At the Coronation Derby in 1953, Gordon Richards is congratulated by Queen Elizabeth after winning the race on Pinza

Arise, Sir Wayne

The trickle of sporting knighthoods has now become a flood — who will be next?

This article is taken from the June 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Sportsmen didn’t used to get knighted for their sweaty efforts. Unless you count Sir Francis Drake, the noted sixteenth-century bowls player. Even W.G. Grace, the greatest Victorian athlete, never got the tap, though there were often calls for it. H.H. Asquith threatened to impose Grace on the House of Lords in 1911 if the Tories didn’t pass his Parliament Act, but Neville Cardus was right to remark that no honour could have burnished Grace’s stature. “He was an institution,” Cardus wrote. “As well might we think of Sir Albert Memorial or Sir National Debt.”

Francis Lacey was the first to be knighted for services to sport, on retiring as secretary of MCC in 1926, and only a small handful more were awarded over the next 25 years to administrators, two holders of speed records and Don Bradman, still the only Australian cricketer to receive a knighthood. The Queen, alas, never got a chance to say “Arise, Sir Shane”.

The trickle has now become a flood. Some 125 sporting knights and dames have been created by Her Majesty, more than half of them in the past 20 years, including 13 from New Zealand rugby (there have been only four from Britain), more than a dozen West Indies cricketers and Olympians galore. There’s even a beknighted sheep-shearer, a sport in the Antipodes, with David Fagan recognised in 2016 for getting a ewe out of her coat in record time on ten occasions.

Grace: No gong

Oddly, given the Queen’s love of the turf, only eight knighthoods have been awarded in racing, five for trainers, one for the commentator Peter O’Sullevan and two for jockeys more than 60 years apart: A.P. McCoy, who retired in 2015 after riding 4,358 winners over jumps, and Gordon Richards, who won 4,870 races on the flat and was knighted in the Coronation honours list in 1953, earning him the nickname Midsummer for being the shortest knight of the year.

 On 6 June, 1953, four days after that business at the Abbey, the Queen and her full family joined an estimated half a million of her subjects at Epsom Downs to watch her horse, Aureole, in the Derby. “The crowd wanted to see the Queen win,” reported The Times. “And if the Queen could not have the prize, they wanted to see the inimitable Gordon Richards win.” While this was Her Majesty’s first attempt, for the 49-year-old jockey it was one that had kept getting away. He had raced the Derby 27 times without success.

The Queen can now sympathise. As an owner she, too, has had success everywhere else — a personal best of 32 winners last year alone — but not in the Derby, which has seldom favoured our royals. Only Edward VII, in 1909, has had a winning horse while on the throne, though the future George IV won in 1788 when Prince of Wales.

Little would the Queen have realised in 1953 that Aureole would be her best shot in 70 years, after Reach for the Moon, a favourite this year, was withdrawn with an injury. As the field rounded Tattenham Corner, the Aga Khan’s Shikampur led the way but Pinza, ridden by Sir Gordon, burst through down the straight to win, with Aureole in second. In the royal enclosure, the Queen took defeat magnanimously. “Congratulations, Bertie, on winning the Derby,” she told Pinza’s trainer. “I congratulate you, ma’am,” he replied, “on winning the world.”

Richards was a fitting emblem for a new Elizabethan era in which class barriers were starting to break down. The son of a Shropshire coal miner, he learnt to ride on pit ponies and worked as a factory clerk from 13 until he got a job in a stables. 

The other sporting knight in the Coronation honours had a similarly humble upbringing. Sir John Berry Hobbs, known as Jack, was the oldest of 12 children of a Cambridge slater, who later became a groundsman at Jesus College. Jack worked as an errand boy, college servant and apprentice gas fitter, using his spare time to practise cricket on Parker’s Piece, a patch of common ground close to the pristine Fenner’s sward where the varsity boys played for love, not money.

Offered a trial by Surrey in 1903, Hobbs became the greatest England player since Grace, hitting a record 199 first-class centuries and averaging 57 in Tests. Yet he could not lead his country because he was seen by cricket’s authorities as a mere tradesman. “Pray God, no professional shall ever captain England,” thundered Lord Hawke.

Many sporting knights and dames have come from underprivileged backgrounds

Hobbs was running a sports shop on Fleet Street in his retirement when he was offered a knighthood, perhaps as an apology for this snub. The previous year, with Hawke too dead to grumble, Yorkshire’s Len Hutton had finally become the first England captain to (shudder) earn a salary. In brushing aside India in his first series 3-0, averaging 80 himself, Hutton proved doubters wrong. He then led England into a glorious period in which they won the Ashes in 1953, for the first time since 1933, away in 1954-55 and again, under Peter May, in 1956. It turned out working-class lads from Pudsey could be captains after all. Sir Len soon followed Sir Jack.

Many sporting knights and dames have since come from underprivileged backgrounds: Steve Redgrave, Kelly Holmes, Mo Farah, Henry Cooper, Lewis Hamilton to name a few. Perhaps Sir Wayne Rooney or Sir Ronnie O’Sullivan will follow. It matters only how good you became, not where you began. And the rule was set, with Hobbs and Richards, right from the start of the Queen’s reign.

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