Racing People 1: William Cyril “Bill” Marshall

raffingoraMost people will remember the 1991 Gold Cup victory of Garrison Savannah, trained by Jenny Pitman and ridden by her son, Mark. The horse shared his name with the main racetrack in Barbados, situated in the Garrison area on the edge of the capital. Bridgetown. On Saturday, the course was the scene of the WC “Bill” Marshall DFC SCM Memorial 2 year old Creole Classic, run in memory of former trainer William Marshall, the first in our new occasional series about racing people.

William Cyril Marshall was born in Newcastle upon Tyne as the First World War was drawing to a close, but his family moved to Chichester when he was only a few weeks old. It was a move that shaped his life, as growing up on a farm; he was working with horses as a boy.

When he was a teenager he had an amateur riders’ licence, and rode his first winner in a point-to-point race in Sussex. His father didn’t see a life in racing for William, and had him earmarked as the fourth generation in his family to go to Rugby school. Young Bill saw things rather differently, and, barely 15 years old, blagged a ride on a tramp steamer to Australia.

As a capable rider, it didn’t take him long to find work as a jockey, but that did not satisfy Marshall. He soon set up his own travelling stable, sending out winners at up country meetings throughout the country, no mean feat in the 1930s given the distances involved. Adventure was in his blood, and at the age of 17 he was ready for another challenge.

He moved to South Africa, and worked in a gold mine to earn enough money to set up his own stables there. He might have settled there had the Second World War not intervened. Marshall was very patriotic, and wanted to do his bit for Britain and was determined it would in the RAF – even though he couldn’t fly. He learned, bought himself an old Tiger Moth biplane and over the course of a week, flew it home.

That was enough to gain him a commission and he flew Spitfires and Hurricanes in the Battle of Britain and in North Africa, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross. That would have been recorded in the newspaper listings, but Marshall hit the headlines for a totally different reason.

Your first 30 days for just £1

He was returning from a mission over France, and late for a date in Buckinghamshire, he diverted from his base in Sussex to land near Marlow. On the way he flew his Spitfire under Marlow Bridge, performed a low level roll and landed. An air commodore in the bar was not impressed and sent a report up the line. The pilot probably only escaped a court martial because it was wartime and he was needed in the air.

After the war, he settled back into racehorse training, and into married life, first in Chichester, and gradually progressing to Newmarket. It took a while to get going, with his first winner, Danger Light, coming at Windsor in 1951. He started off with mostly jump horses, but in time switched to the flat. For most of the next 20 years Marshall was no more than a journeyman trainer, though in 1969, he sent out the grey My Swanee to win six handicaps, including York’s Magnet Cup and Rose of York, as he climbed the weights.

The Jockey Club handicapper had plenty to wrestle with that year, as Marshall had another grey, Raffingora, who won eight races, and a further nine the following season. He found his way into the record books in the Cherkley Sprint Handicap at Epsom on Derby Day. Lester Piggott was riding at 10 stone, and said before the race that if they were within three lengths of the leader at the furlong pole he would win.

They were, and he did, by a short head, setting a then world record time of 53.89 seconds (electronically timed) for the five-furlong dash.

Two years later Marshall was in the middle of his best season with 63 winners when fate took a hand. He was a passenger in a light aircraft taking him, his wife Pamela, jockey Joe Mercer and owner John Howard to Belgium. It crashed shortly after taking off from Newbury racecourse, killing the pilot, and seriously injuring all the passengers.

Nine years later, at the age of 63, Marshall took up a new challenge. He and Pamela moved to Barbados, and he set up new stables again, whilst his wife became a director of the Barbados Turf Club, responsible for finding new sponsors for the Garrison Savannah racetrack.

Marshall’s yard was a huge success, and he became champion trainer in Barbados 11 times. He sent out the winner of the most important race there, the Sandy Lane Barbados Gold Cup, seven times and trained nine Barbados Derby winners. He had also become the first trainer to saddle winners on four different continents: Australia, Africa, Europe, and North America.

Shortly before he died in 2005, aged 87, he was still training, rising at 0315 to oversee morning work. Small wonder then, that the racecourse where he finally settled, though never retired, honour Bill Marshall with a race named after him.

Your first 30 days for just £1