Racing : Eddery's back: that means a new challenge not an old crisis

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Despite surgery on his spine that ended his season prematurely last year, Pat Eddery is fired up to pursue Lester Piggott's career total of 4,493 wins. He also has some words of warning for Frankie Dettori.

After a while, as you have settled into Pat Eddery's Crystal Palace of a conservatory, you feel brave enough to mention the word retirement. Pat ponders for a moment, considering whether you mean you or him, and then reacts as if you've suggested castration on his kitchen table. He'd happily carry it out on his impertinent visitor.

Patrick James John Eddery may be 46 on the middle day of the Cheltenham Festival, he may be recovering from surgery near his spine, but he is not yet ready for the flower seeds and Horlicks. His back is not a problem. It never has been. He likes putting it into things.

Sir Gordon Richards may be dead, and the same fate may have befallen Lester Piggott's riding career, but the only other man to ride 4,000 winners in Britain still has plenty of fuel to throw on the fire. Eddery, in fact, spent most of 1997 with coalman's back following a cloudy day in April. "I rode this horse for Reg Hollinshead at Nottingham and he won easily, but right at the end of the race he jinked, the sort of thing that thousands of horses have done with me, the sort of thing that happens every day," Eddery said. "But I felt a slight twinge. The next day I rode another winner for Richard [Hannon] and it was worse and I knew something was wrong."

The problem was a slipped disc that was pinching his spine, an injury which left him intermittently with a locked back and numbness in his legs. As he was partnering plenty of winners, Eddery ignored medical advice and rode through the discomfort and most of the season. However, after Silver Patriarch's victory in the St Leger, the 4,000th of the rider's career, Mother Nature's stabbing with the knitting needle became too much and Eddery agreed to an operation. "I was a bit worried because I'd never been under the scalpel before," he said.

The damaged disc was removed from the small of his back, but, rather like a counter being taken from a pile of playing chips, it was more incovenient than terminally damaging. Eddery was soon pottering around his property, and you can do a lot of pottering at Muskhill Farm, which occupies 107 acres of Buckinghamshire pastureland. The jockey has another 73 acres at his stud, where he has mares which benefit from nominations to the likes of Caerleon and Zafonic.

As he sits in his conservatory, Pat Eddery looks rather neat in a blue and green checked shirt, jeans and cowboy boots. He does not look in decline. His figure remains like the one that most people take out of the school gates on their final day but never see again. It's a rather ridiculous moment when a tubby reporter asks Eddery if his body is past it. "Never once did I think of retirement because of my back," he said. "Riding horses is what I do."

Eddery is rather tickled at the suggestion that his schedule might not be so hectic this term. He believes you should either have the accelerator on the floor or not get into the vehicle at all, and dismisses Frankie Dettori's intention to cherry pick his rides this season. "That's all part of the game, going to the Folkestones and the smaller tracks, because it's not Royal Ascot every day," Eddery said. "It's ridiculous what Frankie is thinking of doing, you can't just get on the winning rides all the time, you've got to build up.

"You can't just take days off like Wally Swinburn does sometimes, you've got to be out there every day working those muscles, riding in every race if you want to be at your best. I never take time off unless I have to because it says the wrong things. If I was a trainer and I didn't think the guy was riding at 100 per cent all the time and was motivated I wouldn't put him up.

"Probably the one thing that keeps me going is riding winners. Every one still gives me a kick. There may be more money for a Derby than a seller but that doesn't make you try any harder. A winner is a winner."

Pat Eddery's story began in Dublin, the son of racing folk who was riding ponies at four and racehorses at eight (that's age and not o'clock). He was initially apprenticed to Seamus McGrath and his first ride, True Time, finished last at the Curragh in August 1967. The leading trainer then was Noel Murless, whose Royal Palace had won the Derby, and some considered that Foinavon had been lucky to win that year's Grand National. Pat Eddery was 15.

Eddery, though, was essentially forged when he enroled at Frenchie Nicholson's Cheltenham jockey academy. "They say one in a thousand make it and the reason I did was because I was lucky and I had good people behind me," the Irishman said. "I owe just about 100 per cent of it to Frenchie, who taught me how to ride and, even more importantly, looked after me. When you're a young man with a few quid in your pocket for the first time things can go the wrong way and you need someone to grab your collar."

It must be said that Pat has managed to get off the leash a few times to make visits to the tabloids. He cannot, however, have constructed his career on blancmange foundations.

Indeed, the P J J Eddery most of us know from the racecourse is the man with the facial emotion of an Easter Island statue. His ration of smiles is taken up by another weighing-room notable. It's not a game to Pat Eddery. It's business.

There is little rococo about Eddery. He may not swap ideas with Stephen Hawking either, but when the prototype for a riding machine was developed it was he that was placed on a podium from which he has yet to slip.

There exists, Eddery believes, only a handful of jockeys who do thunderously well out of racing, enough to go round a generous dining table. They get the steaming roasts and fine wines, while others try to pull the chairs away. "They're a great bunch of lads in the weighing room at the moment and good riders, too - it's not like France where they're so boring - but there are only about six or seven riders who pick up all the best rides," he said. "They make a really good living out of the game and you've got to stay with them and be someone who is guaranteed a ride in every race because once you slip from there you'll never get back. There are plenty of young, hungry jockeys waiting to take your place."

This is a basic instinct which has driven the rider for almost 30 years. It will do so again after he has been on a skiing holiday and to Barbados and will carry him past one of the few remaining milestones on his road.

Eddery says he will ride not much further than his 50th birthday, by which time he should be in the proximity of a legend, another man with 11 jockeys' championships to his name. "Lester was out of the saddle for a bit while he was training and then when he had that mishap with the Revenue." It's never been called that before.

If Eddery can avoid mishaps of his own he should pass the 4,493 career total of Lester Piggott, who established himself in the common mind as the greatest jockey of the age. What does that make Pat Eddery?