Excerpts from ‘A Maharaja’s Turf’ ….. 18 – Charlie Smirke: dashing rider with a point to prove


Charlie Smirke

Whatever debate there might have been about Colombo’s misfortune in the race, there was unanimity that Charles Smirke rode Windsor Lad brilliantly. He had a point to prove, for he had been suspended by the Jockey Club for five years, wrongly it was reckoned, after the favourite Welcome Gift, that he was riding, refused to start in a race at Gatwick. That was in 1928, the year in which he was third on Black Watch when Felstead won the Derby. He was just 22 then, and to his credit kept his body and mind in shape under trying circumstances, unfazed by adversity, often having to sleep at the Brighton beach. When he finally got back his licence in October 1933, the dashing and tranquil rider was raring to go.


A brilliant outfit was forged when the Maharaja of Rajpipla and Marcus Marsh picked him to pilot Windsor Lad. As the colt ran on beautifully, Smirke always kept himself within striking distance of the leaders, and when the opportunity arose he slipped through on the inside and never looked back. To the shock and amazement of the hundreds of thousands present on the Epsom Downs, the apparently unbeatable favourite Colombo was trounced.


While I was writing this book, I was pleasantly surprised to receive a Facebook message in August 2009 from Deborah Waterworth, which I was delighted to read: “My father, now aged 87, was a young boy living near Epsom and used to ride track work for Charlie Smirke. When Charlie Smirke won the 1934 Derby riding Windsor Lad he was presented with a silk scarf that had the owner’s name and jockey’s name, and all the other Derby winners up to that date. Charlie Smirke gave the scarf to my father and he still has it to this day. But believe it or not I knew none of this until a few days ago when my father showed me the scarf for the first time. My family lives in Australia and my Dad has not been back to the U.K. for over 70 years.”


Deborah’s father, Felix Lloyd, was a lad of 12 years when he saw my grandfather leading in Windsor Lad after the Derby win. It felt wonderful to be in touch with a family that has a connection to that exhilarating event. So I sent two Special Postal Covers that were issued to commemorate the platinum jubilee of my grandfather’s Derby triumph, one for Mr. Felix and Mrs. May Lloyd, who live in Cape Hawke, New South Wales, and the other for Deborah and her husband Eric. As it happened, it was our festival of Rakhi that day, when sisters tie a sacred thread around their brothers’ wrists, and brothers give them gifts. So Deborah – my Derby sister – received her first-ever Rakhi gift.


It was a tremendous resumption of Charles James William Smirke’s long racing career. He joined the famous trainer Stanley Wootton in 1920 and rode in the Derby for the first time in 1924, at just 18 years of age. Smirke won four Derbys in all, including two for the Aga Khan, on Mahmoud in 1936 and Tulyar in 1952, and the final one on Hard Ridden as late as 1958. He claimed seven other classics besides. Having retired in 1959 after a long career, Smirke cut himself off from the racing world, opting to live a life of anonymity. He died in 1993 at the age of 87, without doubt one of the greatest jockeys of his era,


Charlie Smirke fully deserved all the praise that he got in the press after his stunning maiden triumph in the 1934 Derby.


The Evening Standard: “So Colombo, the unbeaten, has fallen. He lost in a race which provided a triumphant ‘comeback’ for C. Smirke. The result was one full of meaning for the superstitious. Smirke was a successful jockey when, in September, 1928, his licence was suspended following an incident at Gatwick. His licence was restored in October last year after five years of ‘purgatory’, as he himself put it. Since then he has had several rides. To-day he rode Windsor Lad to victory in 2 min. 34 sec. – a time equalling the record set by Hyperion last year. He was all smiles as Windsor Lad was led in. It was his first “classic” victory. He was congratulated on all sides. And Smirke said: ‘I felt that I was always winning after the turn into the straight after the Tattenham Corner. Tiberius was the only horse in front of me then, and I knew I could go to the front when I wished. Once I had taken the lead, my horse ran on wonderfully’.”


Nottingham Evening News: “C. Smirke, who rode Windsor Lad, said: ‘Windsor Lad is a really good horse, as I have always contended, and he has now proved himself a good stayer. I was never out of the first five’.”


Leicester Evening Mail: “Windsor Lad provided Charles Smirke with his first success in a “Classic”, the nearest he had ever been before, having finished third on Black Watch in Felstead’s year. He is the elder brother of A. Smirke, and one of Stanely Wootton’s best pupils. In 1927 he finished third in the winning jockeys’ list and was first jockey to the late P.P. Gilpin at Clarehaven, Newmarket. He won the Grand Prix De Paris in 1925 and is a brother-in-law of George Duller, the ex-jockey and trainer.”


The Times: “Let us finish this inadequate story of a Derby, by congratulating the owner, the trainer, and the rider of the winner. Perhaps most of all the rider, who has now staged a great come-back after a time of rest. Surely he must know now that every one is pleased, for he was always a great rider, as he most certainly showed yesterday afternoon.”


Carlton in Manchester Dispatch: “All credit is due to C. Smirke, the rider of the winner, Windsor Lad, and I am forcibly reminded of his last words to me yesterday, ‘whatever you do, don’t leave me out of it’.”


Liverpool Post: “Windsor Lad provided Charles Smirke with his first success in a ‘classic’. Describing his success, he said: ‘I was never out of the first five. I felt I was always winning from the turn at the Tattenham Corner. Tiberius was the only horse in front of me, and I knew I could go to the front when I wanted to. Once I had taken the lead my horse ran on and held its own to the winning post’.”


Hannen Swaffer in Daily Herald: “Charlie Smirke, Windsor Lad’s jockey, made a great come-back. After being ‘disciplined’ in 1928, he got back his licence only a few months ago. He is the idol of Epsom, a boxer, bright in conversation, very popular with the stable boys.”


Bouverie in The Daily Mirror: “Windsor Lad’s success was a great triumph for his jockey, C. Smirke, whose suspension for five years by the Jockey Club in 1928 was only withdrawn last October. ‘It was a fine race,’ he said last night. ‘I felt that I was always winning from the turn at Tattenham Corner. Tiberius was the only horse in front of me, and I knew that I could go to the front when I wanted to.’ Full marks to Windsor Lad and Charles Smirke, for what I heard described by a famous trainer as the best bit of Derby work he had ever seen. Smirke had always been a firm believer in Windsor Lad’s ability to win, and no horse has ever been ridden with more confidence and thrust. In the early stages Smirke played a sort of cat-and-mouse game to seize the position he wanted at the right time. Gradually moving place after place, his great opportunity came soon after they had passed the corner. Tiberius had gone into the lead at this point, with Windsor Lad second. Smirke saw his chance to get the rails; a lightning dash put him in the coveted position and in the lead that was never again surrendered.”


Hotspur in The Daily Telegraph:The jockey, Charles Smirke, was unable to ride for five years because of the displeasure of the Jockey Club, but he came back last autumn and his great chance came to ride this fancied horse in the Derby. He showed coolness, fine judgment and skill, and is now re-established in the best sense.”


Gary Owen in Manchester Dispatch: “The Derby has been the Waterloo of many unbeaten horses in the past. Lord Glanely’s Colombo has joined them, and once again a hot favourite has failed to rise to an important occasion. All credit is due to C. Smirke, the rider of the winner, Windsor Lad, and I am forcibly reminded of his last words to me yesterday: ‘Whatever you do, don’t leave me out of it.’ It was a memorable moment for Marcus Marsh, the trainer of Windsor Lad, when he saw his charge score. He is the youngest among the trainers with a runner in the Derby, and this is his first year as a public trainer. Excuses are being made for Colombo on the grounds that he was interfered with, and began to drop back at the seven furlong starting gate. Colombo certainly lost his place after he had pursued the leader, Medieval Knight, to that point, but in my opinion, Windsor Lad was a winner on merit, thanks to the superb manner in which he was handled by Smirke. Smirke saw to it that Windsor Lad came the shortest way round Tattenham Corner, and once in line for home it was not long before he had taken the lead from Tiberius. Having accomplished this much, Smirke hugged the rails all the way down the hill, pursued by Tiberius and Easton.”


Corsair in Sheffield Independent: “All credit is due to C. Smirke, the rider of the winner, Windsor Lad, and I am forcibly reminded of his words to me yesterday. ‘Whatever you do, don’t leave me out of it.’ For some weeks I have insisted that Windsor Lad would be the most popular each way selection for the Derby, and it must not be thought that all the bookmakers have had a good race because Colombo has had his unbeaten record tarnished. Smirke has ridden in the Derby six times and this was his first success. It was only this season that he returned to the saddle after a long absence. Smirke told me afterwards that he had a beautiful ride. ‘Once I went in front of Tiberius in the straight my horse ran on gallantly’.”


Gimcrack in Daily Sketch: “Smirke, who is one of the most dashing riders of the day, and a product of the famous Wootton stable, told me he won comfortably. ‘I was always winning from Tattenham Corner,’ he said.”


Captain Heath in News Chronicle: “It may be foolish to write of a winning jockey that he never did a thing wrong, but if ever such words are excusable they are in this case. Charlie, in fact, made a glorious comeback from a retirement which many people think was over-prolonged.”


The Picquet in News Chronicle: “For Smirke, the successful jockey, no praise can be too high. His brain worked with lightning-like rapidity, and he showed courage and decision of a very high order. His licence was only restored to him towards the end of last season, after he had been standing down for several years, and now he has won the Derby. It is a curious circumstance that the still-living Charles Wood, who was one of Archer’s most formidable rivals, underwent a period of suspension similar to that of Smirke and that immediately after his licence was restored he won the Derby on the late Mr. Gubbins’s Galtee More.”


Trevor Wignall in Daily Express: “The said Smirke was in the furthest and darkest corner of the room. And surrounding him were jockeys in mufti and stable boys. He was stripping off his purple upper covering when Steve (Donoghue) did the necessary in the way of introduction. It seemed to me that The Man Who Had Come Back knew me in a prize-fighting capacity, but before he could ask me about Len Harvey’s eye, I beat him to it by requesting him to inform me about the race. ‘Well,’ said Smirke (all the jockeys I know talk in this fashion) ‘it was this way. I was with the crowd at the start, but after two furlongs I was moving up towards the leaders. When we got to the bushes I realized that June 6 was going to be my big day. Windsor Lad was moving like a machine, and I didn’t even have to urge him after we had passed Tattenham Corner. I saw Steve was gone, and I had no fear of Colombo, but I did keep an eye on Gordon on Easton. The truth is that it was one of the easiest rides I have ever had, and I never had a doubt about my colt after we had finished the second furlong’.”


Yorkshire Post: “Smirke said: ‘Windsor Lad is a really good colt, as I have always contended, and he has now proved himself a good stayer. I was never out of the first five, and down the hill I became third behind Fleetfoot and Tiberius. Turning into the straight I went on second, and took the lead two furlongs from home to win pretty comfortably’.”


The Field: “It was an excellent race that C. Smirke rode on Windsor Lad; his judgement of pace was well-timed and he kept his mount balanced throughout.”


The Veteran in Chester Guardian: “Describing his success he said, ‘I was never out of the first five. I felt that I was always winning from the turn at Tattenham Corner. Tiberius was the only horse in front of me, and I knew I could go to the front when I wanted to. Once I had taken the lead my horse ran on and held its own to the winning post’.”


Observer: “To Charles Smirke, too, must be given the credit for having done the right thing at the right moment in the race. The issue was far too important for him to ride in any sense a flash race. He came the nearest way home, and his colt was good enough to do the rest.”


Sunday Sportsman: “Smirke too, deserves a hearty pat on the back for his share in a notable triumph. Five years in the wilderness have not robbed ‘Smirkey’ of any of his cock sparrow cheek and courage, and the style in which he saw his chance and seized it was Archer-like in its promptitude and dash.”


Keystone in Sunday Dispatch: “It must be said of Smirke that he is a slick customer in an emergency, and the mere sight of Nicoll racing to the front would be enough to arouse the do-or-die spirit of a jockey intent on re-establishing his reputation. Smirke, moreover, knows every inch of the Epsom track, and in a ‘needle’ contest he would be at an advantage in this respect.”


Reynold’s Illustrated News: “It says much for his good sense that while rusticating he kept himself fit, hoping that he would get back into the fold. And this foresight has borne fruit. He has re-established himself with a vengeance, and it goes without saying that his services will now be in great demand. Smirke is a product of Frank Wooton’s stable, where he served his apprenticeship. Strange to say, as a well-known sporting authority points out, there is a parallel to Smirke’s record. Another Charlie – the old-time jockey, Wood – won the Derby on Galtee More shortly after his licence, which had been withdrawn, was restored to him.”


Lincoln Echo: “Any racing writer will tell you that the side of his job that he least likes is making selections. Yet nothing gives him greater pleasure than to see those selections ‘come off’. And the greatest thrill of all is to forecast the winner of the Derby. I hope I may be pardoned, therefore, for drawing attention to the fact that I have found the winner for the second successive year. I must admit that my confidence in Windsor Lad was nothing like what I felt regarding Hyperion’s chance last year. Nevertheless, the result was the same, and I hope my readers benefitted accordingly. It was indeed only after my talk with Smirke a fortnight ago that I decided to row in with the Maharaja of Rajpipla’s colt. He was so emphatic that if there was any weak link in Colombo’s armour he would have a great chance of winning that I there and then decided to make Windsor Lad my choice. And Windsor Lad justified it by winning gallantly and cleverly. And here let me pay tribute to Charlie Smirke. No jockey could have ridden a better-judged race, and the way he snatched the coveted rails position making the bend into the straight, probably made all the difference between winning and losing. Even that great Epsom specialist, Donoghue, could not have ridden a more perfect race.”


(Author Indra Vikram Singh can be contacted on email singh_iv@hotmail.com).


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