Backpacker Williams turns punters' hero

Australian rider who broke into the British big time will be back in 2001

When he arrived in Britain this spring, not many people gave Craig Williams a chance. For a start, the Australian jockey had only come to these shores because his heart was booming out of his shirt and he was reuniting with a girlfriend he had met in his homeland.

When he arrived in Britain this spring, not many people gave Craig Williams a chance. For a start, the Australian jockey had only come to these shores because his heart was booming out of his shirt and he was reuniting with a girlfriend he had met in his homeland.

And then he did not really look the part. His 23-year-old face is dominated by freckles and proper teeth, the sort of visage that normally gets you on the front of Mad magazine.

Yet Williams has swiftly proved that he is no dunce. Of all the backpackers who have arrived in Britain this season, he has made the most serious impact. And we have had some big names. There have been Williams' more celebrated countrymen in Damien Oliver and Greg Hall, as well as the South African Basil Marcus, the multiple champion of Hong Kong.

Craig Williams may not, as yet, be anywhere near the station of the great Aussies that have been to these provinces before, the likes of Scobie Breasley, Ron Hutchinson and Bill Williamson. But the angels seem to like him. His friend Vaughan Summers, who plays golf on the European circuit, introduced him to Mick Channon at the beginning of what was to be Old Windmill's greatest season with a training licence.

That is not to say the early days at West Ilsley were easy. "I was working really hard and trying hard but I just couldn't even get a ride, never mind a winner," the jockey said yesterday. "I was frustrated. I had just ridden a Group One winner in Australia and I felt that if I was given a chance I could do something. I was living out of my bags because I thought I would be going home any moment.

"It wasn't great at the time, but I do think it has made me mentally harder and tougher. That first six weeks meant I appreciate what's happening now.

"Mick told me to grin and bear it and I would get the chance eventually. He inspired me. It wasn't what he actually said, but the way he said it. Then we had the other sort of heart-to-hearts. I think you call them bollockings over here. But he's been great for me.

"I'm always thanking him, even when we are in the car going to races. But he tells me that if I couldn't do the job he wouldn't have me. Without him, I wouldn't be where I am."

You need the breaks in racing, and, in this instance, Williams got his from another jockey's - when Steve Drowne fractured his leg at Folkestone. That injury in early-season meant that the West Ilsley stable was down to just one senior jockey. And it was just as the horses were coming to the boil.

Hunting Lion went on to win the Coral Eurobet Sprint Handicap at Newmarket in early June at 50-1, a price which shines. Two weeks later Cotton House won at 25-1 in the William Hill Trophy Handicap at York and it was not only the odds which appeared to be glowing.

They may have been events which were designed to spread the good word for bookmakers, but, in reality, it was a single jockey who was the principal beneficiary.

"I started to get more rides from Mick, and it was at a time when even the slowest horses in the yard seemed to be winning," Williams says. "I got on them thinking they had no chance, but they all seemed to win. Suddenly I had the whole 130 rides. It was bloody great. It just showed how things can turn around."

There have been the handicap victories and then the successes at the highest level with Tobougg, in the Prix de la Salamandre and Dewhurst Stakes. The horse, however, is now just a reminiscence for Williams after his secondment to the Godolphin battalions yesterday.

Still, Williams will not change. The style is pure aerodynamics. He is literally draped around a horse's body. It is the sort of slumped posture the cowboy scout used to be in when the Indians sent him back from their camp.

Williams is also considered to be sparing with the whip back home, but then so would a lion tamer. The gunfire is reserved for his post-race observations. When it comes to the after-sales service - the conversation with owners, trainers and press - Williams is not found wanting.

The whole package seems to be working. Digital's win at Nottingham yesterday was his 42nd of the campaign, his 40th for Channon. A £1 bet on each of his rides would see you more than £40 ahead.

Tonight, the Aussie will dine with Channon and discuss his return visit next season. He flies back home on Sunday evening, the day after another potential big winner via Cd Europe in Doncaster's Racing Post Trophy.

The rider will not need the headset and screen on the return to the Antipodes because he has glorious images already flickering through his head. "I've got to see and participate in what I've always dreamed about, stuff that's only been on the television for me, in newspapers and magazines," Craig Williams says. "And then I get to be part of it. It's been fantastic."

Comments