Shakespeare famously wrote that the good that men do is oft interred with their bones. That generalization is, sadly, all too often proved correct, but in the case of Lord Oaksey this will be very far from the case.
Lord Oaksey, who died on September 5 at the age of 83, ranks as one of the truly great racing men of the post-war era. Initially he made his mark as an amateur rider, partnering over 200 winners (mostly as the Hon. John Lawrence, by which name he was known until the death in 1971 of his father, who had been the principal British judge at the Nuremburg Trials) in a fine career which saw him ride the winners of both the Hennessy and Whitbread Gold Cups (in 1958 on the Fulke Walwyn-trained Taxidermist) as well as partnering the Keith Piggott-trained Carrickbeg into an agonisingly close second place behind Ayala in the 1963 Grand National.
These feats would have been enough to satisfy most men for more than a lifetime, but ultimately Lord Oaksey’s riding triumphs ranked as merely a small part of his achievements, so great was his impact on and contribution to the sport of racing – particularly National Hunt racing.
For the majority of his years in the saddle, Lord Oaksey earned his living as ‘Marlborough’ of the Daily Telegraph and ‘Audax’ of the Horse & Hound, penning some truly memorable race reports – including that of Ayala’s Grand National which, having wiped away his sweat and shrugged off his disappointment, he had the presence of mind to write and telephone through to his paper shortly after the race.
Come the ‘70s, Lord Oaksey’s contribution to the racing media was further expanded as he joined the team on ITV, which eventually ceded its coverage to Channel Four. Alongside his friend Brough Scott, Oaksey brought the sport to life for a generation of viewers, his enthusiasm, experience, knowledge and all-round decency ensuring that the events on the screen were much more than just a betting opportunity, but constituted a drama based on courage, passion and the nobility of the horse.
Lord Oaksey’s admiration of the horse and his courage ran strongly throughout his writing and broadcasting careers, never more obvious than in the biography, The story of Mill Reef, and film, Something to brighten the morning, which he wrote about the 1971 Derby winner Mill Reef.
He was, though, equally aware and appreciative of the courage and dedication of those who rode and cared for the horses, a passion which led to him becoming the driving force behind the foundation of the Injured Jockeys’ Fund (IJF) subsequent to the serious injuries suffered by the National Hunt jockeys Tim Brookshaw and Paddy Farrell in 1964. Oaksey remained a committed leader of and fund-raiser for the IJF throughout his life, his efforts in this respect being now permanently remembered in the shape of Oaksey House, the jockeys’ rehabilitation centre in Lambourn which was opened in 2009. His works in this respect were also one of the key factors in the award of his OBE in 1985.
In the final years of Lord Oaksey’s life, the greatest joys which he received from his sport came from the success of the stable of his son-in-law Mark Bradstock – and in particular from the victories of one particular inmate: his horse Carruthers, whom he had bred from his mare Plaid Maid and who landed a hugely emotional victory in the Hennessy Gold Cup last year.
Lord Oaksey, who is survived by his wife ‘Chicky’ and by his children Patrick and Sara (Bradstock), has left an indelible mark on the sport which he loved and for which he did so much good. His legacy is unquantifiable: over and above the benefit felt by every injured jockey, there is the love of the horse and of the sport which, via his writing and broadcasting, he helped to instill into a couple of generations of British racing enthusiasts.
The memory of Lord Oaksey will live forever – kept alive not least by his outstanding autobiography ‘Mince pie for starters’, which was published in 2003, and is a wonderful appreciation of the sport and of all that is decent and noble therein.