Sam Morshead: a fine jockey who transformed Perth with his big personality
Sam Morshead enjoyed two distinct careers in racing and made a success of both.
As a jockey in the 1970s and 1980s he rode more than 400 winners over jumps, when he was inextricably linked with the stable of Fred and Mercy Rimell and the steady stream of top-level horses who emerged from Kinnersley season after season, including Another Dolly, Gaye Brief, Gaye Chance, Royal Frolic, Very Promising and Western Rose.
Then, following his retirement from the saddle, Morshead made an even bigger success of racecourse administration in 27 years as clerk of the course and then general manager at Perth. His big personality and limitless enthusiasm were instrumental in transforming Britain’s northernmost track into a hugely popular venue for racing professionals and racegoers, who travelled from far and wide to enjoy the singular delights of the Tayside track.
Morshead, born and brought up in Ireland to Cornish parents, began riding before he went to school and enjoyed his first winner under rules on Top Up in a hunter chase at Fairyhouse as a 17-year-old.
However, it was with the Rimells that he came of age as a jockey. He later recalled: “I headed for England, which a lot of Irish jockeys did at the time. To a 20-year-old it seemed a great way to earn a living.”
Morshead won on his first two rides for Fred Rimell and rode the future Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Royal Frolic to two good handicap wins as an amateur before stable number one John Burke reclaimed the ride and won the Gold Cup.
He also gained the most prestigious win of his career in this period, although the circumstances of Another Dolly’s success in the 1980 Queen Mother Champion Chase were such that it was hardly a victory to savour, the ten-year-old being trounced on the day only to be awarded the race two months later after first-past-the-post Chinrullah failed a test for a banned substance.
The following season an especially fruitful liaison with Gaye Chance yielded no fewer than eight wins, among them a cherished first proper festival victory in the Sun Alliance Novices’ Hurdle.
After the death of Rimell – who had been a multiple winner of the jockeys’ and trainers’ titles – in July 1981, his widow Mercy took on the licence and little changed outwardly, the stable continuing at the same high level and Morshead playing an increasingly important part in its success.
There were further wins on Gaye Chance, including a memorable defeat of Goldspun in the Stayers' Hurdle in 1984, plus an easy Fighting Fifth success on Gaye Brief at Newcastle earlier the same season on a day when that horse’s regular rider Richard Linley was required by owner Sheikh Ali Abu Khamsin at Cheltenham.
He enjoyed his most successful season in 1982-83, when his 62 winners placed him fifth in a jockeys’ championship won by John Francome, and the next four years brought more than 160 further wins, the last of them on Tiger Ted for Peter Bailey in a handicap chase at Exeter in August 1987. The end of the road came following a bad fall.
Looking back on his career in the saddle years later, Morshead said: “When I started I was probably too brave for my own good – some would say stupid! I reckon I had about 200 falls before I accepted that a kick wasn’t always the best way to ensure I won the race.
“I was living a fast-paced life and I loved every minute of it. Eventually I had a bad fall at Worcester that broke seven teeth and seven bones in my face. The doctor told me that was it – I’d bashed my head about enough and he called time on my career as a jockey.”
Morshead was not long in moving on to his second career and, after learning the ropes by shadowing David McHarg at all five Scottish tracks, he was appointed clerk of the course at Perth in October 1988 and never looked back.
Many years later, when recalling the first Perth festival of which he had charge, he said: “It was April 1989, the first time Perth had had a three-day meeting, and I had no idea how to make it special. My previous role as a jockey told me that this time of year was when trainers and jockeys wanted to let their hair down and party, so I built the idea of a festival party and it worked! I expressed my relief by cartwheeling in the winner's enclosure after the final race.”
Cartwheels around the winner’s enclosure might not have become the norm at Perth, but the party atmosphere Morshead had instilled most definitely did and the course went from strength to strength under his guidance.
Appointed general manager in 1994, he retained that post until his retirement on health grounds in 2015 and was behind many of the innovations that saw a huge upturn in attendance and attracted increasingly strong raids from top southern stables, such as those of Philip Hobbs and Nigel Twiston-Davies, as well as greater numbers from many leading Irish trainers including Gordon Elliott and, more recently, Willie Mullins.
Morshead himself nominated the introduction of a Sunday meeting, the opening of the Nelson stand and a first self-funded meeting as some of the highlights of his time in charge, but there were many more he could have chosen.
He said: “We forged a link with the provost of Perth and Kinross, Mike O'Malley, who loved his racing and had the foresight to see this could be the people's raceday, featuring the Perth Gold Cup. Our first Gold Cup day attracted 10,000 visitors – I knew we'd cracked it and that, with luck and a fair wind, we could turn around the fortunes of Perth.
“With the confidence driven by a complete turnaround in attendance and enjoying the benefits of the oil and gas boom in the north-east, we were confident we could invest a considerable sum in a modern, new grandstand providing not only fabulous raceday amenities but very good conference and banqueting facilities. When we opened the Nelson stand and our spacious 200-seater restaurant for the first day of our April festival, it was a very special moment.”
He added: “Our first self-funded fixture was the third Saturday in August 2011. We attracted a crowd of 12,000 and raised £235,000 for the Prince's Trust. The Duke and Duchess of Rothesay joined us for the day and enjoyed themselves so much they didn't want to leave. It was an awesome day.”
Crowds that had been among the lowest in Scotland when he took over are now among the highest and the £6 million of developments he oversaw also included a £1.4m boutique lads' hostel, which when not required on racedays offers budget beds to tourists.
It is little wonder, therefore, that Perth was voted top course in Scotland and the north-east for 2014 by the Racegoers' Club, just a few months after Morshead had received the outstanding contribution honour at the Pride of Racing awards.
On his retirement, Morshead said he had enjoyed “the most fabulous time” at Perth and added: "It's ironic that when I was playing at being a jockey I thought I could do it but obviously couldn't. When I took Perth on I didn't think I'd be able to do it but I found I was blessed with the ability to get others to do things for me – I could 'talk the talk'!
"It's been a very rewarding journey and I've enjoyed every minute of it.”
Kim Bailey, a great pal since their days together with the Rimells, was speaking for many when he described Morshead's retirement as marking “the end of an era” and said that, with the help of chairman David Whitaker, he had “transformed Perth into the most enjoyable, well-run and welcoming racecourse in Britain, [creating] a lasting legacy and a great racecourse”.
Bailey added that Morshead had “made visiting his racecourse fun and memorable for any owner or racegoer who stepped over the threshold”.
When he was not busy promoting racing at Perth or indulging his passion for fishing, Morshead worked tirelessly to raise awareness of the dangers of prostate cancer.
He leaves three sons – Charlie and Harry, by his first wife Annabelle, and Henry, by his second wife Anthea. His third wife Sue died in 2015. Funeral details will be known in due course.
SAM MORSHEAD CV
Full name Samuel Rodd Morshead
Born June 11, 1955
First winner Top Up, hunter chase, Fairyhouse, April 24, 1973
Queen Mother Champion Chase winner Another Dolly (1980)
Stayers' Hurdle winner Gaye Chance (1984)
Other Cheltenham Festival win Gaye Chance (1981 Sun Alliance Novices' Hurdle)
Royal Doulton Hurdle winner Gaye Chance (1981)
Fighting Fifth Hurdle winner Gaye Brief (1983)
Other big-race winners Royal Frolic (1976 Greenall Whitley Breweries' Chase), Double Negative (1977 Compton Chase), Western Rose (1980 Sean Graham (Maghull Novices') Chase, 1981 Sunratings (Aintree) Chase, 1983 Mansion House Chase, Crockfords Trophy Chase), Gaye Chance (1980 Sir Ken Pattern Hurdle, Garswood Pattern Hurdle, 1981 Philip Cornes Saddle of Gold Hurdle Final, Tom Masson Trophy Hurdle, 1982 Haydock Park Champion Hurdle Trial, 1984 Rendlesham Hurdle, Tommy Whittle Chase), Palace Dan (1981 Nottinghamshire Novices' Chase), Gaye Brief (1982 Rossington Main Novices' Hurdle, Tom Masson Trophy Hurdle), Cima (1983 Oteley Hurdle), Mellie (1983 Rendlesham Hurdle), Very Promising (1983 Panama Cigar Hurdle Final, Knowsley (Top) Novices' Hurdle), Run And Skip (1985 Bic Razor Chase)
Placed mounts in Champion Hurdle Very Promising (3rd 1984), Stans Pride (3rd 1985)
Last winner Tiger Ted, Exeter, August 5, 1987
Most wins in a season 62 in 1982-83
Total wins over jumps in Britain 404 in 14 seasons
Highest position in jump jockeys' table 5th in 1980-81, 1982-83
Racecourse official General manager at Perth 1994-2015; previously clerk of the course at Perth, Musselburgh, Kelso and Ayr
Compiled by John Randall