Mark Coton reflects on the life of a true one-off
Mercy Rimell, who died on July 6, aged 98, was a successful trainer in her own right, winning the Champion Hurdle with Gaye Brief in 1983.But she will be best remembered as one half of one of the great racing partnerships of the twentieth century, alongside husband Fred, and for a formidable personal manner which at times made Margaret Thatcher seem like Claire Rayner.
The entry list of racing’s bloody difficult characters is a long and distinguished one,and Mrs Rimell can be found at the top of the long handicap, alongside Jenny Pitman,their presence indicative not only of the great qualities but also of the many sacrifices demanded of racing’s groundbreaking female trainers. “I had a strange isolated childhood.” So begins Mercy Rimell’s “Reflections On Racing”, written in 1989 shortly after her retirement from training.
She suffered severely from asthma in early childhood and was kept out of school by an immensely demanding mother who was soon exploiting her daughter's equestrian talents on the midlands show pony circuit, where she carried all before her.
She married successful jumps jockey Fred Rimell when she was 17.
Fred was 24.The war awaited them,with its three blank years for jumps racing between 1942-44, and not much more for a long time on either side.
Fred would quit riding after breaking his neck in a fall in 1947,shortly after landing his fourth Champion Jockey’s title.
The young married couple quickly began a training partnership in which Fred would be crowned champion five times, and which would yield four Grand National successes, two Gold Cups and the same number of Champion Hurdles with the great Comedy Of Errors.
I vividly remember, first going racing in the middle of the 1970s to places like Hereford and Wolverhampton, just beyond the granite viaducts and the trading estates, Fred and Mercy Rimell as an improbably captivating and classy couple, with Mercy always impeccably attired in outfits which would have graced the malls of Milan, even on a grim Wednesday atWarwick.
There they were, always working in tandem, with Mercy pulling the rug from another strong,athletic young novice hurdler, as Fred briefed the jockey,or shared a quiet word with owners like Bert House, perhaps mischievously suggesting how they might get a sharp one in when the missus wasn’t looking, hopefully after the horse had won, which often and impressively, it would.
Once only narrowly, in the tightest of photo finishes atWorcester.I’d had my eye fixed on the line and knew theirs had got up, and told the two of them so as they returned from their habitual position watching from the second last fence.
“We’ll wait for the official announcement, thank you very much,”said Mercy,in a tone which could have chipped concrete, but there was perhaps a quiet note of thanks in Fred’s eyes, who might have been imagined as the grandfather you never had, quietly steering you in the right direction in life and never passing judgement.
Fred’s name was the one on the racecard, but his wife was the organising power behind the throne of their working relationship, undertaking all the administrative work, including spotting the right races for their horses to be entered in, leaving Fred to prepare them.
Their horses were often as proud in deportment as the trainer herself, horses like Gaye Chance andWestern Rose from my era, and goodness knows how many more from long before it.
With Mrs Rimell there was never a word misplaced,as with the outfits and the hair, unless perhaps you were charged by your editor to ring her for a few platitudinous remarks about the wellbeing of one of her charges ahead of a big race,when a terse response might be the best you could expect.
The subs would be ready with their headlines regarding “The Quality Of Mercy”,but who knew how deep and rich and strong it ran? Only Fred, probably. Maybe a few of the jocks and the stable staff, as loyal as the trees around the impeccable Kinnersley estate where they trained with such distinction for so many years. What a woman. What an era. What a contribution. RIP.