A Derby hat-trick - Looking back on Steve Donoghue a century on - part one

2023 is the centenary of legendary jockey Steve Donoghue's famous hat-trick of Derby wins. Ahead of this year's Derby taking place, volunteer Peter Bloor looks back on this historic achievement in this series of articles on Steve, with part one focusing on Steve's three consecutive victories.

“Come on Steve” - Steve Donoghue’s Derby hat-trick- Part One

In 1937, the ten-time Champion jockey and six-time Derby winner Steve Donoghue retired. Reviewing his career, the Special Correspondent of The Observer declared that ‘If I were asked to name the most brilliant race he has ever ridden I would select his effort on Humorist in the Derby’, a judgement shared by the trainer Stanley Wootton who immediately afterwards called it “a miracle of race riding”, and by another trainer, the Hon. George Lambton, at Donoghue’s farewell dinner.

Donoghue’s Derby win on Humorist in 1921 was his first in the race at Epsom, his two previous successes coming in the 1915 and 1917 war-time Derbys that were run at Newmarket, and the first in a unique hat-trick of wins in the race. It was only through the integrity of Lord Derby that Donoghue was on Humorist at all though, Lord Derby having originally engaged him to ride his horse Glorioso, which he withdrew when the going became very hard, releasing Donoghue to ride Humorist, a ride he then refused to let him give up when the going softened and he re-entered Glorioso.

Perhaps unwittingly he had done Donoghue a great favour, for at six furlongs Highlander stumbled and destroyed any chance Glorioso may have had, leaving the field to round Tattenham Corner and enter the straight with Alan Breck (a horse, not a jockey), leading and Humorist third. However, a quarter of a mile from the finish it became clear that Alan Breck had failed to stay the distance. “He came away from the rails and Donoghue at once seized the opening. In a moment he was through…” reported The Times, although Humorist still had to outstay Craig an Eran, something he had failed to do in the Two Thousand Guineas but which he did on this occasion to win by a neck amidst great cheering.

Donoghue’s 1922 win in a record time on Captain Cuttle was altogether more decisive, The Times headline declaring it to be “In a Canter” and the Correspondent reporting that once Captain Cuttle had taken up the running as the field entered the straight ‘The race was quickly over. The further they went the more easily did he win.’ This he did with no reference to his prediction of the previous day that Pondoland would win and stated belief that while Captain Cuttle having Donoghue as his jockey was much in his favour “Donoghue is no better than O’Neill, Pondoland’s jockey, over this course.” Public opinion toward the popular Steve was rather more favourable it seems, with The Times Special Correspondent, out and about around the course, reporting that “As Donoghue drew Captain Cuttle clear of the rest…the horse and horsemanship were so beautiful that the din grew louder and louder” from the thousands watching from the stands and enclosures.

The Observer Correspondent may have decided that Donoghue’s win on Humorist was his best, but after his 1923 win on Papyrus his counterpart at The Times wrote that “He can never have ridden a more brilliant race.” In 1922 Donoghue and Captain Cuttle had made their move as the field entered the straight, but a year later he and Papyrus were in the lead before the field had rounded Tattenham Corner. Entering the straight Papyrus was joined by the Lord Derby-owned Pharos, the two being so far clear that only both failing to stay the distance would allow another to win, something that looked likely to befall one of them when Ted Gardner on Pharos used his whip and confirmed the pre-race suspicion that his mount’s stamina was in doubt. Seeing their chance “Papyrus, brilliantly ridden, closed…and responding with exceptional gameness to vigorous riding slowly but surely forged in front” to win ‘a greater duel than has been seen in the Derby for many years’ by a length, for which Donoghue was given a great reception upon his return to weigh in.

In 1927, two years after Donoghue’s last Derby win, on Manna, The Times Racing Correspondent recalled the familiar racecourse cry of “Come on Steve” that had cheered he and Papyrus home four years earlier and declared that “There can be no doubt that there has never been in recent years so great a rider over the Epsom course as Donoghue.” However, he also pointed out that his Derby wins had come at a time when he had the pick of the field, something the Correspondent understood was not the case now, with the owners of all of the fancied runners having a retained jockey they were indeed happy to retain. As was being hinted Steve Donoghue’s Derby dominance was over and he was not to win another, but he remains the only jockey to win three in succession and two years later he would begin a successful partnership with the enormously popular stayer Brown Jack.

Part two of Peter's series on Steve Donoghue will be released next week (commencing 5th June 2023) and will focus on Steve's success at Royal Ascot with Brown Jack.

Article Information

The quotes and other information in this article are taken from The Times, the Manchester Guardian and The Observer 1921-1937.

Cigarette cards: Steve Donoghue, Humorist, Captain Cuttle and Papyrus, all Godfrey Phillips 1923


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