dropped away, but it wasn’t the other Jack Jarvis runner that took over, it was Doug Smith on Mossborough. At the furlong marker, Mossborough was odds on to win, the teenager’s dream of Eclipse success was fading fast. Sybil’s Nephew was staying on and reached the favourite’s quarters, Daneshill was also pushing the front two, but all three were painfully one-paced. On the outside, where the more astute jockeys had realised the firmer ground was to be found, a fourth runner was accelerating and rapidly closing on the leaders. With mere yards to go he stole the lead; Mossborough tried to rally and make a fight of it, but he had nothing left. The teenager had timed his run to perfection and a third successive Eclipse went to a runner from across the English Channel.
After pulling up, Mystery IX made his way back to the winner’s enclosure, a route his jockey would get to know well in the coming years. While unsaddling the winner, trainer Percy Carter turned to his young jockey, “well done, Lester” he said through a beaming smile. The boy nodded by way of acknowledgement, turned and headed to the weighing room. In his mind there was no need for undue celebration nor extravagant expressions of emotion; it was just another race and there were plenty more to come for Lester Piggott, the most talented jockey ever to sit on a racehorse.