Sunday 18 August 2019

Eddery's genius vastly underrated

Pat Eddery, who died last week at the age of 63
Pat Eddery, who died last week at the age of 63 Newsdesk Newsdesk

A few months back we ran a series on the best Irish sports stars and teams of the last 50 years. Very good it was too. But one name was missing from our top 50 performers - Pat Eddery, who died last week at the age of 63. In the 1975-1984 period he was judged inferior to the likes of John Watson, Brian Mullins and Ollie Campbell, in the 1985-1994 period Dennis Taylor, Teddy McCarthy and Michael Carruth got the nod ahead of him.

Now, all of these people were tremendous in their day. But not one of them could hold a candle to Eddery, who was one of the outstanding Irish sports stars of my lifetime. Look at his record. Only one jockey, the peerless Sir Gordon Richards, rode more winners on the flat on this side of the pond. Only three won more champion jockey titles and two of those, Nat Flatman and Fred Archer, won theirs back in the reign of Queen Victoria. In modern times only Lester Piggott, Willie Carson, Kieren Fallon and Frankie Dettori won more classics than Eddery.

The man from Kildare was very good for a very long time, winning his first champion jockey title at the age of just 22 in 1974 and his last at the age of 44 in 1996. When he won that first title he was the youngest title-holder since Charlie Elliott 50 years previously. And when he won the last title he was the oldest since Piggott in 1982. No older jockey has won the title since. It was a very special career.

Yet we missed him. Shame on us. But maybe it wasn't that surprising, because whatever about his exact position in the national sporting pantheon, Pat Eddery was unquestionably the most underrated great sportsman this country ever produced. He was the guy who tended to be left out of conversations about the very greatest, though he undoubtedly belonged in them. I've even known otherwise knowledgeable people who expressed surprise on finding out that he was Irish.

Why was this? Maybe it had something to do with the fact that Eddery left for England to pursue his trade at the age of 15 and stayed there for the rest of his life. And it could also have something to do with the unobtrusive nature of not just Eddery's genius, but that of the great jockeys in general. It is, after all, only in recent years that Tony McCoy made it on to the national sporting radar. Even Kieren Fallon's six champion jockey titles between 1997 and 2003 didn't seem to get the kind of praise which was showered on far lesser achievements.

Racing people know the worth of their heroes but mainstream acceptance is not as readily forthcoming, the week of Cheltenham always excepted. Perhaps that's because the jockey's trade doesn't reward egotism and showboating. Pull your gansey over your head when you're passing the post and you're going to fall on your arse. So we tend to undervalue these magnificent men on their flying machines.

Think of Pat Eddery's career. He was at the top of his chosen profession for almost a quarter of a century. There were highlights: steering Grundy past Bustino in the 1975 King George and Queen Elizabeth Stakes battle, which some aficionados still claim was the greatest race of all; three Arc de Triomphe wins on the trot between 1985 and 1987 - the second of them on Dancing Brave, who Eddery thought was the best horse he ever rode; and that final flourish when, at the age of 51, he got Reel Buddy home in the Sussex Stakes at Goodwood in a finish where the first five were within half-a-length of each other. But the most important thing of all was the sheer consistency of a great who, almost 5,000 times, knew what it was like to come home a winner - something not given to many sportsmen.

We probably didn't appreciate Pat Eddery enough when he was with us. In the words of The Proclaimers: "You know our sense of timing, we always wait too long." But let's make up for lost time and, when next that conversation about that greatest starts up, put in a few words for the little genius from Newbridge.

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