You’ve had success on the world’s most prestigious race night – what’s left?
I’d love to win the Dubai World Cup. I’ve ridden in it – and celebrated my first Group 1 prize, the 2013 Dubai Golden Shaheen on Reynaldothewizard – but to win the best race in the world would be amazing.
How do you plan on going about it?
To win you need a very, very good horse. We’ve had winners from Japan, from America, from Europe – you need that one very special horse to come around, and that’s the thing that keeps us jockeys striving, day in, day out, riding at smaller meetings and hoping to find that one exceptionally good horse to take to the big races. It’s also what gets the trainers up every day and it’s why owners keep going out and buying horses.
Can you sense a potential winner waiting in the wings right now?
That’s the thing – you never know. We’ve a lot of young horses coming through, and you can never know when they’re suddenly going to turn. Reynaldothewizard was seven when he won in 2013 – it took him all that time to get there.
How did it feel to be crowned this year’s Champion Jockey?
Fantastic. I’d got off to a good start and as the year progressed and I was still riding winners I started to think it could be my year. It’s taken a while to get here but I feel fantastic, I’m in great shape, and I still have a real hunger for racing. I’m enjoying it more now at 39 than ever.
Who do you think most wants a win: the jockey, the trainer, the owner… or the horse?
It’s certainly not the horse! I don’t think they really know what’s going on, although you do sometimes get horses that seem lazy when training who fly home to win when they get to the races. For the owner, it’s all out of their hands come race day, and I don’t really know what’s going through the trainer’s head because I’m not a trainer. But jockeys do get very anxious and they all want to win, sometimes chasing it a bit more than they should – whether it’s for Dh5,000 or a million.
Do you remember your first race?
I’d been into ponies when I was six or seven, lost interest and started playing football in my teens but then I got back into horses when I was 14. I was very small at school, and my grandparents were always saying I’d make a good jockey. I had the chance to do work experience for Ginger McCain [the legendary Red Rum trainer], became hooked, went to racing school and got an apprenticeship. My first race was in Newmarket, and I remember vividly that on one side of me was Lester Piggott, and on the other was Willie Carson, two legends of the sport. I also remember that I definitely didn’t win! I rode about 100 losers before I had my first winner, but learning to ride the bad ones makes you appreciate a good one all the more.
How do UAE stables compare to the ones in England?
There’s no comparison – it’s like six-star accommodation here. I’ve been very fortunate to work in some of the best stables in the UK but the stables here are phenomenal. It must be every horse’s dream to be trained out here.
What were the best and worst days at work?
My best day was getting my first Group 1 win on Reynaldothewizard; the worst was when I left the UAE to go back to Europe in 2004. Three weeks in at Leicester a horse came out in front me, I went down, shattered my wrist and was out for two-and-a-half months. That’s a long time in racing, and if the guy replacing you goes on to win on horses that were yours it’s hard to get them back. I was glad when I was due to fly back here.
Is there much heckling between jockeys?
Not really, but races can be run very tight and if you’ve 16 horses going round and you all want to be in the same position, you can’t. It’s like going round a running track – you want to go the shortest way possible, so things can get very, very tight and emotions can run wild because we all want to win. If there’s heckling it tends to happen after the race, and people occasionally get fired up in the weighing room and have a shouting match.
Finally, jockeys famously exist on very small diets – what food do you miss the most?
A fried English breakfast – I think that would be my last meal. I can eat three meals a day and I’m very fortunate, but there are occasions when you do have a light weight to pull and you have to miss out for a few days to cut down on your weight and then go into a sauna and take three or four pounds off. It’s a tough sport.