SI Vault
William McHale
July 22, 1957
Jockey Willy Rae Johnstone, an international sporting figure, retires—wearing the same colors he bore in Paris 25 years ago
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July 22, 1957

Exit The Crocodile

Jockey Willy Rae Johnstone, an international sporting figure, retires—wearing the same colors he bore in Paris 25 years ago

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In the soggy heat of the weighin room of Paris' Longchamp race track a couple of weeks ago, a little seam-faced jockey named Rae Johnstone turned to a British friend, said, "This is my last ride, Peter." Making a final adjustment to the blue and white colors of Owner Pierre Wertheimer, he strode briskly to the paddock, mounted a slate-gray filly named Midget and rode her to a hard fought second place. Just 25 years before, almost to the day, Johnstone had ridden his first race in France. The owner was Pierre Wertheimer and the horse finished second.

Between these two near wins, Willy Rae Johnstone piled up a quarter-century record of victories which fixed him as one of the greatest international jockeys of modern times. Before arriving in France in 1932, he had already won 600 races as champion jockey of Australia and India, and he added some 1,400 more before his retirement. Among these are 30 "classics," including three English Derbies. In a single year, 1948, he won the English, French and Irish Derbies, plus the Grand Prix de Paris. He has raced in 11 countries—France, England, Ireland, Australia, India, Egypt, Italy, Argentina, Belgium, Germany and the U.S.—and has won victories in all but the last two.

"My greatest thrill," says 52-year-old Johnstone, looking back over a lifetime of racing, "was winning my first English Derby on My Love in 1948." Starting odds on My Love were 100 to 9, but Johnstone was absolutely certain he would win, and he ran his horse with the ice-cold control of pace which was one of his finest gifts. "There were 32 horses starting in that Derby," Johnstone recalls, "and a mile from home I had only two horses behind me. But I knew I had it won because I hadn't asked my animal for any effort. At Tattenham Corner a friend of mine told me he could see a broad grin on my face." About 100 yards from home, Rae finally asked My Love to produce, and the horse flashed past the leader, won by a length and a half.

My Love was trained by Richard Carver, now 73, a member of one of those British racing families which has lived in France for generations (his grandfather trained in France during the reign of Napoleon III. As a 2-year-old, My Love had never won a race and Carver was dissatisfied with his jockey, so he asked Rae to have a try. Johnstone's answer astounded him: "Guvnor, I'll do it on one condition: that you'll let me ride him in the Derby." The Derby was then one year in the offing, but Johnstone was so sold on My Love that he telephoned his old friend and patron, the late Aga Khan, pleaded: "Monseigneur, if you'll buy that horse, I'll ride him and win the Derby for you." The Aga was able to purchase only 50% of the horse, but his faith in Johnstone was justified: the following year, My Love gave the Aga's chocolate and green colors their fourth Derby victory.

Johnstone's keen sense of horseflesh has been honed over a tough career almost unmatched for longevity, variety and brilliance. Warren G. Harding was in the White House as President of the U.S. when Johnstone started racing as a 16-year-old apprentice in Australia, and he became national champion before he was out of his teens. After a decade of success in his home country, Rae went to India, then blooming in the genial autumnal years of the British raj. "That was real living," sighs Johnstone reminiscently. "All those colorful uniforms and lovely saris. I had two boys to look after every horse, I raced only once a week in Bombay or Calcutta, and I rode more winners than any other jockey in India.

"But I really began to live when I came to Paris," Rae admits. Pierre Wertheimer, big-time perfume manufacturer (Bourjois, Chanel), invited him to come to France to be his top jockey, and Johnstone continued his string of victories in the circle of beautiful race tracks which makes Paris a horseplayer's paradise. He became a familiar figure to Parisians in the winning enclosure behind the magnificent cream-colored stand of Longchamp, in the red brick rural loveliness of Le Tremblay. He wore the racing colors of France's most famous owners—Boussac, Aga Khan, Volterra.


Young, cocky, successful Johnstone backed his own mounts heavily with his own money, tossed many a purse to the croupiers in Deauville and other gilded gambling halls. All this stopped abruptly when Rae married his present French wife, Marie, in 1940, and he hasn't gambled since. During the Nazi occupation, Rae was tossed into a French concentration camp as an enemy alien. He escaped, hid out, and was in the saddle again six weeks after the Germans left.

By Rae's own standards, at the age of 40 he was already over the hill. "A jockey reaches his peak sometime between his apprenticeship and his 30th birthday," he claims. But what he lacked in fresh youth, he made up with seasoned cunning, which brought him some remarkable victories. Last year he won the Derby again, on Pierre Wertheimer's Lavandin, a horse he had never before mounted in a race.

In the postwar years Paris crowds fastened a title on Johnstone's sudden-death finishing style—they called him Le Crocodile because he came from behind to eat up the opposition. On his losing days they also called him "robber," "crook" and "bum," because he refused to lash a horse with his whip if he thought the animal had no chance to win. In a typical Johnstone-fashion run for the money, he humped his back like an angry cat, worked his arms and knees in a tremendous burst of energy to urge the horse on. But he seldom did more than flick the horse with his whip. "I just waved the whip in front of him now and then, to let him know it was there," he says. "There's no sense in beating a horse to death. If he hasn't got a win in him, you can't whip it out of him."

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