For the Derby Festival 2012, the Guest Of Honour was Willie Carson.
Willie Carson earned his place in racing folklore as a five-time champion jockey, but it was his achievements at Epsom Downs that really elevated the Scotsman into the public consciousness.
Carson, who celebrated his 70th birthday on 16 November 2012, partnered four winners of both the Investec Derby and the Investec Oaks, with some of the most iconic names in post-War Flat racing among them.
Although he started race riding in 1959 and enjoyed his first winner in 1962, it was not until 1968 that he had a Derby mount when sporting Lord Derby’s famous silks aboard Laureate, trained by Bernard van Cutsem in Newmarket. Laureate finished only 11th behind Sir Ivor despite starting fourth favourite at 100/8 among the 13-runner field.
The jockey came within a neck of victory aboard Hot Grove in the 1977 Derby when second to The Minstrel, though it was not until his 11th ride in the premier British Classic that he landed Flat racing’s biggest prize.
He broke his duck in style. Troy, trained by Dick Hern for his breeders Sir Michael Sobell and Sir Arnold Weinstock, lined up in front of a huge crowd ahead of the 200th Derby in 1979 and was the brilliant seven-length winner from Irish challenger Dickens Hill. Troy went on to be one of the best horses Carson rode, pushing aside Dickens Hill again to win the Irish Derby, this time by four lengths, and also capture the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot. He was valued at £7.2 million by the time he retired to Highclere Stud.
Carson only had to wait 12 months for his next Derby winner when the Hern-trained Henbit, carrying the silks of Etti Plesch, held off Master Willie to take the 1980 renewal by three quarters of a length. The American-bred colt had won the Sandown Classic Trial and Chester Vase before his Epsom triumph.
The horse who Hern maintained was the best he trained provided Carson with his third Derby success in 1989. Nashwan was sent off 5/4 market leader on the back of his impressive 2,000 Guineas success at Newmarket and never gave favourite backers cause for concern over a half-mile further as he stormed five lengths clear of the 500/1 outsider Terimon. Victories in the Coral-Eclipse and King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes followed, cementing Nashwan’s reputation as an equine great.
Carson had become retained rider to Nashwan’s owner-breeder Sheikh Hamdan Al Maktoum and that association brought his final Derby success in 1994 aboard the John Dunlop-trained Erhaab, who justified 7/2 favouritism when beating King’s Theatre by a length and a quarter.
There were other placed Derby runs – second to Generous aboard Marju in 1991 and third a year earlier on Elmaamul – for the jockey who rode in the Derby 28 times. Two seconds, one third and three fourths accompanied his four successes.
Carson, who became stable jockey to Hern at the start of 1977, enjoyed his first and most celebrated Oaks victory when Dunfermline carried the Queen’s silks to victory in the fillies’ Classic at Epsom Downs in June of that Silver Jubilee year. Dunfermline memorably went on to defeat Alleged in the final British Classic of the season, the St Leger, at Doncaster three months afterwards.
In his autobiography – Willie Carson Up Front – he wrote: “The best thing that happened to me in racing was winning the Oaks on Dunfermline for her (the Queen). I was always a royalist and always will be.”
The rider’s next Oaks success came three years later, when Bireme was saddled by Hern to score in the colours of breeder Dick Hollinsgworth, while 1983 brought victory on the brilliant Sun Princess, sent out from the same stable. Home-bred by Sir Michael Sobell and Sir Arnold Weinstock, Sun Princess took the Oaks by 12 lengths before emulating Dunfermline by going on to victory in the St Leger. She finished the year when second, beaten a length by All Along, in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp.
Carson’s final Oaks winner was another outstanding filly. Salsabil came to Epsom on the back of success in the first British fillies’ Classic, the 1,000 Guineas at Newmarket, having won the Group One Prix Marcel Boussac at two, and she went on to beat the colts in the Irish Derby before bagging a fifth Group One victory in the Prix Vermeille at Longchamp.
Despite his tremendous record in the two Classics at Epsom Downs, Carson never rode the winner of the Investec Coronation Cup but he boasted a plethora of big-race successes elsewhere by the time he announced his retirement in March, 1997, with 3,828 successes.
He was champion jockey in 1972, 1973, 1978, 1980 and 1983, and in the last-named year received from the Queen the OBE for services to racing. He achieved 23 centuries in Britain during a marvellous riding career that spanned 38 years – from 1959 to 1996. Carson’s success and lively personality made him a well-known figure outside racing and he was a team captain on the BBC’s A Question Of Sport in the early 1980s.
Since retiring from the saddle, he has presented the BBC’s racing coverage with Clare Balding and in 2011 he appeared in ITV’s I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here. With his wife Elaine, he runs Minster Stud in Gloucestershire. He partnered the best horse he has bred, Minster Son, who won the 1988 St Leger having finished eighth in the Derby.