Michael Alexander meets retired jockey Sam Morshead, the former general manager of Perth Racecourse, who has written a book about life in the fast lane – and the devastating consequences of cancer.
Splattered with mud and grinning from ear-to-ear, the picture of young jump jockey Sam Morshead captures the exhilaration and excitement of a racing career that saw him notch up more than 400 career wins.
When the three times Cheltenham Festival and Gold Cup winner, now 61, was forced into retirement in the late 1980s after a terrible series of head injuries, Sam went on to become an acclaimed racecourse manager, turning Perth into the successful course it is today.
Yet despite his own ongoing battle with cancer, and the loss of his wife Sue also from cancer just over a year ago, Sam manages to keep on smiling.
Now, “straight from the horse’s mouth”, Sam talks about life in the fast lane in his new book ‘Racing through life: A Jump Jockey’s Tale’.
And whilst neither he nor his late wife knew that their lives would be blighted by cancer when they started the project, Sam thinks it’s apt that he has been able to dedicate the publication to his dear partner.
“I hadn’t been thinking about a book at all but I wanted to research my career a bit and I felt I had a story to tell,” Sam tells The Courier in an interview at the Murrayshall House Hotel near Perth.
“My dear wife encouraged me to start writing and it progressed from there really.
“But there was an unexpected diversion in the middle. My wife was diagnosed with cancer. Then about three years into her treatment I was diagnosed with prostate cancer, which had spread into my spine and other places. We both gasped when I told her.”
Sue had already been through three brain operations up to that point, and despite the best hope of doctors, she died in June 2015.
“That has been devastating for me, “reflects Sam.
“At that time I was still getting treatment and didn’t know how bad it had got when I was looking after her in hospital. I was finding I had terrible pains in my back and thought it was from sitting in the hospital chair with her, but it was my own cancer giving me grief. Soon after she died I was taken into hospital with very severe pain and my treatment really got going then. It was a very difficult few months.”
Sam is now in remission and misses his wife greatly. But he remains positive about the future and found completing the book was a “good escape”.
With his youngest son Henry, 19, about to embark upon his own race riding career, he also thought it might help him, adding: “I thought it might be of benefit to him if I wrote down my errors along the way!”
Sam said that what he enjoyed most was how the book was based on his thoughts.
“So the story is very much straight from the horse’s mouth if you excuse the pun,” he laughs.
With the support of his family, he secured a publishing deal with Racing Post Books.
The book charts Sam’s life from the days of his “idyllic” hunting/fishing childhood riding ponies on the beach in County Meath, east Ireland, to his early successes in hurdles and point-to-point.
A big move from a multi-purpose yard in Tipperary to England saw him hit the big time, and his career took off from there – although he insists he was a “jockey by accident”.
Sam says he was fortunate to have a “pretty amazing career” with a lot of ups and downs.
But his riding career ended after a bad fall at Worcester in August 1987 when he broke seven bones in his face and lost seven teeth.
“That was a bit of a cruncher to put it mildly,” he recalls.
“The Jockey Club doctor at the time told me four months later I really wasn’t going to be allowed to ride again because I had bashed my heads too many times.
“They were fairly straightforward fractures but my face was badly smashed up at the time. I’d previously been on a life support machine. My head had been damaged a lot.
“But fortunately my brain stayed intact enough to enjoy working as a clerk at Ayr Racecourse first – then the opportunity came for me to work at Perth.”
Arriving as clerk at Perth in 1988, he oversaw more than £6 million of investment, and the course now boasts a thriving conference and banqueting business.
Health forced him to retire last year. But as he battles back to fitness, he is continuing with consultancy work and hopes to be invited back to Perth to help in due course.
He’s also looking forward to seeing a lot more of his grandchildren and pursuing his love of fishing, gardening and walking from his base at St Fillans by Loch Earn.
*Racing Through Life: A Jump Jockey’s Tale by Sam Morshead is priced £20. It is available from www.racingpost.com/shop and all good bookshops.
The Courier has four copies to give away. Email firstname.lastname@example.org with name and address. The first four received win.