Joseph Mercer, popularly known as “Smokin’ Joe” because of his trademark pipe, rode 2,810 winners in Britain in a career spanning nearly 40 years, but is probably best known for his association with two horses, Brigadier Gerard and Bustino.
Brigadier Gerard, who was ridden exclusively by Mercer throughout his career, was beaten just once in 18 races between 1970 and 1972. His successes included the Prince of Wales’s Stakes at Royal Ascot in 1972, just two days after the light aircraft in which Mercer was travelling crashed during take-off at Newbury, killing the pilot. Bustino won the 1974 St. Leger Stakes at Doncaster, but his most notable performance came a year later, in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot, when he went down by half a length to Grundy, ridden by Pat Eddery, in what became known as the “Race of the Century”.
Born in Bradford, Yorkshire in 1934, Joe Mercer began his riding career as apprentice to Major Frederick Sneyd at Sparsholt, Wantage and rode his first winner, Eldoret, at Bath in 1950. He won the Apprentice Jockeys Championship for the first time in 1952 and again in 1953, by which time he had already ridden his first Classic winner, Ambiguity, in the Oaks at Epsom. That success brought Mercer to the attention of Jack Colling, who had just moved from Newmarket to West Isley, Berkshire. Colling immediately offered Mercer a retainer, which was to last until Colling retired in 1962.
However, the intervening years were not without incident. In 1958, Joe Mercer broke his neck while riding in Singapore and, having married Anne Carr, daughter of jockey Harry Carr, the following year, suffered the trauma of being present at Ascot on Queen Elizabeth II Stakes Day when his older brother, Manny, was killed in a riding accident.
According to eye witness Geoff Lewis, Manny Mercer’s mount reared over backwards, landing on top of him, and kicked him twice in the face as it tried to get back on its feet. It wasn’t until after the race, in which he was riding, that Joe Mercer became aware of what had happened, by which time his brother was already dead and laid out on a stretcher.
Upon his retirement in 1962, Jack Colling sold the West Isley Stables to a long standing patron, Sir John Astor. Sir John invited Major W.R. ‘Dick’ Hern to become Colling’s successor and so began another fruitful association for Joe Mercer. Michael Sobell and Arnold Weinstock bought the stables in 1969 and, at the end of 1976, Weinstock sacked Mercer in favour of Willie Carson.
Joe Mercer was subsequently offered a job with Ian Balding but, while mulling it over, was offered the chance to become first jockey for Henry Cecil at Warren Place, Newmarket. Mercer jumped at the chance and the partnership flourished. Mercer won his first Classic for Henry Cecil on One In A Million in the 1,000 Guineas in 1979 and Cecil was instrumental in him becoming Champion Jockey for the one and only time that year, at the age of 45, with 167 winners. According to Mercer, towards the end of the season Cecil ran several juveniles that usually wouldn’t have run until the following season, just to make sure he won the jockeys’ title.
In 1982, Joe Mercer parted company with Henry Cecil and joined Lambourn trainer Peter Walwyn, for whom he was to remain stable jockey until he finally hung up his boots in 1985. His final mount, Bold Rex, won the November Handicap at Doncaster on November 9, 1985. During his career, Mercer won the 1,000 Guineas, 2,000 Guineas (twice), the Oaks and the St. Leger (four times) and his rhythmic style was copied by many aspiring young jockeys.