Jockeys locked in battle for the prize that really matters

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The Independent Online

There is no prize-money and no trophy, not even a fancy certificate to hang on the wall. To win it, you need to work seven days a week, and frequently 12 hours a day, for the best part of nine months. And when you finally crawl home, shortly before midnight, for a few hours of well-earned rest, you cannot even treat yourself to a couple of beers or a cream bun.

There is no prize-money and no trophy, not even a fancy certificate to hang on the wall. To win it, you need to work seven days a week, and frequently 12 hours a day, for the best part of nine months. And when you finally crawl home, shortly before midnight, for a few hours of well-earned rest, you cannot even treat yourself to a couple of beers or a cream bun.

Such is the Flat jockeys' championship, one of the oldest and most cherished competitions in sport, and on the face of it, one that only a madman or masochist would want to win. Yet for all the hard work, and the lack of hard cash to put in the bank afterwards, most riders would see winning it as the greatest achievement of their career. Big-race winners are gratifying, certainly, but they usually owe more to the horse than the rider. The jockeys' championship, on the other hand, marks out its winner as the most consistently skilful, determined and courageous figure in the weighing room. And that really matters.

For much of the last three years, there has been little real doubt who that rider would be. Kieren Fallon, who broke through the 200-winner barrier in each of the last three campaigns, was simply a class apart, and the 2000 season promised to be much the same until the fall which almost ended Fallon's career at Royal Ascot in June.

He will, thankfully, be back, perhaps at the tail-end of this year, more probably at the start of the next. In his absence, however, the race for the title promises to be one of the most competitive for years.

Pat Eddery, who is chasing his 12th championship, and Richard Quinn and Kevin Darley, both of whom are looking for their first, are all quoted at between 6-4 and 15-8 to finish the season on top, although Eddery, currently the 6-4 favourite with Blue Square, was as big as 4-1 three weeks ago, when a long suspension, now concluded, appeared to have given him a mountain to climb. The same firm offers 7-4 against Quinn, with Darley the outsider of three on 15-8.

The odds do not, however, directly reflect the current position in the title race. After racing yesterday afternoon, and before the evening meeting at Epsom, Darley was leading on 100, with Quinn, who rode a double at Yarmouth, on 95, and Eddery on 94. With less than two weeks of the evening racing season left, it seems that the title run-in will not be a battle so much as a war of attrition.

"I think the odds are that way because we look to have the weakest links," Terry Norman, Darley's agent, said yesterday, "but we do also have the ability to go where we want. It really means a lot to Kevin, even though he won't show it and he probably won't say it. He never thought he would be in this position, and now he is, which is why the poor bloke's going everywhere.''

Norman believes that this year's championship will be won with no more than 140 winners, which would be the lowest title-winning total since Steve Cauthen claimed the championship in 1984 with 130.

"We've certainly got a chance, but you have to be realistic,'' Norman said. "Henry Cecil's horses surely can't keep running as badly all season as they are now, and when they come back, Richard could ride four or five winners in a couple of days. But we know that if we don't do it this year, we never will.''

Darley expects to reach 1,000 rides this season, and yet he has so far been suspended only once, for a single day, an outstanding record which is another crucial factor in the race for the title.

"Even if you never do it again, the fact that you've done it once would be enough,'' Norman said. "We could easily have gone to Deauville on Sunday to ride in Group races, but instead we're going to Pontefract.'' Now that's dedication.

* David Elsworth saddled his 1000th career winner when Trillie got up by a short head in the novice stakes at Salisbury yesterday. The trainer of Desert Orchid, In The Groove and Indian Ridge revealed that, "mainly through pressure from my staff", he will, after all, continue to train a few jumpers.

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