Home   Newmarket   News   Article

The story of Newmarket jockey Frederick Lester Rickaby, who died one month before the Armistice




Fred Rickaby with baby sonBilly and, below, Fred in the saddle
Fred Rickaby with baby sonBilly and, below, Fred in the saddle

He was without doubt one of the most talented sportsmen of his generation and had he survived the war, Frederick Lester Rickaby would certainly have been a Champion jockey.

Born at Exeter Villa in Exeter Road, he was the only son of Fred Rickaby, a Classic winning jockey and served his apprenticeship with trainer Felix Leach at Graham Place. As a 17 year old in 1911 he had ridden 73 winners and the following year as he turned 18 he stepped into his father's old job as first jockey to the Hon George Lambton at Bedford House.

"He was an even better jockey than his father," Lambton recalled in his book Men and Horses I Have Known. "He was just at his best when the war claimed him. I don't think I ever knew a jockey so universally respected and liked by owners, trainers, and by those of his own profession, and so it was in the war. His commander told me that he was the most gallant and orderly little fellow in his command and set a good example to everyone not only when fighting but when in camp. He was killed in one of the last actions that were fought. The Turf could ill afford to lose a jockey of his character and ability and he had a great career before him."

Dispatch rider

Fred Rickaby on racehorse (5023037)
Fred Rickaby on racehorse (5023037)

A year before the start of hostilities Rickaby had ridden his first Classic winner winning the 1,000 Guineas on Jack Joel's Jest and followed up on the same filly in the Oaks. In 1915 he won the 1000 Guineas again this time on Vaucluse, the filly after whom he named the house in Bury Road he and his bride, Grace Griggs, began their short married life together after their marriage in June of that year at St Agnes Church in Bury Road. The following year saw the birth of their first son, another Fred, and another another Classic winner for his father, a third 1,000 Guineas winner in Canyon, owned by the 17th Earl of Derby who later that year was made Secretary of State for War.

That same year Fred had enlisted initially into the Veterinary Corps which welcomed men with experience of handling horses. He later served as a dispatch rider in the Royal Flying Corps. His service did not preclude him from race riding and in 1917, the year his second son Bill was born,he won what was to be his final Classic, his fourth 1,000 Guineas on Diadem.

The triumph came just days before racing was banned by the Govermentand it was only after a deputation, including racing peers Lord Derby and Lord Rosebery, that Prime Minister Lloyd George lifted the ban. But there were those in Parliament who were not happy with the decision and questions were asked in the House whether a special train had recently been provided from London to Cambridge: "For a Mr Rickaby who had a contract with the Secretary of State for War to fulfil there, namely to ride his horse Phalaris for the Cambridgeshire."

George Wardle, then president of the Board of Trade, denied any such train had been laid on, but Scottish MPJames Hogg was not about to let the Tory grandee off the hook. "How is it that Lord Derby can get permission for a man training in this country to ride a horse, when soldiers fighting on the West Front have great difficulty getting leave?"

The exchange was seal Fred's fate. In the summer of 1918 he was transferred from the RFC and dispatched to France to join 1st Battalion Tank Corps. The brilliant 23-year-old horseman would never see his wife and two young sons again.

Fred Rickaby on a racehorse and below, Melanie Shuttler at Fred Rickaby’s grave
Fred Rickaby on a racehorse and below, Melanie Shuttler at Fred Rickaby’s grave

'Good bye'

He died a month before the Armistice after suffering a severe shell wound to his left leg. Lord Derby remained aloof of the part he may inadvertently have played in the tragedy."Poor little Rick," he wrote to George Lambton. "I had no idea that he was even in France."

On July 19, 1918 just months before he died, Fred had written what was to be a final letter to his son Bill who had just celebrated his first birthday."I am very sorry that I forgot your birthday last Monday . I did not think of it until this afternoon, but never mind tell mummy to buy you something nice for me also tell her to have her photo taken, by herself for my locket. Hope you and Freddy are good boys and don't worry mummy. I expect you have some fine games together on the lawn. Give my love to mummy and thank Iris (his sister) for her letter. Good bye darling. Your loving Daddy xxxx Kiss mummy and Freddy for me.

Fred's sister Iris, who was just 13 when he died would later marry Keith Piggott, and was to remember her beloved brother in a very special way. She gave his middle name to their son born in 1935. That was not all the boywould inherit from the uncle he never knew as Lester Piggott went on to be a Classic winning championfulfilling the destiny that, in another life, would surely have been Fred's.

Fred's own sons both became successful jockeys, Bill riding three Classic winners and partneringBusted to win theEclipse Stakes of 1967.

His daughter, Melanie Shuttler, now lives in Risby. Five years ago she found details in her late mother Bridget's belongings ofher grandfather's final resting place in Franceand, with her husband Roger, her cousin and his wife, travelled to the village of Doignt where he lies in the communal cemetery extension at the village church.

Inscription

"I had butterflies and felt nervous and extremely emotional as we got out of the car and walked into the cemetery," said Melanie. " The rows of headstones were numbered A-F on one side of the Great Cross. We found my grandfather's headstone, F 22, almost straight away. Cousin Fred planted his rose bush and I placed my freesias in front of our grandfather's headstone." The inscription chosen by his widow, echoed the feelings of so many who waved husbands, lovers, sons and brothers, off to war never to see them again.

"Oh God bring back those lovely hours we pray."

"Shortly after we had planted the rose bush a man, who we later found out was the village mayor, was talking to two French school children and they asked us why we were visiting the cemetery," said Melanie. " We explained that our grandfather was buried there and that we believed we were the first relatives to have visited his grave. A red brick wall surrounded the cemetery and beyond it was a field with a small wood at the top of it, swathed in beautiful autumnal colours.

"It looked a bit like Warren Hill and I like to think that my grandfather can see it and is reminded of the happy days of riding out and racing at Newmarket."