Gordon Richards was raised in the Shropshire village of Donnington Wood (now part of Telford). His father reared several pit ponies at their home, and it was in this environment that Sir Gordon fostered his love of the equestrian. He rode the ponies bareback from an early age, then from the age of seven, drove the pony and trap passenger service his family ran between Wrockwardine Wood and Oakengates station. It was at that age no doubt that he developed his unique riding style, using a long rein and an upright stance.
After leaving school he took the first step towards becoming a jockey, becoming a stable boy aged 15 at Fox Hollies Stable in Wiltshire, owned by Jimmy White.
It wasn't long before his riding skills were noticed by his new employer, who gave him his first ride in a race at Lincoln. Not long after his debut he won his first race at Leicester in March 1921. With the determination and single-mindedness that was his trademark, he achieved his dream of becoming a fully-fledged jockey in 1925, and went on to become Champion Jockey in his first year, notching up 118 wins.
Early in 1926, five years after Richards' racing debut, disaster struck the Shropshire jockey. He contracted tuberculosis and had to take time out from racing. But it was while he recuperated from the debilitating disease in a Norfolk sanatorium he met Bill Rowell, a fellow patient who was to have a major influence on his life. Rowell proved to be something of a mentor, teaching the young jockey how to cope with the riches that would come his way, as well as his popularity with high society in the class-ridden system that prevailed in Britain between the wars. The two became firm friends.
By December 1926, Richards was back in the saddle, and returned to winning ways in the 1927 racing season. In 1932 he became stable jockey to Fred Darling, and that season, with 259 victories under his belt, he broke the record for the greatest number of wins in a year, a record which had stood for nearly 50 years. Achievement followed achievement, with Richards winning the 1947 2,000 Guineas at Newmarket Racecourse aboard Tudor Minstrel by 8 lengths, the largest winning margin in the race since 1900.
Despite these huge successes, there was still one race where a win had always eluded him: The Epsom Derby. In 1942 he won 4 of the 5 'Classics' on horses, but still the big Derby win he craved remained out of his grasp. The 1953 Derby occurred on a week of great national, and personal celebration for Richards himself, as he became the first, and so far only, jockey to receive a knighthood.
This time Sir Gordon rode Pinza, a huge horse for a flat-thoroughbread at 16 hands high, and he rode a terrific race. Pinza was in second position through much of the one and half mile (2414 m) course, competing against the Queen's own horse Aureole, and sweeping past the Aga Khan III's horse, Shikampur, into first place with just two furlongs (402 m) remaining. The long-awaited win was accompanied by thunderous cheers from the frenzied crowd. Winning The Derby was undoubtedly Sir Gordon's crowning victory, and he was promptly summoned from the winners' enclosure to be congratulated by the Queen.
Sir Gordon's riding career ended in 1954 following a pelvis injury, but he continued to indulge his passion for racing, by becoming a horse trainer and advisor.
His legacy lives on in Shropshire today, with the Champion Jockey pub in Donnington named in his honour, and the Pinza suite in Oakengates Theatre, named after his winning horse.
Not until 2002 was his record number of victories in a season exceeded, by jump jockey Tony McCoy. However, McCoy was able to utilise modern technology by flying between tracks and therefore compete in more races than Sir Gordon was able to.
Richards' total of 4,870 winners is still a British Record. He also holds the record for the most consecutive winners ridden; 12 (half at a night meeting). He was British flat racing Champion Jockey a record 26 times.