The turf

The horse with a taste for human flesh

19 December 2020

9:00 AM

19 December 2020

9:00 AM

Greville Starkey’s great victories as a jockey included the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe on Star Appeal at 119-1. In 1978 he won the Derby and Irish Derby on Shirley Heights and the Oaks and Irish Oaks on Fair Salinia. He was also known for his unerring mimicry of a Jack Russell terrier’s bark, a distinction that once had an airliner’s departure delayed while stewards sought in vain the animal aboard. When he deployed his trick during a celebratory dinner at Quaglino’s, trainer Henry Cecil wrapped a napkin round Starkey’s neck and led him yapping out of the restaurant on all fours.

In races he used it to disconcert his rivals: the Dowager Duchess of Bedford once told me that when her horse Jupiter Island, ridden by Pat Eddery, won the Japan Cup in a bumping battle with the Starkey-ridden Allez Milord, photos showed Starkey’s open mouth turned towards Jupiter Island: ‘He was barking at him to try to put him off.’ Starkey thought of objecting to the winner after the race but desisted. Allez Milord’s trainer, John Dunlop, reminded him that under Japanese rules those whose objections were not upheld would be placed last and a second prize of £200,000 concentrated minds.

Starkey’s exploits came to mind when a recent auction sale of his effects included his card-indexed comments on horses he had ridden. One note declared: ‘Sweats at start: a shit.’ In another he warned himself: ‘Right cow. Unruly. Don’t ride again.’


We are swift to idealise and sentimentalise the beast which, in combination with man, has given us so many vivid memories of joint endeavour. Racing is made by partnerships such as that of Frankie Dettori and the double Arc winner Enable or steeplechaser Frodon and Bryony Frost, either of whom would seemingly run through fire for each other. The enduring folklore of equine loyalty includes the story of Hyperion, the runaway winner of the Derby and St Leger in 1933 when handled by the ailing George Lambton, who was then unwillingly pensioned off by owner Lord Derby. Little Hyperion, not much bigger than a pony, encountered his former trainer the next year before running in the Ascot Gold Cup. He stopped dead before Lambton’s wheelchair in the parade ring and refused to move on.

Captain Cuttle, the 1922 Derby winner, used to follow his trainer Frank Darling around like a dog. But as we remember those bonds and partnerships between horse and man we tend to forget that jockeys often have to contend with different characteristics altogether: mulishness, laziness or downright viciousness.

The undefeated St Simon was famous for killing cats and savaging grooms, at least until they discovered that he was scared of umbrellas. Ubedizzy, who later became champion sprinter in Scandinavia, bit a finger off northern trainer Andy Crook, previously his groom in Steve Nesbitt’s yard. Ubedizzy was finally banned from British racecourses when, after finishing second in the Abernant Stakes, he turned on another groom, knocked him to the ground and began to eat him.

Champion jump trainer Nicky Henderson tells the tale of his three times Champion Hurdle winner See You Then, the best jumper of the smaller obstacles he has ever seen but a brute in the box who had it in for the human race. The final year See You Then won the big race, Nicky had a sleepless night after giving his glass-legged star the only prep race he dared. Before dawn he went into the horse’s box to inspect his limbs only to find that his vet Frank Mahon had preceded him and was perched on the manger. ‘Why are you up there?’ ‘Because he won’t let me out.’ ‘But how are his legs?’ ‘I don’t know — he won’t let me near enough to take the bandages off.’ Both remained penned in See You Then’s box until his regular groom came in to work.

Jonjo O’Neill confirmed that his most famous mount, Dawn Run, Ireland’s equine heroine when she became the only horse ever to win a Champion Hurdle and a Gold Cup, was in fact ‘a moody old devil’. Her other regular jockey, Tony Mullins, said: ‘She was a savage, a demon for two people to get a cover on or off.’ But at least she did her best consistently. The worst experience for a jockey is the horse with real ability who on occasion simply refuses to display it. Fifinella, the last filly to win the Derby, wouldn’t have won an egg and spoon race on her bad-hair days.

Greville Starkey was merely being a realist and even today jockeys can encounter horses that are not above taking a mouthful or two out of their equine rivals or the jockeys riding them. Take a look on YouTube at the listed Prix Joubert at Maisons-Laffitte in 2019. The filly Palomba looks likely to win but then decides she’d rather take a chunk out of the elbow of jockey François-Xavier Bertras on Lucky Lycra. M. Bertras thereby won the race but it didn’t look as though he enjoyed the experience.

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