Taking a day off racing to enjoy Joe Root’s regal 180 not out against India on the third day of the England-India Test — tranquillity interrupted only by a call from home to say that Flat-coated Retriever Damson had eaten the TV controller — I was struck by the amount of ‘gardening’ indulged in by batters. After any ball that has beaten them they stroll down the pitch, glare malevolently at an innocent patch of turf and prod back into inoffensive conformity the infinitesimal protrusion on the surface which they have assured themselves was responsible for the ball whipping past their hung-out bat. Excuse accepted. Mental confidence restored.
Confidence is crucial too in the battle for the Jockeys Championship which this year, thanks partly to Covid, will produce the most genuine holder of the title we have seen in years. One measure to combat the pandemic has been the introduction of the rule restricting jockeys to riding at a single meeting every day. In the past the title has sometimes been a reward not just for talent in the saddle but for a hair-shirted willingness to incur the biggest petrol bill in the weighing room by flogging from afternoon meetings to evening fixtures in search of any ride a workaholic agent can drum up. That aspect alone has ensured that some champion jockeys have decided after winning the title never to challenge for it again.
As Steve Cauthen reflected after his epic battle with Pat Eddery in 1987 when he won with 197 victories to 195: ‘I was “cooked”, absolutely knackered. I’d literally lived horses 24 hours a day seven days a week for eight months and, however much you enjoy it, too much of a good thing can be bad for you.’
Cauthen’s achievement against a man who won 11 titles in all was a supreme one because while he had to drive to most meetings Eddery could afford his own plane and get home in time for dinner. Eddery was decent enough sometimes to give his rival a seat on that plane, but while Pat at a natural 8st 3lb could eat his dinner, Cauthen, who struggled to ride at 8st 7lb, was fighting his weight every day, a factor in ensuring that Eddery had 150 more rides than him that season.
Other factors can count in the Jockeys Championship too, notably regional loyalty. Another epic battle for the title was that between Paul Hanagan and Richard Hughes in 2010. Richard rode mostly in the South, Paul Hanagan mostly in the North, where several trainers who employed him regularly desperately wanted to see a northern-based jockey take the title. As the tension mounted at season’s end, they phoned friends, and northern trainers for whom Hanagan had not previously ridden, began putting him up.
More sinister aspects emerged too. Hughes recalled in his autobiography how in the critical final days one northern-based jockey overdid the loyalty by trying to put him out of a race in a dangerous manoeuvre. Then there was the trainer who had booked him for a ride only for Hughes to turn up and find the horse was as fat as an ox. That trainer forgot that he had earlier told Hughes he had backed Hanagan to become Champion Jockey and Hughes told his agent, Tony Hind, not to accept any more bookings from him. When the same trainer asked to have Hughes ride another horse, Hind didn’t advertise the fact that he had booked his man to ride another horse in the race and, surprise, surprise, the trainer telephoned on the morning of the race to say his entry had gone lame. No, all is not fair in love and war.
This year’s Jockeys Championship is a tremendous contest. As the season started there seemed to be five strong contenders. With their lowest weights they were the current champion Oisin Murphy (8st 5lb), who rides for Qatar Racing and frequently for Andrew Balding; Godolphin’s top rider William Buick (8st 6lb); William Haggas’s first-choice rider Tom Marquand (8st 6lb); northern-based Ben Curtis (8st 4lb), who is getting an increasing number of rides for the powerful Mark Johnston yard; and Hollie Doyle (8st 0lb), who is attached to the prolific Archie Watson stable. Oisin, who is as determined as he is loquacious, has lately set a scorching pace riding eight winners in two days including a five-timer at Kempton and a treble at Brighton. He, Buick (84 wins) and Marquand (80) have currently pulled clear of the pack, with his former fellow Balding apprentice David Probert lying fourth on 65, but Oisin insists: ‘It wouldn’t be enough even if I was 40 winners clear. I really need to keep my foot down.’
What makes it enthralling is that every one of the leading three is riding for trainers who will have runners at all the big meetings and will regularly be in action against each other. It isn’t a title this year that can be nicked by somebody cleaning up with midweek rides at Hamilton, Pontefract and Great Yarmouth.
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