The life and times of jockey Sam Morshead

Successful former jump jockey and saviour of the popular Perth Racecourse Sam Morshead talks of his swift rise to the top, his many falls, and his love of speed, fishing and charity fundraising.

I had an idyllic childhood in County Meath riding my pony on the sandy beaches of Ireland’s east coast. I spent hours catching flatfish the size of a fifty pence piece. I have long had a passion for fishing.

I have always loved animals and kept guinea pigs at college. They bred like rabbits and sales of their offspring provided me with a steady income. I must have been quite careful with my cash as often when term ended I had more pocket money than I started off with.

Having yearned to be a vet, my failure to pass Biology A level put an abrupt end to that. Although my first race resulted in a fall, I was fortunate to have almost instant success.

I won my first ride over Steeplechase fences on a proper racecourse, my first ride over Hurdles and my first ride on the Flat. I have always loved the thrill of speed and the sound of hooves crashing through the birch.

I was fortunate to have a mercurially fast rise to the top. I had only been in England for nine months when I got a call from the champion trainer of the day, Fred Rimell, to ride two horses for him at Hereford. He said both would win.

Much to my surprise they did. Then he asked me to join his team of jockeys next season.

After a great first season when I thought all was going well, he sacked me. I had nothing and I was also a long way from home. In consolation, he said that I might ride for him again in two years. Then there was a phone call and he asked me to ride in the Novices’ Steeplechase at Cheltenham. His main jockey had broken his leg. Fred appeared and said I was to ride his good horse in the last race. ‘It will win, but you must pull up the one in the Novice Chase as that is a dangerous sod.’ I won the last race and got my job back.

Like all jockeys I have had broken arms, legs, collarbones and lots of concussion. The worst was a collapsed lung which put me on a life support machine for a few days. Like most jockeys, I had a fair few teeth on a plate. None of us liked riding with these in. If we forgot to remove them before a race, the starter would wrap them in a filthy hanky for us. Once I returned to the weighing room to find my teeth already embedded in a sandwich in my soap box. My final fall resulted in seven broken bones and seven lost teeth.

People claim that jockeys had more fun in my day. The sport’s integrity is much higher on the agenda now than it was in the Eighties. Once, in heavy fog at Chepstow, we only jumped three fences in a Novice’s Steeplechase. The stewards never realised. That result stands in the Form Book today!

I was lucky to ride some fabulous horses. Royal Frolic, winner of the 1976 Gold Cup, stands out. I was only 21 and still amateur. He was in a different league to anything I had sat on before. Gaye Chance got me two Cheltenham Festival winners – he was pretty special.

My greatest achievement is putting Perth Racecourse back on the map. I was fortunate to be manager for 20 years. With a great team, we turned the place around from possible closure. Attendance increased tenfold, the quality of racing improved as we increased prize money, sponsors helped us, corporate business multiplied and we invested heavily in new facilities that ensure a thriving conference and banqueting centre.

We have raised a lot of money for charity because we are a suitable attraction and can give folk a great day out. On the back of that, if we can work with charities to help them too everyone is a winner. I was very proud the day we raised £235,000 for the Prince’s Trust. Now illness has forced me to retire, I take every opportunity to fish, I enjoy my garden, and my grandchildren are a priority.

Racing Through Life by Sam Morshead, published by The Racing Post, is still available.

(This feature was originally published in 2016)