Booking rides proves a monster operation

RACING: Top jump jockeys' agent Dave Roberts works on through the freeze-up to put keep his clients busy
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The Independent Online
RICHARD EDMONDSON

Dave Roberts is a sports agent, but the only time he says "monster" is while reading fairy stories to his two children.

In the old days agent used to be a nice word. It described the Avon lady and 007, but then along came the benefactors of the housing boom of the 1980s and the creation of Eric Hall in the football world. Roberts, who could fill a jockeys' room with his stable of riders, is trying to change all that. "I don't class myself as an agent, it's not a word I like, I'd describe myself as someone who just books rides," he said.

When it comes to putting bottoms on saddles in jump racing there is no one to touch Dave Roberts. He represents 15 jockeys, many of them leading names, and makes what he calls "a good living", slicing 10 per cent off the 10 per cent his men receive in prize-money commission. There is, however, a price to pay, and it is time.

The windows of opportunity to speak to Roberts are open as frequently as those of a mountain lodge in the Rockies. The first words likely to be heard when you call him are "can you hang on a moment please?".

It all starts at a time when even Postie has yet to pull his pants on. "I work from 5.30 to 9.30 [and that is not the passage when the hands pass each other just three times]," Roberts said. "You get calls any time between those hours."

Phase one is trawling through the entries and form books, pinpointing the likely winners for his cavalrymen. Contact with the nation's trainers is made from then until the start of racing, which Roberts views at his local bookies (and a hugely professional sight he looks too as he makes calls on his mobile phone between events). The agent leaves when the broom comes out to sweep away the dead slips and spends the rest of the evening back on the blower.

This, it has to be said, does not happen all the time. Every year, without fail, Roberts takes the family abroad for a fortnight for the first two weeks in July (and presumably asks them what they have been doing for the previous 12 months). For the rest of the year, seven days a week, he is the chap who appears to have been the victim of a prankster with superglue who has sabotaged the telephone earpiece.

During the ice age that has swept in this weekend, Roberts is hardly resting by the log fire with a Scotch in his hand. "In the bad weather trainers are ringing me up and jokingly asking if I'm taking it easy," he said. "Relatively I am, but there are still entries coming out."

Dave Roberts, though, has not always been as committed as this to the problems set before him. By the age of 12, a lot of the chalk he saw was not going on blackboards but rather against horses' names. "I used to skive off school and go to Kempton and Sandown and get the bus to Ascot," he said. "I used to stand outside the track and wait for somebody to get me in."

Briefly the manager for an Indian owner who had horses with Geoff Lewis, Roberts first represented Jason Swift part-time. Swift lived with Dean Gallagher, and Paul Harley moved in with him. Soon, Roberts was attracting aspiring young men like Fagin, and his attention concentrated on the winter game.

Not many of Britain's trainers greet newcomers to the sport with an invitation for tea, and Roberts was no exception. "Like anything else it has taken quite a long time to build up trust and respect," he said. "But I feel I get on with 99 per cent of trainers well now and some have become friends."

The accelerator was really depressed in the early 1990s when Roberts took over the affairs of a young Irishman who was seeking his fortune in Britain, a rider called Adrian Maguire. When the agent talks of Maguire he invariably uses the "we" in discussing his fortunes.

The jockey's narrow failure to win the championship in the last two seasons has obviously hurt both, but, like a father and son at sports day, it is difficult to tell if it was combatant or spectator who was most disappointed. "He [Adrian] has put so much in since coming over here and he's grown so much both as a jockey and a person it's a tragedy he hasn't been champion jockey so far," Roberts said.

"To ride 194 winners, like he did in the first year we were close, and not be the champion is a scandal really. If someone was awake towards the end of that season I was on the phone to them and I watched every race. I was close to a nervous wreck so I hate to think of the demands it placed on Adrian and Richard [Dunwoody].

"Last year I firmly believe we had the ammunition to win, but we had a freak accident. Adrian was riding as well as ever and we had all this ammo waiting, but then Desert Fighter ran through a wing at Hereford."

After a fall at Leicester on Tuesday, Maguire is again sicklisted with a knee injury. But as he was Roberts's professional springboard, Maguire is probably his favourite, though he does not let that affect riding decisions. When two or more from the agent's stable are at a race meeting where there is a spare ride, he insists that the trainer takes the pick.

It is ironic following the last two years that Roberts is now destined to contribute to his first jockeys' title with someone other than Maguire. He also represents Tony McCoy and David Bridgwater who, accidents apart, seem to have this campaign's test between them.

If either win the title Roberts, at 35, will reappraise his position as he will have achieved his ambition in what he considers "a young man's game". If he goes, it will be bad news, not only for several jockeys but for British Telecom. In one quarter last year, the three lines and mobile telephone that are Roberts's essential tools cost him pounds 2,000.

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