Bradley stepping aside from controversy

AT THE end of this month, back at Wetherby where it all began, the 39-year-old National Hunt jockey Graham Bradley plans to steer his remarkable 22-year-old riding career past the finishing post. "I'll miss the riding like mad, but I won't miss the dieting, the sweating, all the bloody driving," he says. "To be honest, going to the Newton Abbots, the Fontwells, just does not produce the old adrenalin rush any more. Ascot, Cheltenham, Sandown, Kempton, that's different."

AT THE end of this month, back at Wetherby where it all began, the 39-year-old National Hunt jockey Graham Bradley plans to steer his remarkable 22-year-old riding career past the finishing post. "I'll miss the riding like mad, but I won't miss the dieting, the sweating, all the bloody driving," he says. "To be honest, going to the Newton Abbots, the Fontwells, just does not produce the old adrenalin rush any more. Ascot, Cheltenham, Sandown, Kempton, that's different."

It has been a career of spectacular highs and lows. Bradley has ridden more than 700 winners, but has had some interesting brushes with the establishment along the way. Of these, the most interesting erupted on 8 January this year when, shortly before 6am, three Serious Crime Squad officers arrived at Bradley's home in the village of Sparsholt, Oxfordshire. He had been half-expecting a knock on the door ever since various fellow jockeys were rounded up on suspicion of race-fixing, starting with Jamie Osborne, Dean Gallagher and Leighton Aspell (all of whom were subsequently cleared) in early 1998. Not that the police could rouse Bradley very easily. He has been half-deaf in his left ear since a nasty fall on Zeta's Lad in the Grand National.

He was taken to Charing Cross police station, there to be informed that the alleged fiddle took place in a two-horse race, the 3.25 at Warwick on 5 November, 1996. Bradley has good reason to remember, remember, the fifth of November. He was riding Man Mood, the 4-7 favourite, but pulled him up, enabling the well-backed 5-4 shot Drumstick to romp home. However, the idea that he was somehow involved in a betting conspiracy is nowt short of farcical, says this plain-speaking but extremely amiable Yorkshireman. "The horse had a history of breathing problems, in fact he's never won a race since. He started choking his head off, and I knew he wasn't getting oxygen to his brain. There was a big open ditch in front of me, so I had to pull him up to preserve him for his next race."

Bradley has long been popular with trainers for taking care of his mounts, pulling them up if they appear out of sorts. For this solicitude, he was accused of race-fixing. It seemed almost comically unfair. "I did keep laughing about it. But then I thought they would keep bailing me, like they had with Jamie and the others. I never thought in a million years I'd get charged. That was a shock."

Now, having been cleared of any wrong-doing, Bradley is commendably unruffled about the whole sorry affair, insisting that he harbours no bitterness. In any case, he is used to controversy, which has dogged him since 1982 when he was handed a two-month ban for breaking Jockey Club rules by placing a bet at Cartmel. "That's when it all started. I was always one for having a pound or a fiver on, but they say I went into the betting ring with my silks on. I didn't. I went into the silver ring, where I didn't think anyone could see us, and had a very small bet at 2-1. I won pocket money. But it was stupid, immature behaviour, and the mud seemed to stick a little bit."

Which is a shame, because Bradley is widely reckoned to be one of the most gifted jockeys in the history of National Hunt. He knows it, too. "I have always believed in myself, always thought that I was as good as anyone, except maybe [John] Francome. He is the best horseman I have ever seen or will ever see. The way he presented a horse at a fence, hands like silk . . ." Bradley tails off in awe. His other hero, of whom there is a signed limited-edition print on his living-room wall, is Lester Piggott. "I kept a scrapbook on him when I was younger. Unbelievable man. He could even think like a horse."

Horses are in Bradley's blood, too. His father Norman started work as a stable lad when he was 13, lying to the family that he had landed a job in a butcher's shop. Norman Bradley eventually became a trainer, taught his son to ride, and has been the dominant influence in his life. There have been other influences, though, notably the legendary trainer Michael Dickinson, who memorably saddled the first five home in the 1983 Cheltenham Gold Cup. The race was won by Bradley, then just 22, on Bregawn.

Dickinson protected his prodigy. "He always said that if someone offered me a ride, I couldn't say yes or no, I had to ask him. He said that bad horses would do my confidence in. And I have always gone for quality rather than quantity. I've never had more than about 300 rides a year, some of the boys have 900 to 1,000. And I've been very fortunate, I've won a Gold Cup, two Hennessys, the Irish National, the King George . . ."

But never, alas, the Grand National, a boyhood dream. "No, though my best ride ever was on Suny Bay in the National two years ago. We finished second on heavy ground that was barely raceable. He jumped like a buck and I gave him a real thinking ride. I knew they'd go off too quick, and I said to the owner Andrew Cohen and the trainer Charlie Brooks, 'don't be looking for me in the first half-dozen on the first circuit'. He looked like winning between the last two fences, but Earth Summit only had 10st 6lb, we were carrying 12st. Suny Bay wasn't quite good enough to give that weight away to a very good horse, but he deserved to win."

Ironically, had Suny Bay won the previous year's National, Bradley would have quit racing in disgust. He was gutted when Cohen and Brooks handed the ride to Jamie Osborne, who had won the Greenalls Gold Cup on Suny Bay. "I understood why, but I still would have packed it in. Charlie was and is one of my best mates, but I'd worked so hard for the yard, ridden anything and everything, and I thought Suny Bay would be a steering job. I was ill thinking I was not going to ride him. In fact I pulled up my ride at the Melling Road and stood up in my stirrups to see what had won. If it had been Suny Bay I would have left the racecourse straight away and sulked for the rest of my life."

He is only half-joking. Bradley's passion for racing knows no bounds, and he is looking forward, once he has passed the post at Wetherby, to developing his career as a bloodstock agent. He has dabbled already, with considerable success, indeed the footballers Robbie Fowler and Steve McManaman, co-owners of Auetaler, are among those to have benefited from his formidable judgement. Bradley spotted Auetaler in Germany. It has already won several times, and promises great deeds as a handicap hurdler.

How, I wonder, did it end up in the colours of Fowler and McManaman? "I knew the boys had shares in a horse which had some bad luck with injuries. So I had dinner with them one night, and said 'I'll get you one.' I bought Auetaler with my own money, rang them up and said 'I've bought you a horse, boys. I paid so much for him, give me 10 per cent commission and he's all yours.' So they both sent me a cheque and that was that."

Most bloodstock agents charge a maximum of five per cent, but then most bloodstock agents aren't Graham Bradley. "It sounds dear but I'm paying all my own expenses, getting horses insured, transported. And I'm buying value horses, so people are still getting a good deal. Also, not many bloodstock agents will actually sit on a horse. I'll sit on it for up to an hour, see it walk, trot, canter. Feel its balance. See what it does with its ears, the way it looks at other horses, find out whether it's game, or genuine, or soft. They've all got different personalities. Some are thick, some gentle, some are bordering on psychopaths, just like anyone you might meet in the pub on a Friday night."

Ditto jockeys, although Bradley has mostly praise for his fellow riders. "The camaraderie is unbelievable. They'll lend you their last fiver, wait four hours while you have an X-ray, you name it. And I honestly think that the quality of horsemanship now is as good as I've ever known. Jockeys have improved a lot with the advent of the Racing Channel, because they can go home and watch themselves. I tape every race I ride in. My only criticism of other jockeys is that some of them hit horses far too much." Like his mate Tony McCoy? "I love Tony to bits, and I was as whip-happy as anyone when I was a kid, but I really do think that three or four times after the last is enough. Willie Carson was an absolute genius. He always used to flick the quarters with a backhand, encouraging rather than hurting them. So I think the Jockey Club has done a great job in trying to curb it."

Similarly, Bradley approves of the dope-testing crackdown. "Laxatives, pee pills, I used to be on all of them. You'd pee out three or four £before a race. But after the race you'd be so dehydrated that you wouldn't just put three £back on, but five or six. So then you'd start taking two pills, and it became a nightmare. Now you can't take them at all, and that's dead right."

But what of horses being doped, as reported by his mate Charlie Brooks in his recently published autobiography? I spot the book in the Bradley living-room, alongside the autobiography of his friend Alex Ferguson, and the new Dick Francis. What, speaking of Dick Francis, of more sinister goings-on? Bradley might never have conspired to fix a race, but it is odds-on that others have.

He smiles. "Since I have been involved in racing, it has got straighter and straighter. There is now a camera head on, side on, back on, following the back of the field, the middle, the leaders. Some of the owners wouldn't know a horse if it trod on their foot, but you couldn't put the brakes on a horse without the trainer knowing. Anyway, when you're riding five, six, seven days a week, getting up at 5.30am, getting home at 10 at night, having a sweat, being careful about what you eat, you haven't got time to think about anything else." There's no arguing with that.

'They say I went into the betting ring with my silks on. I didn't. I went into the silver ring, where I didn't think anyone could see us, and had a very small bet at 2-1. I won pocket money. But it was stupid, immature behaviour'

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