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Tributes paid to Joe Mercer as former champion jockey dies, aged 86

Mon 17 May 2021
 Mercer was champion jockey in 1979 (PA)
Mercer was champion jockey in 1979 (PA)

Joe Mercer, who famously partnered the mighty Brigadier Gerard among other great names in racing history, has died aged 86.

Mercer was one of the giants of the Flat racing scene until his retirement in 1985, being crowned champion jockey once, winning eight British Classics and riding over 2,800 winners in his 37-year career.

Mercer counted Brigadier Gerard as his most high-profile mount, with the duo beating Mill Reef in the 1971 2000 Guineas, before going on to add the likes of the King George VI And Queen Elizabeth Stakes, Eclipse and Champion Stakes in a superlative career.

Bustino was another of Bradford-born Mercer’s headline horses as the pair were involved in epic battle in the 1975 King George, eventually having to settle for second behind Pat Eddery and Grundy after an enthralling battle up the Ascot straight.

Mercer also won the 1000 Guineas aboard Highclere at Newmarket for the Queen in 1974.

Mercer recalls his association with Brigadier Gerard with Nick Lightfoot in 2017

Following his retirement, Mercer, who was made an OBE for his services to racing in 1980, went on to become racing manager for the late Sheikh Maktoum Al Maktoum, with former weighing-room colleague Bruce Raymond joining him as assistant in 1994.

Raymond paid tribute to his friend, saying: “It was quite a shock, it was very unexpected. I would speak to him every Saturday and he called me on Sunday to talk about the Lockinge.

“He was a really nice man – he was the sort of guy who liked people that really shouldn’t have been liked! He never had a bad word to say about anyone.

“He was also the kind of man who was always first. When you were in the changing rooms, we’d be told ‘caps on’ and he’d be the first to be ready, then he’d be first out into the paddock. If you were meeting him at 7pm at a restaurant, he’d be there five minutes early and then tell you you were late!

“I remember when I was a young rider, about 17, I beat him in the City And Suburban Handicap and that was quite the feather in my cap, to beat Joe Mercer.

_Mercer tells Tom Stanley about the build-up to him winning on Brigadier Gerard at Royal Ascot _

“It was due to Joe that I came to work for Sheikh Maktoum. He got me a job as retained rider behind Pat Eddery and Walter Swinburn, but then when I was 50, I broke my neck in a fall and he said ‘give it up and come to work with me’ and here I am, 25 years or so later.

“Joe was a good rider, a great stylist and someone everybody could look up to.”

He added: “Obviously Brigadier Gerard was a highlight, but Joe had so many good horses around that time, including Kris for Sir Henry Cecil and Le Moss in the Gold Cup.

“He was a great jockey, but an even better man. He’s not just a sad loss to racing, but he’s a sad loss to everyone that knew him. He was just a great guy.”

Five of Mercer's best

Joe Mercer was one of the most popular and successful Flat jockeys of the 20th century, associated with some of the most famous thoroughbreds of the time. Here we look at five of his best:

Brigadier Gerard

‘The Brigadier’ won 17 of his 18 starts, with Mercer in the saddle every time. Despite being unbeaten at two, he only really burst on to the scene when beating Mill Reef in the 2000 Guineas in 1971. He was invincible that year taking other top mile races as well as the 10-furlong Champion Stakes. His only defeat came in the 1982 Benson And Hedges Gold Cup at York to Roberto, when he was found to have an infection. He bounced back with repeat wins in the QEII and Champion Stakes.

Bustino

A late-maturing colt, Bustino won Sandown’s Classic Trial and the Lingfield Derby Trial, but was only fourth in the Derby before easily winning the 1974 St Leger. He returned the following season to take the Coronation Cup at Epsom and then took on the 1975 Derby hero Grundy in the King George at Ascot. Bustino went down by half a length after an epic duel, but never raced again after sustaining an injury when being trained for the Arc.

Highclere

Owned and bred by the Queen, Highclere may not have rated very high as a two-year-old but was a different proposition in her Classic year. Making her seasonal debut in the 1000 Guineas and wearing blinkers for the first time, Highclere knuckled down to beat Polygamy by a short head. She bypassed the Oaks at Epsom for the French equivalent, the Prix de Diane at Chantilly, and won cosily by two lengths to complete a rare double.

Kris

A specialist miler, Kris was just the type of horse Mercer excelled on and they enjoyed many important victories together. The best came after finishing second in the 1979 2000 Guineas with the St James’s Palace Stakes, the Sussex Stakes and Queen Elizabeth II Stakes among the finest moments that season. The 1980 campaign was marred by niggling injuries, but he did win the Lockinge and was narrowly beaten by Known Fact in his bid to retain the QEII on his final start.

Gunner B

Gunner B got better with age and proved a willing partner for Mercer. Originally trained by Geoff Toft in Yorkshire, he did not join the Henry Cecil stable until he was a five-year-old but had been partnered regularly by Mercer to several decent victories. He had just the one season at Warren Place, but it was a prolific one with five wins, including the Prince of Wales’s Stakes and the Eclipse.

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