The Dark Clouds Of Racing

The Dark Clouds Of Racing
Most turf writers, including myself, tend to lean away from the ugly stories in our sport and gravitate toward the "feel-good and happy" narrative. But we all know it's not all sunshine and roses out there and the truth is that jockeys face death around every turn.

Today's column isn't intended to be a grim read for a morbid crowd but it is meant to be a tribute to a few little fellows who lost their lives doing what they loved.

I doubt many have heard of these men and their families and I thought they deserved mention and their stories be told. 

A Nightmare Comes True 

In the early 20th century, Billy Fahey was a popular rider around the New Zealand circuits and was known as "The Irishman." He had a mount on a horse named Arahula in an upcoming steeplechase event at Wanganui Racecourse but he didn't have a lot of confidence in his chances. He'd been schooling the horse for several weeks but was yet to ride him in a race and Arahula was every bit of a handful.

The night before the Wanganui Steeplechase, a fellow rider was outside the stalls and upon noticing Fahey, asked him for a light for his cigarette. He took out a book of matches and told his fellow jockey he could keep them.

"I won't be needing these after tomorrow," Fahey supposedly said. "I had a dream last night Arahula fell and killed me. I dreamed he kicked me on the way down."

On race day, Fahey seemed normal to most, although a reporter would later write that the rider seemed "tense and nervous."

Most of the race was uneventful but like a script from a bad horror movie, the rider's worst nightmare came true. Two jumps from home, Arahula clipped the top of the fence and did a complete somersault before landing directly on Fahey.

Although the ambulance crew rushed him to nearby Wanganui Hospital the jockey was pronounced dead on arrival.

Billy Fahey predicted his death at the age of 38. One could never calculate the infinite odds of him being correct, as we've all had weird dreams and visions at times. And, even though Fahey never collected on that long shot of a wager, he still went out a winner in my book.

The O'Shea Family

John and Norah O'Shea had seven children, two of whom were jockeys, and one of their sons, Jack, was a top rider in New Zealand. Jack's main claim to fame was riding a great mare named Desert Gold, who was very popular among the masses during the WWI years. Desert Gold was so famous, that the horse's picture adorned packages of cigarettes and tobacco tins, and parents let their kids cut out of school to watch the girl race. To this day, the "Desert Gold" name is still used in modern vaping, and nicotine products and tins with the horse's picture are widely available on the internet.

In 1925, Jack O'Shea was enjoying his success as a top jockey. He won the Auckland, Wellington, and Takapuna Cups in New Zealand and then traveled to Australia, and took the Tattersalls and Brisbane Cups on a horse named Te Kara.

But the O'Shea family had a dark cloud hovering from the past and that darkness would continue.

In 1916, Jack's younger brother died suddenly in his teenage years. A few years later, another died after a long illness and in 1924, a sister died in the family home of an undisclosed illness. That year would continue to be a bad one for the O'Sheas.

Jack's younger brother Michael followed in his brother's footsteps and took to riding horses quite well. Jack got the kid a job with the Charlie Coleman Stables but not long into Michael's career, the O'Shea curse would surface. He fell during a race at Ellerslie Racecourse in New Zealand, hit his head, and died almost immediately at the scene.

The next year, Jack was riding at Dannevirke Racecourse on a very soggy day. He took a bad soaking but still managed to win a couple of races, including the feature on the card. But when he arrived home that night, the chill he had felt all day turned into pneumonia, and was rushed to the hospital. After a brief comeback rally, Jack passed away at the young age of 31, becoming the fifth O'Shea child to pass in a short time.

In a weird addition to this already bizarre story, the trainer that the two brothers rode for may have sported a black cloud of his own. In addition to Michael's passing, trainer Charlie Coleman had another one of his riders, Abbey Whittaker, die within a year of Jack's death. And to complete the oddity, Charlie himself disappeared from a ferry trip (and was presumed dead) while bringing a horse back from Australia. It's feared that the trainer lost his way back to his cabin after spending time with his horse and fell overboard.

Jack O'Shea's career was a good one and from my research, he seemed like a decent man. He won nearly every major race in New Zealand, some of them several times.

He was content to just put his head down and ride and wasn't looking for a bigger arena or a higher position in the industry. 

But what's even more impressive than Jack's riding career was his dedication to his family. His parents were both Irish immigrants and he bought them a nice house in Auckland. He spent the majority of his fortune supporting his family and many years later the remaining family members were still living in the house Jack purchased for them.

After Jack's passing, the O'Shea cloud moved on a bit. 

The youngest brother, Maurice, survived several battles in WWII, including time spent as a POW, and died in Auckland in 1966. 

Another brother lived a long life and spent his days as a successful optometrist in Auckland, and the parents, Jack and Norah, lived a long and full life as well.

One can only imagine the pain this poor family endured losing five children all under the age of 32 in 8 years.

Emmanuel Lionel Mercer

"Manny" Mercer was an English jockey who was a top rider throughout most of the 1950s. Horse racing was a real family affair as his brother, Joe, was also a jockey and Manny married the daughter of trainer Harry Wragg. Manny's daughter, Carolyn, married champion rider Pat Eddery, and she became a great rider in her own right.

Manny had a great reputation for being a competent and reliable rider but off track, he was known as a wildman. He liked to drink and party, smoke like a chimney, and be seen with beautiful women and fast cars.

On September 26, 1959, Manny had a mount aboard Priddy Fair in the Red Deer Stakes at Ascot.  

Manny and his horse were parading past the stands in the post-parade when Priddy Fair spun around and her back legs slipped out from under her. Manny was dislodged from the saddle and hit the rail before the panicked horse launched a few hooves in the air. Two of those kicks hit Manny in the face/head area and he died instantly.

Meanwhile, Manny's brother Joe, who was also riding in the contest, looked for Manny during the race but never saw him. He had no idea his brother had died before the race even started.

"My horse had already cantered ahead (in the post-parade) but when I got to the start I realized Manny wasn't there and I thought his filly must have been withdrawn," Joe said. "It was only when we finished the race that I saw him."

Priddy Fair, who unknowingly contributed to the death of her pilot was retired on the spot by her owner, Sir Foster Robinson, and the trainer, John Oxley. The pair agreed that they "didn't want to parade the cause of tragedy in public again."

Priddy Fair went on to the breeding shed and turned out to be quite a decent dam and grand dam to some good horses.

Many years later, Joe thought of what might have been if his brother hadn't died.

"We were rivals on the racetrack but great friends," he said in a newspaper interview in 2009. "He would have been a champion jockey for many years if he hadn't been killed."

Manny Mercer was buried at Newmarket and his daughter Carolyn visits the grave of a father she never knew. She can't help but go over and over the last entry in his journal the night before his death.

"Who knows what the life ahead holds for me."

By Peter Monaco 

Photo: Pixabay (free) 

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