Impulse, who won the New Zealand Cup at Riccarton in 1894. The jockey was George Smith and many have assumed he was the famous sportsman with the same name. (Observer, 17 November 1894)
After too long a delay I’ve got back to the sporting life and times of George W Smith, New Zealand’s sportsman extraordinaire in the years before World War I (see earlier blogs for some background).
This piece is about George’s first brush with sporting success – as a young jockey. It is a story mixed with some myth and confusion. In most New Zealand biographical summaries, including the DNZB and New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame, Smith’s jockey career ends very illustriously with a winning ride on Impulse in the 1894 New Zealand Cup at Riccarton. Others, however, have wondered how that was possible, given the jockey (definitely a George Smith) weighed no more than 7 stone 9lbs, while our George Smith was playing rugby for New Zealand less than three years later, almost four stone heavier.
I have spent many hours searching the racing pages of early newspapers tracking down our man’s racing career. Key findings, though, were already being made by others. Firstly, Matt Elliott’s recent biography of Smith’s All Black captain, Dave Gallaher, includes an aside about Smith saying that although he did indeed have a win on Impulse at the very start of that horse’s career the winning jockey in 1894 was a different George Smith. Matt very helpfully provided me with the supporting newspaper references.
More comprehensive proof turned up in a 2014 article “George Smith or George Smith” by Adrian Hill in Points Unlimited, the newsletter of the Association of Rugby Historians and Statisticians. In a short but thorough piece of research Hill traces all Impulse’s races and jockeys, and the riding careers of two George Smiths, leaving no doubt that the other George Smith was the New Zealand Cup jockey. You can read Adrian’s article here.
It is easy to see how the mistake was made, mixing up the two Smiths, who both had victories on Impulse. Over time the myth of the New Zealand Cup victory became an accepted part of the George Smith sporting legend in New Zealand, and he was no longer around to untangle the confusion. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, in Oldham, his new hometown, the racing stories were more accurate. As a figure from the of pre-war glory days of the Oldham team he was sometimes interviewed about his illustrious sporting life for the local press. There was never any claim that his racing exploits were more than several wins as a promising apprentice jockey in Auckland.
However, my own research does reveal that Smith’s jockey career, while more modest than the myth, remains a colourful story. He left home to work as a stable boy out at Ellerslie soon after his thirteenth birthday. The Ellerslie district was then horse-racing centre of the region. Stables, paddocks and training tracks then stretched for miles around the Ellerslie race course. Like the many others employed there Smith lived at the stables and worked long hours.
Jockeys, horses and crowd just before the running of the 1898 Auckland Cup at Ellerslie. As a young apprentice jockey Smith would have dreamed of a career riding in events like this (Auckland Weekly News Supplement, 6 January 1899, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-1890106-1-3)
He was small, wiry and good with horses and in 1890 local trainer George Hope took him on as an apprentice jockey. Hope was an up-and coming trainer recently arrived from Wanganui. He had been a successful steeplechase and hurdles rider and was also a keen rugby player, still playing as a pacy halfback for local teams. It was Hope who first fostered Smith’s rugby talent through the Ellerslie stableboys’ rugby team he organised and coached. Smith played halfback and was soon a star of the team. Hope was very much a mentor and role model for the young Smith.
In the summer of 1890-1891 he had his first rides as an apprentice jockey, testing out horses trained by Hope in various secondary races around Auckland. Several of his early rides were on a Hope-trained horse, Patchwork, which never managed to perform as well on race day as it promised to do on the training track.
His victories on Impulse were the highlights of his short career. Impulse was a new colt just broken in by Hope. Smith had been riding him on the training track, and was given Impulse’s first ride, across the harbour at a Takapuna Racing Club meeting in January 1890. He won by a neck.
In March he rode Impulse to a second win, this time at Ellerslie. Impulse had already impressed the punters with a win on the first day of that meeting. Smith’s ride was in a lesser race on the second day and Impulse was not given much chance of backing up but Smith was soon well in front and rode Impulse to an easy eight-length win. It was Impulse’s third victory in his first three starts, the beginning of a string of successes that culminated with the New Zealand Cup win in 1894. Smith’s career, though, very soon went in the opposite direction
It all went wrong at a small race meeting out at Otahuhu in April. The day seemed promising at first. Smith was there to race a horse for a well-known Auckland horse owner, Major George, and he won that race by a neck in an exciting finish. Trouble erupted, however, over an earlier race. It was a selling race (where horses of mediocre record were raced then offered for sale by auction afterwards) and Smith was hired at late notice to ride a horse called Ironbridge. According to a later report in the New Zealand Referee Ironbridge’s owner had a dubious reputation of “systematically tampering with certain jockies [sic]". He did not want Ironbridge to win and ensured that with a non-racing saddle and two stone extra weight. Smith duly ran the horse in at the back of the field.
Ironbridge, however, had been heavily backed and the poor performance produced loud hooting and complaint amongst the spectators. Such anger might normally have faded away. But concern about such suspicious activity had been building around the race tracks of Auckland and this time there was an enquiry. That evening a special meeting of the club stewards was held at an Epsom hotel. Smith did not attend. Perhaps he should have. The stewards decided both owner and jockey be suspended from racing for a year and the Auckland Racing Club accepted their decision.
Some thought Smith’s suspension too steep. Major George wrote to the club asking them to reconsider and another supporter’s letter was featured on the racing pages of the New Zealand Herald claiming Smth was of good character and his treatment was too harsh. The Observer racing reporter also thought him ”more sinned against than sinning”. But the decision stood. Smith himself petitioned for the ban to be lifted later in the year, but his request was refused.
It was a sudden end to what had been a promising start as a flat-course jockey. By the time the ban ended his mentor and employer, George Hope, had left Auckland to take up a position in Hawke’s Bay. Perhaps others were reluctant to take him on. But the main reason was his weight. By then he was too heavy for the flat-course events.
This the earliest photograph so far found of Smith (on right), taken in 1894 or 1895. He was still well short of his 1897 New Zealand rugby team weight and physique, but much bigger than he had been as a promsing jockey in 1891. (Smith with unidentified companion, ca 1894-1895, Family papers)
His jockey ambitions were not quite finished though. He did no racing in 1892 and 1893 but no doubt kept up his riding skills on the training track. Then, in the spring of 1894, he registered as a jockey again. This time he took on steeplechase and hurdle racing, which require jockeys with more strength and weight. The weights carried on the rides traced suggest he now weighed around ten stone - still well short of his eventual rugby playing weight but much heavier than in 1891. Over the 1894-1895 early summer season he has several rides at Ellerslie, Avondale and Otahuhu in jumps events , gaining a couple of placings, but no wins, and suffering several falls. The falls left him shaken and, after a disappointing race, and another fall, on boxing day at Ellerslie, he had had enough.
His dream of riding winners at Ellerslie was finally over. But there was a new sporting challenge now. His exploits for the Ellerslie rugby team had been noticed by scouts for City, one of the seven teams that made up the Auckland district competition. As the 1895 winter approached Smith was looking forward to his first taste of top-level club football.
The memory of George Smith's sporting life lived long in Oldham, his home town from 1908 until his death in 1954. The Oldham Chronicle somtimes included pieces about him, often drawn from interviews with him. There was never any claim there that his early racing career included more than several wins as an apprentice jockey around the racetracks of Auckland. (Cartoon, 3 April 1958, Oldham Evening Chronicle)