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Newmarket photo finish that captured a special moment in a 99-year-old's life

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Johnny Tolton loves photographs and it’s not surprising as it was a photograph that gave the 99-year-old one-time stable lad his greatest moment in racing.

Among his collection of pictures, meticulously kept in a special album, is the shot of the finish of the 1949 Derby won by Nimbus, the colt he looked after for town trainer, George Colling, at Hurworth House. It was the first time a photo finish had determined the outcome of an English classic at Newmarket.

For Johnny, of Burrough Green, who celebrated his 99th birthday on Saturday, it was yet another big racing day as, a month earlier, he had led Nimbus up when he got up to beat Abernant by a short head in the 2,000 Guineas at Newmarket. There was no camera to determine the result that day and Johnny, for one, was not sure his colt had prevailed.

Johnny Tolton
Johnny Tolton

“When he came in I said to Charlie (Elliott) ‘Jesus we were just caught weren’t we?’ He said to me, ‘it’s a good job you’re not the judge, we’ve won’.”

Hailing from Kilmallock, in County Limerick, Johnny was one of nine children. He left school at 13 and his first job with a local undertaker paid him the princely sum of £5 a year. But he always harboured a wish to work with horses and after a spell at Mount Coote Stud he came to Newmarket in 1947, when he was 25, to work for Mr Colling. There, not only did he look after Nimbus, who he remembered was like a rubber ball to ride, he also broke in Wilwyn, who went on to win the first running of the Washington International in the United States in 1952.

In 1949 Johnny married and he and his wife, Violet, were together for just over 70 years until she died in October last year. Together they had four children, Gillian, Angela, John and David, but in 1969 tragedy struck when four-year-old David was killed when he was hit by a car in Dullingham. Together, his parents, showing huge courage in their grief, agreed their son’s organs could be used for transplant and, in the first such operation ever performed at Newmarket Hospital, David’s liver was given to a woman in her 40s. The surgery was performed by transplant pioneer Professor, later Sir, Roy Calne. Johnny’s eyes still well with tears when he recalls that time.

Johnny Tolton
Johnny Tolton

“We could not say no,” he said, “because we thought it would benefit someone else.”

For the rest of his working life Johnny, now a grandfather, and great grandfather, was a relief railway signalman for 23 years, worked for Newmarket vets, Crowhurst, for 25 years, and at Cedar Tree Stud for Mohammed Foustok. He was working at Tattersalls when he finally retired aged 84.

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