William 'Billy' Speck - Horse Racing Hero Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

William 'Billy' Speck - Horse Racing Hero

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So just who was William 'Billy' Speck? Few people will have heard of the name, and it's doubtful that many people outside the horse racing game have any idea who he was. For that matter, it would be a major surprise if more than a handful of people in every thousand who support the sport of kings even know of him. And that's a crying shame, for Billy Speck was a living legend in the National Hunt scene of the last century, adored by the public in general, whose career was tragically cut short by one act of generosity.

Though Billy Speck was a much-loved jockey in his heyday, his achievements have become lost to the mists of time. He was a hard riding gentleman of the saddle in those wonderful days of jump racing in the 1920s and 30s. This man deserves to have a moment in the spotlight of our age, even if it only means that he will only be remembered for a short period, by those who read this piece.

Birth of a Legend

It was a grand race, mate. And don't forget, when we are old we can sit back in our chairs and tell them that we did ride at least one day in our lives!
- Billy Speck

Billy was a top-flight jockey who plied his trade in the early to mid-1930s, in the hunt scene. Little is known of his history, but it's fair to assume that he probably rode from about the mid-1920s onwards. One of his big claims to fame was that he was one of the main protagonists in an epic battle in a Cheltenham Gold Cup. It was a duel between man and beast that imprinted itself deeply into the psyche of the nation at that time. It was an event so large that it quickly moved beyond a mere feat and was transformed into legend. We've always had these clashes of greats: Sir Gordon Richards and Scobie Breasley, War Admiral and Sea Biscuit, Kauto Star and Denman. The clash of the 1930s was between Golden Miller ridden by Gerry Wilson, the 2-1 favourite, and Billy Speck on the 5-2 shot Thomond 11. Cheltenham was packed to the rafters.

Clash of the Titans

History tells us that Golden Miller, a horse once described as 'God on four legs', would go on to win the Gold Cup, his fourth, on his way to a record five; a feat that will probably never be matched. That duel between these two pairs of supreme athletes sowed the seeds of later immortality three fences from the finishing line. Golden Miller at this point was under immense pressure from Thomond 11, a smallish horse with a huge heart. Things weren't looking good for the champion. Wilson was onto him, driving the horse along. As champions do, he lifted and out jumped Thomond 11. But Billy wasn't about to call it a day. They sailed over the second last locked together, but again the Miller was too pacy for him on the flat. In desperation, Billy was forced to reach for the stick. He drove his mount at the last flight with all his might, and managed to again join the champ on landing. But it was a lost cause. For no matter how hard Billy and the big-hearted horse tried, they couldn't match the Miller in the run to the post, going down by three parts of a length.


But this is not an Entry about great clashes between heroes of another time and place. This Entry is dedicated to a true gentleman of the turf: William Speck was one such man. On 10 April, 1935, Billy arrived at the Cheltenham course, unaware of what was about to befall him. Somewhere during the course of the day, or maybe even in the preceding days, Billy had fallen into conversation with his good friend and fellow jockey Tim Hamey, whose lot in life was hardly anything to write home about. Tim was struggling to make ends meet, and things seemed glum as far as his prospects looked that day. So as any good friend would do, Billy stepped in and offered to do him a favour.

Cruel Twist

Tim Hamey was booked to ride a horse called Gwelo for the Len Lefebeve stable. The best that could be said about the mount was that it was a pretty ordinary conveyance. With the horse having next to no hope of success, Billy Speck took pity on Tim Hamey and engineered a straight swap with a much better chance, thus hoping to at least get a few bob into his friend's pocket. Fellow riders tried to talk him out of taking the mount, but Billy's need to help a friend was too great for him to pull the plug. At the last ditch, Gwelo dislodged Billy causing him to smash into the turf, where he lay motionless. Billy had broken his spine.

The Wait

For the next six days, Billy won the hearts of the sporting people of the nation as he fought a battle for his life. But the outpouring of prayers and well wishes proved fruitless, for in the end he succumbed to his terrible injuries. Billy had paid the ultimate price, in the name of empathy and friendship. He was just 31.

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