Darley relentless in crossing the divide

With Kieren Fallon and Frankie Dettori sidelined by injury, a northern-based rider is leading the race for the title A shy rider challenges the south's domination of honours in thesaddle.
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Kevin Darley knew work was taking over when he came home one night and met his golden Labrador, Roly, in the drive. "His hair stood up on the back of his neck and he came running at me barking," the jockey says. "He didn't recognise me.''

Kevin Darley knew work was taking over when he came home one night and met his golden Labrador, Roly, in the drive. "His hair stood up on the back of his neck and he came running at me barking," the jockey says. "He didn't recognise me.''

Roly must look like a lion to Darley, who, at 5ft 2in, is small even for a jockey. Only his father, a butcher, knows where the best cuts went as the young sportsman was growing up in Wolverhampton.

Yet Darley, who will be 40 next month, still risks a domestic savaging in the Yorkshire village of Sheriff Hutton. The temptation of the greatest prize of his career is too great. He has been away from home as much as any jockey this summer, compiling more rides on the turf than any of his contemporaries. It is a dedication which threatens to win Kevin Paul Darley a first jockeys' championship. Darley leads this season's title race with 84 winners. Pat Eddery is on 83 and Richard Quinn on 82.

"The championship is in black and white. It's history, an achievement every jockey wants," he says. "I would really love to go flat out and do it. It's something that every jockey dreams about and to be in there with a shout is fantastic.

"To be champion, especially for someone like myself, would be a great achievement in itself simply because I'm characterised as a northern jockey."

Ah, "northern jockey", which, in racing, is less of a geographical description than a stigma. There is in it a sense of someone who can pilot a dinghy inside the harbour walls, but who would be a different proposition altogether out in the big, bad sea. "That annoys me because, as far as I'm concerned, I just happen to be a jockey who lives in the north," Darley says. "I go everywhere and I do more miles than anybody.

"It's a derogatory phrase, especially as the north-south divide, which has been in racing for a long time, simply does not exist any more. You get a lot of southern trainers who send their horses up the north and a lot of the southern jockeys, who live in Newmarket, are up north as much as we are down south. It's a tag which shouldn't be there any more. People send their horses anywhere now."

The form book has known Kevin Darley since August 1977, when he rode Dust Up to success at Haydock on his 17th birthday. He was yet another inmate of trainer Reg Hollinshead's Staffordshire academy which also produced Walter Swinburn, Willie Ryan, Dean McKeown and Philip Robinson. Old Reg insisted that all his boys were well versed in stable management before they got a ride, that they shovelled the stuff that goes on roses before they were allowed to smell them. It was not a place from which many bigheads graduated.

"I left home very young," Darley says. "I was 14 when I started at Reg's and I did my last year of school with him. I used to ride first lot, go to school and then come back and do evening stables. All I know is racing."

One early trip to the racecourse stands out. "I rode a horse once for Bill Elsey at Lanark many, many years ago, while I was still an apprentice," Darley says. "It was the last meeting they had there before it closed down. I got off the horse and I knew in my mind that it was no good. I just didn't know what to say about it.

"Reg told me you should never get down and tell someone a horse is useless because that's the last thing they want to hear. Make sure you've explored every avenue, every trip and every ground. That's something that's stuck with me and it's very rare that you'll hear me telling an owner it's no good and you're wasting your time. If I do, it must be no good.

"I was always standoffish and a bit shy back then. I was always waiting for others to speak and make the first approach and, I suppose, it could have come across as ignorance."

Life changed for Kevin Darley at the beginning of the 1990s, when he met Peter Savill, who was then principally a businessman but who is now principally the Chairman of the British Horseracing Board. Darley became Savill's appointed rider and the peak of their seven-year relationship came when Celtic Swing won the Prix du Jockey-Club (French Derby) in 1995.

By the time Savill scaled down to concentrate on his political interests, he had introduced Darley to a great swathe of trainers. And, by his own deed, the jockey had come to the attention of the big cannons such as Godolphin, Michael Stoute and John Dunlop. The foundations were in place.

"Kevin has always been a really tidy, neat and dedicated jockey," one of his colleagues from the weighing-room says. "He did go through that spell that so many people do after they're champion apprentice. He was struggling along, but he got through it and then came the attachment with Peter Savill. A lot of people were wary about putting him up after that connection because they felt there were a lot of gambles going on with those horses.

"But because Savill used so many trainers they found out that the fellow could ride a bit. One by one they came round and he started to get more rides. It's no surprise to any of us that Kevin now has got a chance for the championship.

"He's not a self-promoter and he doesn't push himself forward. Kevin lets his riding do the talking. He just does everything properly. Day in, day out, every ride he gives is totally professional. At last, it's producing the right results."

Darley is propelled through all this, like all the leading jockeys, by the pleasure of each individual winner. He cannot bear to contemplate the cold turkey which will come at the end of his athletic life. "You look at the likes of Pat, Willie and Lester, who kept riding way past the time they were spring chickens," he says. "If you have the ability to win on a horse you can't beat that enjoyment and it keeps you going. That goes for the lads who are trying to climb up the ladder. A winner counteracts the bad days.

"Pat has his own stud and breeding operation and there is no doubt he could finish riding tomorrow if he wanted to. But the passion is still there, he is still hungry for winners.

"I couldn't do it if I wasn't like that and I didn't ride winners. The family will tell you that if I have a few blank days then I'm terrible to live with.

"If you've steered a horse in the right direction to win an auction or seller, told the owners and the trainer the trip and the ground it wants and it comes off, the feeling is as good as winning a £50,000 race. You've actually nurtured that horse. You can't beat that."

It is a skill which Darley has perfected in the autumn of his career. He can now spend more time with his wife, Debby, his childhood sweetheart, and his daughters Lianne and Gemma. And Darley appears a family man. You can imagine him with a fairy-story book in his hand or with a bucket and spade on the beach. "You do miss the children growing up, but that's part of what we do," he says. "I try to make time in the winter.

"I'm fortunate. I'm not a millionaire by any shakes, but I don't have to ride on the all-weather or abroad to make ends meet if I've had a successful season on the turf. While I'm working in the summer they go away on holiday.

"Debby tries to keep me fed up for the week and I do survive, but it usually means a stop at the chippy on the way home, mind." And probably a sausage or two to keep Roly off his back.