has compiled a book of secret stories from racing’s top brass to raise money for Injured Jockeys
Raising funds for Injured Jockeys with tales about the big names
The formative years of sportsmen on their way to the top are invariably the most interesting. That is why it has been such fun this summer putting together a Christmas book containing magic memories from racing’s greats for the Injured Jockeys Fund.
Off Track offers a brisk and amusing canter through the early memories of many of our sport’s finest names including Lester Piggott, Frankie Dettori, John Francome, Paul Nicholls and Sir Anthony McCoy.
I cannot claim any credit for suggesting the subject matter. That came from Diana Foulkes whose husband Bill was a top amateur jump jockey in the days when men were men and no quarter was asked or given.
Eighteen months ago Diana wrote to over one hundred well known racing notables asking them to contribute entertaining tales about their youthful exploits in the saddle to be published in a book to raise funds for the IJF.
When the response was a shade limited I offered to step in and nudge the memories of those who were too busy to put pen to paper.
It led to a series of fascinating interviews with big names past and present who were keen to support Diana’s venture.
Frankie Dettori cheerfully came clean about the day he incurred the wrath of Jack Berry after ignoring his pre-race instructions at Chester. A brilliant cartoon by Birdie of the moment Jack caught up with the jockey he describes as a little Italian prat sits proudly on the front cover.
Birdie’s excellent cartoons add colour and life to a number of tales while veteran photographer Bernard Parkin delivered several fascinating snaps from his archives including one of a ridiculously youthful looking Derby winning trainer seeming close to exhaustion as he returns in triumph on a mud-spattered chaser at the Cheltenham Festival.
Paul Nicholls offers a frank confession about the day he sabotaged the doughnuts at a bakery where he worked as a teenager to help pay for his first racehorse. Earlier this month he generously took time out from his hectic schedule to pose for some publicity photos for the book at his local bakery.
Other entertaining cameos from the past include a hilarious account of John Francome’s job interview with Fred Winter and an unexpected twist in Lester Piggott’s account of his first winner as an apprentice at the age of 12. It couldn’t happen now.
Then there is the curious story of how the peerless Sir Anthony McCoy was swiftly brought down to earth by the Liverpool constabulary when he rang his mother after his Grand National triumph on Don’t Push It.
My favourite contribution in Off Track comes from the ever popular clerk of the course Hugo Bevan whose first day in that role at Huntingdon was enlivened by the sight of two racecourse stewards shouting encouragement on the run-in to the jockey of a horse they had clearly backed.
In retirement Hugo spent two two happy years on an art course at Warwick University where one of his tasks involved drawing nudes.
The fun starts when he meets one of his models in her day job but you will have to buy the book to hear the full embarrassing denouement.
Racing has so many diverse characters I suspect I could have filled three books if time and space allowed.
One man who will definitely be on the short list if there is a sequel is the splendid 2017 champion jockey Silvester De Sousa who has led from the front all season and was pretty much out of sight by high summer after a lucrative month in June which saw him ride six winners on two separate days.
One of ten children of a farmer who lived in Sao Paolo, his first skills in the saddle were learned rounding up cattle on his father’s working horses.
Small and energetic, standing barely five foot tall, he progressed through the Racing school in Sao Paolo to become champion apprentice in Brazil with 75 winners.
A move to Ireland in the hope of a more lucrative career in Europe saw him marking time for two years at the Curragh riding work and breaking in yearlings for Dermot Weld.
“I was nothing when I arrived from Brazil, nobody,” he recalls with a cheerful shrug of the shoulders.
“I went to Mr Weld because he was a big man in Ireland and famous all over the world. But I was just a work rider. The hardest part was dealing with the freezing weather in the winter. It was a shock and at times I was homesick and wanted to jump on the next plane back to Brazil.
“Looking back now I enjoyed Ireland but it was different and sometimes difficult.”
After two barren years he was preparing to return home when a chance meeting led to an offer to work for Dandy Nicholls inYorkshire.He gained his first success in England on Sonic Anthem on New Year’s Day, 2006.
Soon he was riding winners regularly on the Northern circuit for Nicholls. Other trainers were not slow to spot that he gave everything a ride, was exceptionally strong and fit and possessed of an almost tangible will to win. The boy from Brazil was on his way.
He insists, “If it wasn’t for Dandy I wouldn’t be where I am today. He was the one to give me a chance and through working and riding for him I got contact with other trainers.”
Punters have really warmed to the energetic Brazilian those last few years. He reached his first century of winners in 2010, and a year later was just pipped by Paul Hanagan in their sustained duel for the champion jockeys’ crown.
When Godolphin snapped him up as their retained jockey his future seemed assured. But it was a troubled time for the
boys in blue and the arrangement was not a great success for either party though you could hardly blame the jockey for Godolphin’s failings. Within two years he was back to chasing winners all over the country as a freelance and there was no apparent bitterness at the parting of the ways.
De Sousa suggests, “What happened to me happens to every jockey at some point. I believe in myself and what I can do. I only had a short time with Godolphin but at least I can say I had a good time.
“I was given a great opportunity, I took it and I don’t think I could have done any better than I did.”
Within a year of losing his job with Godolphin, Silvester De Sousa was champion jockey despite missing the best part of a month during the season for a series of minor riding infringements. If he was trying to prove a point he could not have done it more brilliantly.
He couldn’t quite match the firepower of Jim Crowley the following year but normal service has resumed in 2017 with de Sousa holding a lead of around 40 over his nearest challengers for much of the past three months.
Light, bright, cheerful and unbelievably fit, he is the go to jockey for trainers when the money is down as demonstrated ruthlessly on October 14 by his no-nonsense ride in landing a nationwide gamble on Withhold in the Cesarewitch at Newmarket from the front.
Yet for all De Sousa’s excellence it is puzzling that the top yards in this country still offer the new champion few opportunities to shine in Group One races.
The bonus for him is that on many a day this summer he was making hay at the minor meetings while his chief rivals for the title contested valuable events elsewhere.
He would not be human If he didn’t wonder what more he has to do to get the call regularly to ride in the races that matter most in the calendar.
He concedes, “I don’t know why I haven’t been getting better horses to ride but perhaps what I have achieved so far is not enough.
“Being champion the first time didn’t change anything for me. I thought it would turn things round for me but I actually found it tougher last year after I topped the table in 2015. I couldn’t believe it.”
No one can deny that in 2018 Silvestre de Sousa deserves more chances at the highest level.
If they don’t come then you can be sure he will continue his stamina sapping routine as before, doing what he does best, travelling thousands of miles each week, often riding at two meetings a day, always giving value in his relentless quest for winners. Off Track is published by Racing Post books at £10 with proceeds going to the Injured Jockeys Fund.
Silvestre De Souza on Viren’s Army (centre)
Silvestre De Souza