Willie Snaith was more than THAT; he was a Newmarket man, not just a friend of the Museum”. Graham Snelling, former Deputy Director of the National Horseracing Museum, gently corrected my original opening sentence.

Willie, who died on 14 June 2019, was born in Gateshead and left school at 14. After a year working in a wool shop in Newcastle he moved to Middleham in Yorkshire to work for the trainer F. L. ‘Sam’ Armstrong. In 1946 Armstrong moved south to Newmarket to look after the horses of his patron, the Maharaja of Baroda. Willie came with him and stayed for the next 73 years. Newmarket has honoured him by naming Willie Snaith Road after him and by unveiling a commemorative horseshoe in his name as a Legend of the Turf in the High Street. He was appointed MBE ‘for services to Horse Racing and community in Newmarket’ in 2004 and in 2008 received a Lifetime in Racing Award from the Newmarket-based charity Racing Welfare.

Willie took out his first Jockey Club licence as an apprentice in 1946. His first ride was on Mrs G. Barbour’s Ascania trained by Armstrong in an Apprentice Plate at Newmarket on 30th April 1946. It was a disappointing beginning because he dwelt and missed the break. His first win came later in the year when Douglas Balfour’s Chhota Sahib won the Dalham Handicap on 22nd August at Newmarket, again trained by Armstrong. By 1949 he was Champion Apprentice with 31 wins. He continued as the stable jockey for Armstrong when he took out a full jockey’s licence in 1950.

Sam Armstrong built a reputation as a primary source of competent young riders. Willie considered him to be ‘a tough man, but he made me a jockey and he made a man of me’. Willie Carson and Josh Gifford were other graduates to emerge from Armstrong’s academy.

For a man who measured 4ft 11in (150cms) Willie was exceptionally strong. He was always cheerful and through the 1950s he was affectionately known as The Pocket Hercules by racegoers. He modelled his riding style on another small man, Sir Gordon Richards. He was so short that he had to stand on a box when he dressed his horses.

Of the many horses that he rode, Willie singled out Bebe Grande as the most memorable. Trained by Armstrong, she won eight of her nine races, seven of them for Willie, including the National Stakes, the Gimcrack Stakes and the Champagne Stakes in 1952. She finished the season as the leading money-earning two-year-old of all time at that time. Willie rode her to finish second in the 2000 Guineas and two days later third in the 1000 Guineas.

Willie treasured the times that he rode for the Queen and Queen Mother. He won the Sussex Stakes on Landau in 1954 having partnered him in the Derby. He then rode the horse again when he ran in the Washington D. C. International that was run at Laurel Park, Maryland. The American trip was a disappointment. Landau injured a heel in the run up to the race and finished last in the race. For the Queen Mother he won at Sandown on Bali Ha’i in 1959.

Willie was a great traveller. In addition to his American trip he rode in India during the winter period from December to March for seven years from 1950 winning many races. And he also won two Derbys in Scandinavia.

He had many wins for the Armstrong stable: the Northumberland Plate on Fol Ami (1949), the Stewards’ Cup on Sugar Bowl (1951) and Palpitate (1953), the Royal Lodge Stakes on Solarium (1954), the Royal Hunt Cup on Nicholas Nickleby (1955), the Nunthorpe on Royal Palm (1955), the Portland Handicap on Epaulette (1956) and the Great Metropolitan on Kaffirboom (1960).

As a lightweight he was in great demand, but he was more than just a lightweight. He won the Chester Vase on Alcide in 1958 and the Great Metropolitan on Little Buskins in 1961 for Sir Cecil Boyd-Rochfort. And when he was retained by Major L. B. Holliday he won the Dewhurst (1955) and Gordon Stakes (1956) on Dacian, the Molecomb Stakes on Pharsalia (1956), the Nunthorpe Stakes on Gratitude (1957). He also won the July Cup on Vilmoray (1954) and the Queen Anne Stakes on Blast (1960).

His last win was on Skyroyben for Scobie Breasley in 1971. In total Willie rode 747 winners in Great Britain and many more overseas between 1946 and 1971. After his retirement from race riding he became a work rider for Sir Noel Murless until Sir Noel’s retirement and then for Sir Noel’s son-in-law Henry Cecil for the next sixteen years. Willie cemented his relationship with Newmarket becoming a tour guide for Hoofbeats. His tours were enlightened by his tales from the jockeys’ room.

Willie was philosophical about his life in racing. In a 1974 interview, he said ‘I ride three lots each morning for Noel Murless, and have been doing so for nearly six years. I’m 47, fit, healthy and strong, and although I could be labelled a forgotten man, that’s life. I had my spells of being heavily in demand and uppermost in the minds of people with good horses, often taking over 300 rides a season. You won’t find me crying now things aren’t so hot. Noel Murless is the only trainer I work for, but I act as an agent for my brother-in-law’s wine merchants business in Newmarket. Injuries have been part and parcel of my career. In 1961 I took a crashing fall from Dean Arabin at Lingfield, which resulted in me fracturing six ribs. One of the broken ribs penetrated a lung causing severe internal bleeding. I also suffered severe bruising to my liver, kidneys and heart valves. I won’t forget that one’. He went on to say he had enjoyed a fine run while many riders, who saw great promise on the home gallops, were never given the opportunity of riding in public.

As Willie retired his son John was at Brian Swift’s stable at Epsom. “I sent John away from Newmarket as I felt it better for him to be away from the comforts of home. I came down from Tyneside to Newmarket to serve my apprenticeship with Sam Armstrong, and it did me no harm’.

The article concluded that Willie would be ‘able to look back on a host of memories from racecourses all over the world. It seems a little disheartening that somebody of his experience can be seemingly forgotten at the drop of a hat. But as the man himself put it. That’s Life’.

Blog by Tim Cox, Former Trustee of The National Horse Racing Museum.

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