The Tragic Life of Jockey Fred Archer

Updated on October 16, 2019
Rupert Taylor profile image

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Fred Archer was the winner of the Champion Jockey Trophy of England for 13 years in a row in the late 19th century. As with many who take up his profession, he struggled mightily with his weight; it was a battle that contributed to his demise.

Fred Archer on Silvio his first Epsom Derby winner in 1877.
Fred Archer on Silvio his first Epsom Derby winner in 1877. | Source

Apprentice Jockey

Fred Archer was born in January 1857 into a family with horse racing connections. His father was a jockey and so were his two brothers. But Fred’s racing accomplishments dwarfed those of his siblings and father.

At about the age of 11, Fred was apprenticed to horse trainer Matthew Dawson at Newmarket, a centre of the racing industry in eastern England. (Some sources say the lad was not even 10 years old when he started in the stables).

Dawson spotted potential in Fred Archer saying “I have a wonderful boy here who will do marvellous things.” He advanced quickly from grooming and shovelling manure to training rides. His first competitive ride came in 1869 when he was just 12 years old. His horse finished last. He had 15 rides in 1870, winning twice and placing second nine times.

Then, the floodgates opened. When he was 16 he won more than 100 races in a season. Two years later, he topped that with 200 wins.

Fred Archer.
Fred Archer. | Source

A Weight Problem

Nature was not kind to Fred Archer because as he reached adulthood he grew taller, eventually reaching almost five feet, nine inches. Most jockeys are a foot to six inches shorter. Along with the height came additional weight, and Archer tipped the scales at 154 lbs, again considerably heavier than most other jockeys.

To deal with the weight issue he resorted to something that became known as Archer’s mixture. This was concocted by a Newmarket physician and worked as a very strong laxative. Not that he ate very much solid food that needed to be expelled; a typical daily diet was a sardine, an orange, and a small glass of champagne, followed by a cookie.

And, just in case these meagre rations caused weight gain, he took frequent steam baths to sweat off any extra poundage.

Winning on the Turf …

During his career, Fred Archer rode 2,748 winners in a little over 8,000 starts, a winning percentage of 33 percent. In 1884, at the height of his career, he won 241 of 377 races, a winning percentage of 64 percent.

(For comparison, American Bill Shoemaker is reckoned to be the greatest jockey of all time having won 8,883 races during his 41-year career before retiring in 1990. Shoemaker’s winning percentage was 20 percent.)

Fred Archer won all the big classic races: the Epsom Derby (five times), the St. Leger (six wins), and the Oaks (fours wins) among them. He was sometimes hard on his mounts with spurs and whip and he possessed a ruthless desire to win.

By 1880, he was earning £10,000 a year, worth about £1.2 million in today’s money. But, Archer had a gambling problem and he became heavily indebted to some nasty characters in London’s underworld.

The paddock at Newmarket with Fred mounted and the Prince of Wales, bearded and in plus-fours in attendance (centre).
The paddock at Newmarket with Fred mounted and the Prince of Wales, bearded and in plus-fours in attendance (centre). | Source

… Losing in Life

In 1883, Archer married Helen Dawson, the niece of Matthew Dawson, the trainer for whom he did most of his riding. A year later, their first-born child, a son, arrived, but he died within hours. Helen quickly became pregnant again and in November 1884 delivered a daughter, but Helen died shortly after the birth.

Fred Archer, already a morose man, sank into depression, a condition that was made worse by his wasting to keep his weight down. However, he kept riding with a grim determination to succeed; in 1885, he won 246 races, a record that was not broken for 62 years.

But Fred Archer’s physical and mental condition was declining, and there were unproven whispers that he might be involved in fixing races.

A caricature of a gaunt-looking Archer that appeared in Vanity Fair in 1881.
A caricature of a gaunt-looking Archer that appeared in Vanity Fair in 1881. | Source

A Tragic End

Late in 1886, he was entered to ride in the Cambridgeshire Handicap, a major race on his home course of Newmarket. To make the weight, he hadn’t eaten for three days and the race was held on a very cold day. He developed a chill that turned into a fever that resembled typhoid, causing him to become delirious.

He was under medical supervision at his home on Monday, November 8, 1886. His sister, Mrs. Colman, was in his bedroom in the early afternoon when he asked her to send the nurse away. Mrs. Colman was looking out of the window when she heard Archer say “Are they coming?” She turned to see her brother had a pistol in his hand. She struggled with him but he put the weapon in his mouth and pulled the trigger. Fred Archer was just 29 years old.

The inquest determined “That the deceased committed suicide whilst in a state of unsound mind.”

  • Bernard “Brownie” Carslake was an Australian-born jockey who raced in Britain in the early 20th century. He said jockey nutrition consisted of “a puff of hope and a cigar.”
  • Britain’s National Horseracing Museum describes Archer as “the best all-round jockey that the turf has ever seen.” In English racing parlance, the “turf” is a synonym for horse racing on the flat, i.e. not over fences.
  • Fred Archer’s nickname was The Tin Man, said to have been bestowed on him because of his love of money and his reluctance to part with it.
  • Some jockeys and others have reported seeing a strange shapeless, white form wandering about the Newmarket racecourse. It’s said to be the ghost of a tormented Fred Archer and is thought to have caused some horses to shy away from it.

Told by Fred Archer’s Great Granddaughter Diana Reynolds

Sources

  • “Racing: Tragic Waste of a True Hero.” Stephen Brenkley, The Independent, November 8, 1998.
  • “The Tinman’s Farewell by Michael Tanner – Review.” Tony Paley, The Guardian, November 7, 2010.
  • “Fred Archer, One of Newmarket’s Legends.” Discover Newmarket, October 10, 2018.
  • “He Won 2,748 Races, with Nothing but Fire in His Belly.” Laura Thompson, The Telegraph, December 28, 2003.

© 2019 Rupert Taylor

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