In Retirement - Looking back on Steve Donoghue a century on - part three

In the final part of volunteer Peter Bloor’s latest series, ahead of Royal Ascot, Peter reflects on the ending of the partnership between jockey Steve Donoghue and Brown Jack.

In his report on the 1934 Queen Alexandra Stakes, the Racing Correspondent of The Times had admitted that as Brown Jack and Solatium had raced up the home straight and the latter had hung on for rather too long he was willing him to fall back and Brown Jack on to his – and Steve Donoghue’s - sixth win.

Two years earlier he had perhaps also stepped a little beyond the bounds of professional impartiality, (but credit to him for having his favourites and for not being afraid to show it), when he reported with some concern on Donoghue having been thrown and injured earlier in Ascot Week and the doubt that he would be able to ride Jack, adding ‘I shall be very sorry to see Brown Jack beaten and just as sorry if he wins if he is not ridden by his old friend and comrade.’

All was well though - Donoghue rode with a swollen hand and when the pair won again the race-going public showed that they too thought it wouldn’t have been the same without him by ‘cheering for a very gallant old horse and the riding of a very kind and nice rider who is no longer a young man.’

Brown Jack too was no longer young, and at the age of ten went into a long and happy retirement, enjoying his evening treat, a hunk of cheese - and causing a fuss if he were not given it. Such was his enduring popularity that a biography of him was written by his big fan at The Times R.C. Lyle, a film of what was termed his epic story was suggested and a limited edition facsimile of his very well-received and true to life portrait by Sir Alfred Munnings was produced. Mr. Lyle was no doubt also happy to report the correspondence he was receiving suggesting that a plaque to Brown Jack be put up on the side of the winners’ enclosure at Ascot; a plaque or a statuette was also approved by the King and in 1935 a bronze, again by Munnings, was exhibited before, Mr. Lyle reported, being erected in the Ascot Paddock that Jack had so often left to race - and returned to as a winner.

When Steve Donoghue died in 1945 his obituary in The Wellington Evening Post – such was his fame that a newspaper in New Zealand carried one – recalled his comment upon retiring that “no jockey ever born could look back on a career fuller of ‘life’ than mine.” ‘Life’ included financial troubles and a petition for bankruptcy against him – he was as hopeless with money as he was brilliant on a horse, riding his last Derby winner without a farthing in the bank but with a moneylender’s writ in his pocket, or so the Evening Post colourfully claimed.

Other encounters with the law included a conviction for assault on a woman “who had made a pest of herself wherever she knew Mr. Donoghue to be” that was quashed with costs awarded, a withdrawn summons for smuggling and a settlement with the New York Herald for an alleged libel after an article had suggested that he had not tried his best in a race between Zev and his 1923 Derby winner Papyrus.

He had certainly made the most of his celebrity and in 1925 a French owner had given him a private aircraft in which to fly to meetings, a means of transport that added to his ‘life’ when sea mist forced an early landing while flying to a meeting at Haydock. In the same year he also appeared in the film “Riding for a King”, followed by the “rather irritating” “A Knight of the Saddle” in 1926 and then, later in a side-career that lasted longer than might have been expected, “Wings of the Morning” with Mr. Henry Fonda in 1937 – and that is with the Henry Fonda.

Like his old friend Brown Jack, Steve Donoghue had not been forgotten by the time he died, when both the church and the route to the cemetery were crowded. Describing the qualities for which he was loved and which had brought people out to a stranger’s funeral in March 1945 – “the dash that brought him unerringly out of the severest maelstrom” and “the pluck that made him unrivalled at Tattenham Corner…” - his Times obituary also fittingly referred to the next Derby, “when the thoughts of the thousands on the hill and on the stands will go back to the rider of Humorist, Captain Cuttle, Papyrus and Manna, and as the field once more thunders desperately round Tattenham Corner they will remember Donoghue as their fathers and grandfathers remembered Archer. Donoghue is dead but his memory is imperishable.”

Read part one or two of Peter's pieces on Steve Donoghue here: Part One - Part Two

Article Information

The quotes and other information in this article are taken from The Times, the Manchester Guardian, The Observer and the Wellington [New Zealand] Evening Post 1925-1945

Cigarette cards: Steve Donoghue (Park Drive, 1934), Steve Donoghue and Brown Jack (Gallaher, 1936), Tattenham Corner (Gallaher, 1938)


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