Who Are the Best Amateur Jockeys of All Time?

Jockeys and horses

Amongst the ranks of jockeys, it is understandably the professional riders who most frequently hog the headlines. For it is those men and women who dedicate their careers to a life in the saddle that make up the bulk of the jockey population and grab the vast majority of the prizes, certainly the sport’s biggest ones. Of course, with such success comes widespread acclaim. The names of Sir Gordon Richards and Lester Piggott from years gone by, and Frankie Dettori, A.P. McCoy, and Ruby Walsh from more recent times, largely transcend the sport, and are recognisable to those with only the most fleeting of interests in the racing world, who may well see their names in the front, as well as the back, of the newspapers.

However, it is not ALL about the professionals. Throughout the history of the sport and on into the modern era, horse racing has always featured a healthy smattering of those jockeys who risk their health not for money, but simply for the thrill of taking part. Such riders will always be identifiable on the race card as – unlike professional riders – their name will always include a prefix – Mr, Mrs, Miss, Captain etc.

In racing, an amateur status does note preclude a rider from competing on the biggest stages of all. For whilst professional jockeys may not ride in an amateur race, there are no rules stating that an amateur jockey may not take part in a standard contest against the professionals. Over the years, many amateur riders have done so to great effect, displaying a level of skill and horsemanship that belies their amateur status to make their presence felt on the biggest stages of all. Here we take a look at some of the very best practitioners of this Corinthian spirit.

Mr Sam Waley-Cohen

We begin with the man who has thrust the subject of amateur riders into the spotlight in 2022 – Mr Sam Waley-Cohen. Son of racehorse owner/breeder Robert Waley-Cohen, grandson of the former Lord Mayor of London Sir Bernard Waley-Cohen and related through his wife to the founder of Shell Oil Company, Sam very much belongs to the upper class.

Far from resting on his laurels though, he amassed his own fortune, firstly as a commodities trader, and then through the foundation of a £300m dental practice. That’s a lot of teeth we would imagine, or certainly some very expensively looked after ones! And for a man who enjoys parachuting, bungee-jumping and white-water rafting, it shouldn’t come as the biggest surprise that the Londoner also likes to try his hand at riding in the biggest National Hunt races.

Successful at most things he turns his hand to, racing proved to be no different. Winning back-to-back editions of the Foxhunter Chase over the Grand National fences in 2005 and 2006, the rider once again proved his prowess over the famous obstacles when fifth aboard Liberthine in the 2007 Grand National. It was, however, in 2011 that Waley-Cohen really burst into the limelight. Winning the delayed King George Chase on Long Run in January, he then went on to claim jumps racing’s Holy Grail of the Cheltenham Gold Cup in March of that year – the incredible Long Run once again his willing partner.

Then, of course, came the fairy-tale ending. In the lead up to the 2022 Grand National, the soon to be 40-year-old announced that his looming 10th ride in the world’s most famous jumps race would in fact be his last appearance in the saddle. No doubt hoping to go out on a high, even the ever-optimistic rider must have been a little surprised with just how well things went.

Setting off aboard Noble Yeats – who had only been purchased by his father in February 2022 – few gave Waley-Cohen much of a chance. However, the only amateur rider in a field of 40 and his 50/1 shot partner made a mockery of that assessment – storming up the straight to see off favourite Any Second Now to complete a famous success. Greeted by his jubilant family, and with the initials of his brother Tom – who sadly died of bone cancer at just 20 years of age – stitched into his saddle, a story fit for the Hollywood big screen treatment was complete.

Mr Patrick Mullins

As a son of one of the most successful National Hunt trainers in the history of the sport, it’s fair to say that for Patrick Mullins, racing is in the blood. Where his father Willie has gone, Patrick has followed, acting as assistant trainer, and also regularly climbing into the saddle. Never feeling the need to join the ranks of professional riders, Patrick has nevertheless compiled an unsurpassed record as an amateur.

Aided and abetted by his father’s seemingly endless conveyor belt of star performers, Patrick had his first ride in September 2005, but had to wait until the following summer to first enter the winner’s enclosure aboard a horse by the name of Diego Garcia – and from there he has never really looked back. Career highlights include Grade 1 successes aboard the likes of Douvan and Un De Sceaux, in addition to a trio of victories in the Champion Bumper at the Cheltenham Festival.

Widely acknowledged as being good enough to turn professional by his colleagues in the weighing room, Mullins 546th career victory aboard Queens Boulevard at Sligo in 2018 took him past Ted Walsh to become the most successful amateur jockey of all time. Fast forward to 2022 and Patrick is showing little sign of slowing down. Having now burst past the 700-winner barrier and won the Amateur Jockey’s title for a remarkable 14th time, the likeable Irishman is well on his way to setting a record which is sure to stand for a very long time indeed and may never be broken.

Mr Ted Walsh

Whilst the 2010s have been dominated by Patrick Mullins, the 1970s and early 80s belonged to fellow Irishman, Ted Walsh, who between 1972 and 1984 won the Champion Amateur Jockey title on an incredible 11 occasions – a record unsurpassed until the recent exploits of Mullins. Retiring from the saddle with 550 winners to his name, Walsh registered four successes at the Cheltenham Festival – most famously when giving Hilly Way an excellent ride to win the Queen Mother Champion Chase in 1979.

Having hung up the saddle, Ted then moved into a training career and wasn’t long in making a big success of that too. Making a splash with the Triumph Hurdle success of Commanche Court in 1997, Walsh then achieved an English and Irish Grand National double in 2000, with Papillon and Commanche Court once again. Walsh is, of course, a famous name in the racing world, and it is indeed Ted who is the father of 12-time Irish Champion Jockey Ruby Walsh, and top amateur, Katie Walsh, who, with three Cheltenham Festival successes of her own, only narrowly missed making this list.

Mr John Thomas McNamara

Born in Limerick in 1975, natural horseman JT McNamara proved to be a superstar on the Point-to-Point scene, riding his 600th winner in that discipline in 2006 to break the all-time record held by Enda Bolger.

McNamara would then team up with cross-country specialist Bolger for many of his most famous moments in the saddle, including Cheltenham Festival successes aboard Rith Dubh (when producing a ride described as a “masterclass”) Spot Thedifference in 2005, Drombeag in 2007 and Tea For Three in 2012. Described as “a professional jockey with an amateur licence”, “naturally gifted” and a “genius in the saddle”, the future looked bright for a rider who counted powerful owner J P McManus amongst his biggest supporters.

Sadly, not all stories have a happy ending, and it was at his beloved Cheltenham Festival in 2013 that McNamara would suffer a fall which would change his life for ever. Coming down at the first fence aboard Galaxy Rock JT, McNamara suffered injuries which would leave him paralysed from the neck down. In a testament to his fighting spirit however McNamara not only made it out of hospital but was in the process of embarking on a successful training career, only to succumb to complications related to his injury and passing away at the age of just 41 in 2016.

Miss Nina Carberry

Another top-class amateur jockey from a famous racing family is County Meath Native Nina Carberry. Daughter of Cheltenham Gold Cup and Aintree Grand National winning rider, Tommy Carberry, her brothers, Philip and Paul, both also enjoyed careers in the saddle. Expanding those racing connections still further, in 2012 Nina married Ted Walsh Junior, son of Grand National winning trainer Ted Walsh (see above), making her a sister-in-law to fellow riders Ruby and Katie Walsh. And not one to hang around in the shadows, Nina certainly did her bit to enhance the reputation of one of the great Irish racing families.

Becoming the first female rider, either amateur or professional, to win a British or Irish Grade 1 when driving Leading Run to victory in the 2006 Punchestown Champion Bumper, she bagged the second of two career successes at the highest level when landing that same race the following year. Other famous victories on home soil included a win aboard Organisedconfusion in the 2011 Irish Grand National.

Successfully translating her talents to this side of the Irish Sea, Nina registered four Cross Country Chase successes amongst a total of seven career Cheltenham Festival wins – a record which at the time made her the most successful female rider in the history of jumps racing’s biggest meeting. Retiring in 2018 with a total of 412 career victories, it appears that the knack for winning hasn’t deserted Nina who, in 2022, claimed the Golden Mirrorball Trophy in Ireland’s version of Dancing With The Stars!

Mr Jamie Codd

Racing family ties certainly run strong on the Emerald Isle, with our next entry also being the son of a successful trainer. Born in Mayglass, County Wexford, Jamie Codd was soon bitten by the racing bug at the yard of his father Billy Codd. Whilst brother Willie would ultimately follow his father into the training ranks, it was a career in the saddle which beckoned for Jamie. Having donned his jodhpurs it soon became clear that Jamie was a natural horseman.

Having his first ride in a point to point for his father in 1999, Jamie had to wait until 2001 for his first winner but, having broken his duck, the victories began to flow far more freely. So freely that when retiring from the Point-to-Point scene in 2021, his total of 972 winners between the sticks made him the second most successful rider in the history of the amateur arm of the sport. Only legendary Point-to-Point rider Derek O’Connor has more.

In common with the other riders on this list, Codd’s success wasn’t restricted to the relatively low key sphere of point to point racing; indeed, he was regularly called upon by top owners such as JP McManus to ride in the biggest events on the racing calendar. Second aboard Cause of Causes on his first crack at the Grand National in 2017, Codd has an impressive 10 Cheltenham Festival successes to his name including a record setting four victories in the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Challenge Cup. Successful three times in top tier Grade 1 events, 2016/17 saw Codd achieve the not inconsiderable feat of dethroning Patrick Mullins as the Champion Amateur Jockey in Ireland.

Mr Marcus Armytage

Before Sam Waley-Cohen there was Marcus Armytage, who prior to 2022 had been the most recent amateur rider to win the Aintree Grand National. Like many others on this list Marcus was certainly bred for the job; father Roddy Armitage being a Newbury-based racehorse trainer, and mother Sue enjoying a career as an international showjumper. Not too surprising then that both Marcus and his younger sister Gee proved to be more than competent National Hunt jockeys.

Gee enjoyed plenty of success of her own, but it was Eton-educated Marcus who truly grabbed the headlines. Following in his sisters’ footsteps to ride a double at the 1987 Cheltenham Festival – coming home in front in the Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Challenge Cup and National Hunt Chase – the younger Armytage sibling then achieved his finest hour in 1990.

Not only did Marcus win the Grand National of that year aboard Mr Frisk, but he did so in a course record time, smashing the previous mark set by the legendary Red Rum. Despite the race having been shortened since, that time of 8m47.80s remains a record to this day. Retiring in 2000 having registered his 100th career win, Armytage is now a successful journalist and hasn’t lost that winning knack – being crowned Champion Tipster during the 2008/09 jumps season.

Captain Martin Becher

So far we have very much stuck with the modern-day masters of the amateur game but let us now go back. Way back. Born in 1797, Captain Martin William Becher served his country with distinction during the Napoleonic Wars. It is however as a result of his career in the saddle that his name will be forever remembered. Away from the military, the sport of Cross-Country racing was the Captain’s main passion in life and, having been released from national service, Martin began to pursue his hobby to great effect, winning just about every major jumps contest of the era, including the “Cheltenham Steeplechase” and the “Great St. Albans”.

Not content with mopping up the existing events on the calendar, Captain Becher aspired to create a race of his own, joining forces with Aintree Racecourse owner William Lynn to launch the “Great Liverpool Steeplechase” – the race which in 1839 would become none other than the Grand National. Winning the inaugural 1836 edition aboard The Duke, it was however defeat in the 1839 instalment which ensured the captain’s everlasting fame.

Setting off at the head of affairs, all was going well for the captain until the sixth fence, at which point his mount, Conrad, suddenly refused, hurling Becher over the obstacle and into the brook beyond. With the entire field still to jump the fence, Becher remained hidden beneath the water until deeming it safe to re-emerge – sodden but unhurt. Famously remarking upon how bad water tasted without the benefit of whisky, the fence was renamed “Becher’s Brook” in his honour and remains one of the most famous obstacles in the sport to this day.

Mr Jack Anthony

Last but by no means least, another of the early pacesetters in the amateur jockey ranks. John Randolph Anthony, or Jack to his friends, was another born into the game, being a member of the Anthony clan, which owned the Clifeithy Stud Farm in Llandyfaelog, Wales. Brothers Ivor and Owen both also tasted racing success, but to nothing like the extent of that achieved by Jack.

Riding his first winner in 1906, Jack’s fearlessness and skill in the saddle ultimately led him to Grand National success on no fewer than three separate occasions; coming home in front aboard Glenside in 1911, Ally Sloper in 1915 and Troytown in 1920 – a tally which places him joint second in the all-time Grand National list, amongst both professional and amateur riders.

Winning the overall Champion Jockey title as an amateur in 1914, he repeated the trick having turned professional in 1928 before moving on to a successful training career which included two wins in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Dying in 1954 at the age of 64, in 1991 Anthony was posthumously inducted to the Welsh Sports Hall of Fame in recognition of his many achievements.