Pat Eddery, who has died aged 63, was Ireland's most successful ever jockey. Only the legendary Sir Gordon Richards surpassed the 4,632 winners Eddery rode in Britain. But while Richards was a nationally renowned figure, Eddery flew under the radar, even in his homeland. Within world racing, however, there is no disputing his position as one of the all-time great riders.
The more publicly visible Italian jockey Frankie Dettori is credited with dubbing his former colleague as "God". Such hyperbole was anathema to the self-effacing Eddery, but it reflected the esteem in which he was widely held from the top of the racing industry to the humblest of betting shop punters. Eddery rarely played to the crowd but the crowd recognised a virtuoso in the universal language of getting a horse past the winning post first.
Happy to avoid public attention, the Newbridge man was nevertheless acknowledged to be a dominant figure in European racing during the final quarter of the last century.
There were 14 classics, including the Epsom Derby on three occasions, on Eddery’s British tally but he also jointly holds the record of four victories in France’s premier race, the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. He won 11 classics in Ireland and is the only person to have been champion jockey in Britain – on 11 occasions – and in Ireland, when he won the title in 1982 during a spell riding for trainer Vincent O’Brien.
There were other top-flight victories in Germany, Italy, Canada, the USA and in Japan, all of which cemented his reputation and contributed to him being awarded an honorary OBE in 2005, two years after his retirement. That retirement was often unhappy as Eddery could not replicate his riding success as a trainer. He also fought a battle with alcohol, which eventually claimed his life.
His father, Jimmy, also a rider, was twice champion jockey in Ireland (1954 and 1955). Patrick James John, one of 13 children, grew up in a racing environment, riding thoroughbreds from the age of eight. At 15 he was apprenticed to trainer Seamus McGrath and his first ride was on True Time at the Curragh in August 1967. The horse finished last.
Later that year he left for Britain to ride for trainer “Frenchie” Nicholson. Eddery endured 70 losses before securing a first win, on Alvaro at Epsom in April 1969. Nicholson was known for moulding riding talent and the young Irishman became his most notable pupil.
Champion apprentice in 1971, just three years later he became Britain’s youngest champion jockey since the war. As stable jockey to trainer Peter Walwyn, Eddery was champion four years in a row.
In 1975 he rode the first notable horse of his career, the flashy chestnut Grundy, who won both the Epsom and Curragh Derbies and beat Bustino in a King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes clash still acclaimed as “The Race of the Century”.
Lester Piggott was a looming figure for much of Eddery's career but in 1980 the younger man replaced racing's most famous jockey as Vincent O'Brien's No 1 rider. They achieved huge success together, including Golden Fleece's 1982 Derby victory, although El Gran Senor was controversially beaten at Epsom in 1984 by Secreto, trained by David O'Brien.
Eddery subsequently rode for Prince Khalid Abdullah, memorably winning the 1986 Arc on Dancing Brave and the 1990 Epsom Derby on Quest For Fame. He was British champion jockey for the final time in 1996, equalling Piggott’s tally of 11, and the following year landed his final classic on Silver Patriarch in the St Leger, his 4,000th winner in Britain.
After retiring, he trained one Group 1 winner, Hearts Of Fire in Italy’s Gran Criterium. But alcoholism took an increasing toll and he was estranged from some members of his family.
Among the many tributes paid following his death, perhaps his old rival Lester Piggott caught the mood best when he said: “Pat Eddery was as fierce an opponent on the racecourse as he was a loyal and dear friend off it.” Eddery married Carolyn Mercer, daughter of the jockey Manny Mercer, in 1978. They were divorced in 2009. He is survived by two daughters, Natasha and Nicola, and a son, Harry.