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The Weekly Blog

A Sporting Hero

Between the ages of 16 and 24, I rarely went racing without my camera. My sporting heroes included the champion jockeys, John Francome and Richard Dunwoody, plus the doyen of racecourse photography Ed Byrne – whose images of Sabin Du Loir, Delius and Desert Orchid, cut from smudged newspapers, adorned by bedroom wall.

A short-head behind Byrne, in the Garratt hero rankings, came the photographer Gerry Cranham. Thirty years ago, Cranham collaborated with the ex-jockey and TV presenter Richard Pitman to publish The Guinness Book of Steeplechasing, a book which nourished my dreams about becoming a top jockey (never happened) and a respected racecourse photographer (never happened either).

I spent hours flicking through the pages, looking at pictures of racecourses – such as Market Rasen (where this week’s selection is L’Inganno Fellice). And one of horses galloping passed the back gardens of houses in Cartmel, where the washing hung drying in long drapes – just where other tracks might have displayed banners for race sponsors.

Among the photographs of top jockeys was a sequence of images which showed Sam Morshead being pressed into the heavy ground on a Winter’s day, by a steeplechaser whose entire weight had fallen across the prone jockey as the two had somersaulted at the back of fence. The final frame showed a disconsolate Morshead, plastered in mud, as the horse cantered away.

I’m not sure why I wanted to be a jockey, but their lives looked dangerous and full of fun. Now that I’m a grown-up, only one of those attributes seems appealing. It was only later that I discovered that most jockeys are also quite mad. And that Sam Morshead, specifically, was as mad as a box of frogs.

I first met Sam, who died from cancer this week, after he had qualified as a Clerk of the Course at Ayr – and came to know him much better during his influential tenure as General Manager at Perth Racecourse. Always a passionate advocate for the jumps division of our sport, he’d leave no one in any doubt if he disagreed with a particular view or course of action – particularly if it came wrapped in the special type of red tape that emanates from officialdom.

Sam might blame some of his more spectacular outbursts on the metal plates that held his head together. He certainly blamed them for setting off the metal detectors in airports although, as a keen angler, the fishing accoutrements in his pocket may also have something to do with it.

To some of those responsible for governing our sport, Sam will occasionally have felt like a particularly prickly thorn in the side. Ask around and, in addition to ‘passionate’, you’d probably gather adjectives including: ‘obstinate’, ‘difficult’, ‘excitable’ and ‘fun’ – but never ever ‘boring’ or ‘dull’. All qualities which helped him to live life to the full, while enduring an appalling illness. 

Jump racing in Britain would be the poorer, but for Sam’s spirited and dedicated work over the course of several decades. He was recognised with an MBE in 2017. Life will be less interesting now that he is gone; I and many others will miss him.

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