Joseph ‘Smokin’ Joe’ Mercer – his nickname derives from the pipe he habitually smokes – began his riding career in 1947, as a 13-year-old, apprenticed to Major Fred Sneyd at East Manton Stables in Sparsholt, near Wantage, Berkshire. Indeed, Mercer was Champion Apprentice in 1952 and 1953 and, in the latter season, won his first Classic, the Oaks, on Ambiguity, trained by R.J. ‘Jack’ Colling. Colling immediately offered Mercer a retainer at West Isley Stables, near Newbury, where he remained until 1976, with Colling until his retirement in 1962 and subsequently with his successor, William Richard “Dick” Hern.
However, the day after finishing second in the 1976 Derby on doubtful stayer Relkino, Mercer was informed, by means of a prepared statement read by the Queen’s racing manager, Lord Porchester, in the Epson Press Office, that he would be replaced as stable jockey at West Isley by Willie Carson at the end of the season. Mercer was subsequently offered a job as stable jockey to Ian Balding, but opted instead to become first jockey to Henry Cecil, who was taking over Warren Place, Newmarket following the retirement of his father-in-law, Noel Murless.
The Cecil-Mercer partnership flourished, with Mercer riding 102 winners in 1977 – the first time he had ridden over a hundred winners in a season since 1965 – and 114 winners in 1978. However, the best was yet to come, because Cecil would be instrumental in helping Mercer achieve what famed racing correspondent Richard Baerlain, at that time with the Guardian, described as the “wonderful feat” of becoming Champion Jockey for the first, and only, time at the age of 45.
In 1979, Cecil and Mercer won their first Classic with One In A Million in the 1,000 Guineas and although Kris failed by half a length to overhaul Tap On Wood, ridden by Steve Cauthen, in the 2,000 Guineas, he otherwise dominated the mile division, winning the St. James’s Palace Stakes, the Sussex Stakes and the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes, to name but three high-profile races. Other notable victories that season included Lyphard’s Wish in the Dante Stakes at York, Connaught Bridge in the Nassau Stakes, Hello Gorgeous in the Royal Lodge Stakes and the Futurity. All in all, Mercer clocked up 164 winners in 1979, beating reigning Champion Jockey Willie Carson by 24.