Come on Jack! Looking back on Steve Donoghue a century on - part two
One of many brilliant volunteers Peter Bloor has been delving into the sporting archives to look back at the brilliant successes of jockey Steve Donoghue in the 1920s. In the second part of his series and ahead of the 2023 Royal Ascot festival, Peter reflects on the partnership between Steve and his Ascot winning horse, Brown Jack.
In an interview given to The Observer Steve Donoghue claimed that he could have ridden eleven Derby winners, but having identified the best horse in the field had then demanded a riding fee that their owners were unwilling to pay. It may be that his eye for a horse also brought about the 1928 Champion Hurdler Brown Jack’s switch to the Flat – and The Times Racing Correspondent would later relate that it was Donoghue who had suggested to the trainer and owner that the horse would be an even better performer over the longest Flat distances – although the attraction may have simply been the bigger prize money that was to be won.
Whatever the reason for it the switch was an immediate success, with Brown Jack winning the 1928 Ascot Stakes, one of the races he would enter in subsequent years – the Gold Vase was the other – as preparation for his speciality race, The Queen Alexandra Stakes later in the week. He didn’t win any of these preparatory races, coming a close second to a familiar rival Old Orkney in 1929, finding that the pace was too slow to have tested the stamina of his rivals in 1931 and having too much weight to carry in 1932 and 1934, but there was no sense that this threatened his chances in the Alexandra Stakes, at 2 miles 6 furlongs the longest Flat race run under Jockey Club Rules.
In 1929 he won easily by four lengths, in 1930 beat Old Orkney and in 1931, when Donoghue decided that the time had come to make their move, easily overcame Delate’s long lead to win with ease, aided by Mail Fist and Pat Donoghue (Steve’s son), whose job it had been to make the running and the pace a good one. Mail Fist again did his job in 1932, when Brown Jack went into the lead before entering the straight and cantering home with none of his rivals able to get near him, and again in 1933, when the challenge of Corn Belt needed Donoghue to show him the whip – or perhaps it didn’t, for as Corn Belt drew up Jack ‘at once pricked his ears again, did his own curious little shuffle and went away’ to win for the fifth year in succession.
Brown Jack had been referred to as “the gallant old horse” as early as 1931, but three years later he was back at Ascot attempting to win over the longest Flat distance for the sixth consecutive year, albeit with the nagging doubt that he was being sent out to give age and weight away to younger rivals once too often. The gamblers and bookmakers in The Ring thought this was so but his adoring public did not and he started favourite, although early in the race it looked as if they were wrong when Loosestrife momentarily threatened to run away before Brown Jack moved to the front with Solatium, the horse that was clear with him as they entered the home straight.
One of the two would win, with the suspense proving too much for The Times Correspondent who admitted that although Solatium was owned by a great friend he had still hoped that his horse would drop back; satisfyingly Brown Jack would need no such help, as it was by his own efforts that he very slowly drew clear to win by two lengths.
“I have never seen such a sight anywhere, and especially never at Ascot, as Brown Jack went past the winning post” reported the relieved man from The Times, as “Eminently respectable old ladies in the Royal Enclosure…” – in which there had been cheering and hat-waving – “…gathered up their skirts and began with such dignity as they could command in their excitement to make the best of their way towards the place where Brown Jack and Donoghue would return…” Others were also pouring into the unsaddling enclosure from all parts of the course but when he reached the gate Brown Jack, watching them arrive, refused to go any further until he was sure that everyone who wanted to see him was present, only going in to meet his trainer, the shy, undemonstrative and trying to appear unconcerned Ivor Anthony, and his owner, Sir Harold Wernher, once he was satisfied. After Donoghue had weighed in and the “All Right” called Brown Jack walked quietly away and into retirement, Sir Harold having decided never to race him again, a decision applauded by The Observer correspondent who feared that a return to Ascot might see the result nobody wanted.
The Observer also spoke of his being “an imperishable name in racing annals” and indeed Brown Jack would not be forgotten during his long and happy time away from the racecourses at which he had shown himself to be, in the words of the Manchester Guardian correspondent, “The most remarkable horse that the present or perhaps any other generation has ever seen.”
Part Three of Peter's series on Steve Donoghue will focus on both Brown Jack and Steve Donoghue in retirement and will be published on the week commencing 12th June 2023.
The quotes and other information in this article are taken from The Times, the Manchester Guardian and The Observer 1928-1934
Image of Sir Harold Augustus Wernher, 3rd Baronet, by Godfrey Argent, 28 November 1968, , © National Portrait Gallery, London reference NPGx166136 and published under Creative Commons
Cigarette cards: Steve Donoghue, Steve Donoghue and Brown Jack, Ivor Anthony – all Gallaher, 1936