Page 1: Biography
Ellis, Leslie James
Jockey, racehorse trainer
This biography, written by Mary Mountier, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.
Famous in horse-racing history for becoming the first New Zealand jockey to ride 1,000 winners, Jim Ellis also became a successful trainer, combining both careers for several years. He was a member of a family of notable horsemen: five of seven brothers became either leading trainers, jockeys, or both.
Leslie James Ellis was born on 24 November 1910 at Nightcaps, Southland, the youngest of 12 children of Cornish parents Peter Ellis, a farmer, and his wife, Margaret Bennetts. Before he had finished his schooling at Wairio School, Jim Ellis had already ridden his first winner, getting the ride at a local point-to-point meeting because nobody else was available.
At 14 he gained an apprentice jockey’s licence and joined the stables of his elder brother Fred at Invercargill. Fred had started the family trend by becoming a jumps jockey, but was too heavy to be a successful rider on the flat. Even Bert, the second youngest brother, whose talent rivalled Jim’s, had to turn to jumps riding as his weight soared past nine stone.
For Jim Ellis, weight was never a problem. Indeed, early in his career a stipendiary steward reported to the New Zealand Racing Conference that ‘Ellis was apparently too small to control his mount (Flight) during the finish’. However, by the time Ellis reached his milestone of 1,000 winners in July 1949, doubts about his suitability as a jockey had long since vanished.
In an era when rough riding tactics were not unusual, Ellis received relatively few suspensions and cautions from the authorities. He was regarded as having ‘a wonderful sense of rhythm and balance, splendid judgment of pace, and sensitive, sympathetic hands’. With such qualities he excelled in staying races, where the rider’s ability to relax a horse during the running is even more vital than in sprints. As early as 1928 he won the New Zealand Cup (two miles) on Oratrix. This was the first of 10 victories in staying events over a period spanning nearly 25 years: he won the New Zealand Cup four more times, the Wellington Cup three times, and the Auckland Cup twice. He also won the country’s most prestigious classic event, the New Zealand Derby, five times.
Among the mounts that provided these wins were the champions Cuddle, Defaulter and Beaumaris, but Ellis also won major races on horses of lesser calibre. He headed the jockeys’ premiership on four occasions, and was three times runner-up. His remarkable skills as a horseman were illustrated in his ride on Bruce in the Canterbury Cup in 1948. Soon after the start a stirrup leather broke, leaving Ellis unbalanced. Such an occurrence normally results in the horse pulling to the front and then dropping out, as the jockey has little or no control. But Jim Ellis somehow regained his balance and urged his mount to a narrow victory against top-class opponents.
From early in his career Ellis was in demand from trainers around the country, and he travelled by sea, rail and road from his southern base before moving to Christchurch in 1936. He was married there on 19 October 1938 to Gloria Margaret Barlow. As opportunities for riding decreased during the Second World War, Ellis bought a property in Riccarton to establish himself as a trainer. He named it Bruce Lodge, after his favourite horse.
He was initially granted a provisional trainer’s licence, then after the 1944–45 season held a full trainer’s licence as well as his jockey’s licence. He had immediate success in the dual role, training and riding the legendary Kindergarten – a great champion by then plagued by unsoundness – to two victories from two starts in that first season, and Golden Souvenir to win the New Zealand Cup and Wellington Cup the following season. In 1952 he relinquished his jockey’s licence to concentrate on training full time. Ellis trained Golden Souvenir’s son Gold Scheme to win the New Zealand Cup in 1953 and the Sydney Cup in 1954.
Jim Ellis’s success never went to his head. He was noted for his quiet, unassuming manner and was remembered by a contemporary pressman as ‘a real little gentleman’. For the last decade of his life, his training activities were restricted by increasing bad health: like most jockeys he smoked, and he suffered from asthma and severe emphysema. He died on 30 March 1971 at his home in Riccarton, survived by his wife and a son.