On first meeting Sam Morshead you’d be forgiven for thinking he was your average Racecourse manager. Late 50s, well spoken, direct in that way that anyone leading a large team of staff and a multi-million pound business needs to be. But after a wee while in his company, you can’t help but notice a bit of a twinkle in his Irish eyes and a hint of someone who may not be all that he appears. A dark horse, if you will.
I’ve met him a few times by the point at which our story starts, and I have decided that I like his unusual mix of no-nonsense and easy-going. Cut to me merrily going about my business one day when he calls me up:
“Nicki, its Sam, I wonder if you can help. I’m doing an open water swim and surf from Dunkeld to Perth, for Prostate Cancer, and I was wondering if you could give me some help getting it into the paper.”
I obviously think I’ve misheard – an open water swim from Dunkeld to Perth is 22 miles long and a mountain of madness high. It does not seem to me, the challenge that a 59 year old man who walks with a stick might set himself. But then, at that point I didn’t really know anything about Sam. And so, upon establishing that I had in fact heard correctly, and he is in fact, heading down the Tay on a 22 mile swim & surf mission to raise awareness for Prostate Cancer, I decided he and I would have to chat some more – time for the dark horse to reveal his colourful side!
Sam was born and brought up in Ireland to Cornish parents and his love of horses started from a young age. He began riding before he went to school and his obvious talent, combined with a thrill-seeker’s love of speed, presented a natural succession to racehorses. He was only seventeen years old when he had his first proper ride over fences and with a win from the start he was hooked. He quickly progressed and won at his first ride over hurdles at 200 – 1 (!) and then his first ride on the flat (although, he says he really doesn’t think he was meant to win that one).
After two years of having fun in Ireland the bigger challenges available across the water beckoned.
“I headed for England, which a lot of Irish jockeys did at the time. To a young 20 year old it seemed like a great way to earn a living.”
At only twenty years old, he was picked up by “Mr Grand National” himself, Fred Rimell. Fred had a reputation that any young jockey could only aspire to; he had started his career as an apprentice to his father Tom and rode his first flat winner, aged 12 at Chepstow. He went on to ride 33 flat winners before turning to the jumps where he became a British Champion National Hunt racing jockey. He won this four times; in 1939 and 1940, and then again after the war in 1945 and 1946.
A broken neck in a fall in the 1947 Cheltenham Gold Cup ended his riding career and forced him to turn trainer. His career here was equally unrivalled and he became a leading trainer five times and the first jumping trainer to earn £1 million in prize money for his owners.
Back to our young hero; Sam won on his first two rides for Fred and he considers “getting lucky with a big trainer” as the true starting point for his career as a professional jockey. A career that would see him, among other major achievements, ride Fred’s last major winner, Gaye Chance, at Haydock Park in May 1981. It was the season's richest handicap hurdle, the Royal Doulton, and came just two months before Fred died at the age of 68.
The whole period of the late 70s and early 80s was a whirlwind for Sam. He was, he tells me having a fantastic time, earning lots of cash and riding in (and winning some!) major races at the Cheltenham Festival, Aintree Festival and seven times in The Grand National.
I’m reminded of his challenge down the Tay and ask him if he thinks he’s an adrenalin junkie.
“Well perhaps, I guess!” he smiles, that twinkle in those Irish eyes glinting feverishly. “When I go skiing I need to be the fastest one down the mountain. When I’m on the water I want to be pulling stunts on the water skis. I have always, always loved speed and thrills.”
“When I started I was probably too brave for my own good – some would say stupid! I reckon I had about two hundred 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 live 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.”
So with over four hundred winners under his belt he set about at the age of thirty three looking for a change of pace. Quite a challenge for any sportsman. There were many paths for retired jockeys, but Sam had a thought that Jockey Club Official was a bit too dull for him. He spotted an advert for Clerk of The Course at Ayr and although he thought his chances were pretty slim he reckoned that it would be good interview experience and a paid to trip to Scotland – as a mad keen fisherman the thought of catching a salmon on someone else’s pound was appealing to him.
Of course, he landed more than the fish and moved up to Scotland where after 6 months training at Ayr he was allocated as the Clerk of the Course at Perth.
“This was the autumn of 1988 and Ayr managed all five race courses in Scotland at that time. They sent me off to Perth and I loved it from the moment I arrived. It was like this unpolished diamond and I have had the pleasure of polishing it up for the past 25 years.”
Sam spent 5 years as the Clerk at Perth before he was offered the position as manager. He had found a solid, new career path and, he says, one that he feels blessed each day to hold.
When he arrived, times were tough, and Perth, like many small jump tracks, survived on subsidies. Over the quarter of a century that has passed since, Sam has been an integral part of the team that set about transforming it into the successful jumping track with huge attendances that we all know and love today – in fact, he famously cartwheeled around the winners’ enclosure after the success of his first Perth Festival in 1989.
“Our prize money has been well above average in recent years. We’ve been as high as seventh out of forty in the ROA jump prize money league. And I’m pleased to say we’ve won quite a few awards.”
He is only too happy to chat about his beloved Racecourse which he describes as “the most wonderful, wonderful place” and the team who he talks about as fondly as if they were family. I find it trickier to pull the information about Sam out of Sam and so I decide that there is more than one way to mount a horse and ask around in the Perth Racecourse office.
“Ahhhh – everyone in racing loves Sam. He is so well thought of. He’s supported by trainers from the south and Ireland as well as the north. He’s always out and about on race day chatting to everyone, making sure the stable staff are well looked after. People in the industry genuinely respect him for his long career from Jockey to manager.”
It is because of this he has been nominated for a Pride of Racing Award, the winners of which will be announced later in the year.
I begin to understand Sam’s position in the industry. The wealth of knowledge and innate passion that he has built over almost 40 years in horse racing, means that he is never afraid to speak out strongly on industry matters and will support people from all sides. I’m told that he will often offer opinions that others are thinking but might feel too timid to say.
Coming from the jockey’s role he has a unique perspective, and he knows that first and foremost, sport should be fun for those taking part. If you can crack this then everyone else involved – managers, staff, spectators and most importantly horses – will follow suit! Sounds simple. The best ideas often are.
Sam’s private life was also spent in the fast lane; he has three sons, one happily married, one about to get married and one still being educated. This youngest boy is desperate to be a jockey just like his dad and he recently rode his first winner, much to the delight to Sam.
“I love them all to bits and I’m now enjoying helping to steer my youngest towards his dream.”
Sam has now found peace in his own life, married to Sue, they live in St Fillans next to Loch Earn. They both enjoy gardening for the table and fishing when health permits.
“Do you ever catch anything?” I ask
“I’ve got particularly lucky over the last couple of years,” he smiles. “Fishing brings us to some wonderful, wild places and two years ago I caught a specimen brown trout on Loch Mask which will hopefully be mounted on our drawing room wall shortly. I caught quite a lot of salmon one stormy day last year in West Mayo. I think it might have spoilt salmon fishing for me for a bit but it was the greatest of fun at the time, they were all returned safely bar one which was kept for the pot!”
His life has slowed down a little and he has one constant that is now very important to him; The Episcopal Church. He attends in Strathearn and St Angus in Lochearnhead and seldom do Sam and Sue miss a service. In winter he ties flies and he loves a good book.
So, with this change of pace to slower and easier what inspired the Swim and Surf? Because it turns out this Tay Challenge isn’t his first go at charity fundraising. As a Trustee of Racing Welfare he was one of a group of thirty who took part in a nine day trek in Brazil to raise over £70,000 for the charity. And this willingness to rally troops for fundraising efforts goes both ways – he has used his position at Perth Racecourse to turn some of the more popular race days into charitable events. Most recently the staggering £20K sum that May 2014’s Ladies’ Day produced and the subsequent doubling of that amount by an anonymous donor. (I was there – it was sensational!)
He was also instrumental in the planning and delivery of Perth Racecourse's first stand alone charity day on Saturday August 20th in 2011, raising £236,000 for the Prince’s Trust charities.
"When offered the chance to have a Charity Day for the Prince's Trust I jumped right in and with a lot of help and support from all sorts of good people it was an amazing success. It's now an annual fixture with this year's event on 16th August for the STV Appeal. A day like this pays huge dividends both to great charitable causes and as a brilliant raceday."
So why do this crazy Swim and Surf? Why not relax into this new found pace and allow Perth Racecourse and its crowds to raise charitable donations through a great fun day.
“We’ll still do that – we are always humbled by the generosity of Perth’s punters. But this is personal to me.”
Sam has recently been diagnosed with Prostate Cancer and has turned his standard attitude of gung-ho determination, into raising awareness for the disease.
“Prostate Cancer is the most common type of cancer in men in the UK. One in eight men over 50 is diagnosed and it appears to me that awareness needs to be heightened in order to ensure this diagnoses comes earlier. The dangers and consequences of Prostate Cancer in Men should be as high profile as Breast Cancer is now with Women. We have no screening process and yet fifty appears to be the age when Prostate Cancer might start to develop.”
His own diagnoses shows spread from his prostate gland that is not curable although he is very hopeful that it will be contained. The high octane challenges that Sam has faced throughout his career are, he says, nothing compared to this one.
“This is the big one.” he said, “This surf & swim means a lot to me. You women have been amazing at talking about breast cancer and getting behind it. Now, I want to do the same for prostate cancer.”
“I suspect I will need a few drams en route. I am looking forward to the swim immensely and there are a few rapids but suits me fine. I need a bit of excitement and danger in my life.”
“Do you think I’m clinging to my youth?”
Sam left Perth Racecourse in 2016 due to ill health, and we are deeply saddened to report that he passed away peacefully at home with his family around him on September 25th 2018. As you have read, he was an incredible life force who will be missed by the many thousands of people whose lives he touched. RIP Sam, we will always think of you.
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