In 1895 a solitary American jockey, the African American Willie Simms, rode in British racing. His unusual riding style—virtually crouching along the horse’s neck with short stirrups, high knees, and a tight rein—was in contrast to that of the English jockeys who sat more erect with a comparatively straight knee and a good length of rein. Simms secured only four wins, insufficient to rank him in the top fifty in the jockeys’ championship. Yet these wins were the product of merely nineteen mounts, a winning percentage of 21.5, amongst the highest in the land. Although Simms never returned, his visit was a precursor of an American invasion of the British turf that was to have a significant effect on the practice and performance of horsemanship in the domestic racing industry.
How the American riding style originated is not clear. In his biography, Tod Sloan—to whom British turf historians often attribute the American seat—claimed that he discovered the advantages of the forward seat one day when trying to stop a horse that had bolted with him in the saddle. On another occasion he said that he lit on the style when larking about in the training yard. In the 1890s, however, his riding caused no comment in the American racing press, which suggests that such a style was already commonplace. A reasoned view is that it was devised by poorer stable hands in the southern states who often had to ride workouts without saddles, thus forcing them to grip the mane and lie along the horse’s neck for balance.
Simms had first shown the American seat to British race goers in 1895, but its real effectiveness was demonstrated in the next five years. Lester Reiff came over for a spell in 1896 and had sixteen winners. Next to arrive was Tod Sloan. On his first short visit in autumn 1897, he had fifty-three mounts and won on twenty of them. He returned the following autumn, again as the punter’s friend, with forty-three winners out of ninety-eight mounts, a phenomenally high percentage of 43.9. At the first October meeting at Newmarket, the headquarters of the English turf, he rode twelve winners out of sixteen mounts. The shocked British experts argued that “the very great majority of his successes . . . would have been gained with any competent jockey in the saddle,” and that if Sloan came over for a full season, it would be a different story. It was. His strike rate fell to 31.3%, but his 345 mounts yielded 108 victories, placing him fifth in the jockeys’ championship, though the jockeys above him had significantly lower winning percentages. In 1900, four of the top ten riders in the British championship were from the United States. Lester Reiff was champion, with Tod Sloan in close attendance, followed by Johnny Reiff (Lester’s lightweight brother) and John Henry ‘Skeets’ Martin. In addition, nineteen-year-old Danny Maher arrived late that season and secured twenty-seven wins from 128 rides, a sign of the talent that was to bring him the jockeys’ championship in 1908 and again in 1913. The Americans not only won a large number of races but also a high proportion of the ones in which they took part. In 1900, Maher, Johnny Reiff, and Martin topped 20%, Lester Reiff won 26%, and Sloan almost 27%, high figures when it is considered that, on many occasions, they were riding against each other.