Millennium man in his roaring forties

The Kevin Darley interview: More journeyman than genius but a dedicated freelance is preparing to rule Flat racing

It is almost the sort of thing that you don't want to upset providence by saying: that barring accidents, Kevin Darley will be the first champion Flat jockey of the new century. With just 20 days to go he is flying high, 18 winners clear of his nearest pursuer Pat Eddery, but any rider can be brought to earth in an instant. Ask Kieren Fallon, for instance, whose title Darley is poised to take. His season and his drive towards a fourth consecutive championship came to an abrupt endat Royal Ascot with a fall and adamaged arm.

It is almost the sort of thing that you don't want to upset providence by saying: that barring accidents, Kevin Darley will be the first champion Flat jockey of the new century. With just 20 days to go he is flying high, 18 winners clear of his nearest pursuer Pat Eddery, but any rider can be brought to earth in an instant. Ask Kieren Fallon, for instance, whose title Darley is poised to take. His season and his drive towards a fourth consecutive championship came to an abrupt endat Royal Ascot with a fall and adamaged arm.

Surely fate, though, having removed not only Fallon from the game but also, in more traumatic circumstances, Frankie Dettori; and having ensured that Eddery was regularly suspended and that Richard Quinn's stable was largely out of form, will not deal the unassuming, hardworking Darley a cruel card this late in the piece. But not until he jumps off his final mount at Doncaster on 4 November, the end of the domestic turf season, will he believe that he is the man.

It will be Darley's maiden championship in 24 years as a jockey and at the age of 44. Although racing is not necessarily a young man's preserve, that is still getting on a bit for a first-timer. Only Joe Mercer, who took his sole title at the age of 45 in 1979, has been older.

It is also a fact, and one generously acknowledged by Darley, whose shoulders appear to be entirely chip-free zones, that this year's has not been a vintage title to win. It will probably be taken with the lowest score since Steve Cauthen's 130 in 1984. Darley himself is still 11 short of his best ever total of 154, which was good enough only for ninth place six years ago. If thebigger names had been playing itis likely that Darley would have been, as usual, thereabouts, but not actually there.

"For the past five or six years I've always been there in the background, stepping in for the bigger yards if the likes of Kieren and Frankie weren't there," he said. "And because they've been out of action, I've been able to slip in. I acknowledge that if I am crowned champion it may well have been by default, and it will probably be my only chance. But I will also point out that it is me, not someone else."

If Darley's achievement is not a triumph for out-and-out brilliance, it is a composite of plenty of other qualities worthy of reward: consistency, persistency, dedication, reliability and sheer hard graft. Remarkably, he has done it as a freelance, without the first-choice backing of any of the country's powerful stables. With the essential aid of his faithful agent, Terry Norman (who made 1,120 phone calls in August to keep the title surge on course), he has adopted a "have saddle, will travel" philosophy and ridden in 920 races so far this year, over 100 more than any of his rivals, and maintained a 16 per cent strike rate, one bettered only by the more selective Dettori, Quinn and Richard Hills.

Neither is he beginning to flag, even at this stage. "It's a very competitive sport, and unlike other sports, it is day in, day out." he said, "There was a period from the beginning of June until a week or so ago, when some of the meetings were cancelled because of the bad weather, that I had three days off.

"But to me, and to most of the guys in the weighing-room, that quest to ride winners is a passion, a love affair almost. Lots of us have bad days, and most more bad days than good, but when you get that one home in front, it makes it all worthwhile, all the travelling, all the slog. Like at Newmarket on Thursday when I got home by about an inch in the last and it broke a losing run of 23. I am not going to deny the fact that I do work hard but I enjoy what I do. If there was racing on the moon and I could get there, I'd go to ride a winner."

Darley, a butcher's son born in Wolverhampton, has lived for 20 years in Yorkshire, at present at Sheriff Hutton in the high horse country above the city of York with his wife, Debby, and their daughters, Lianne and Gemma.

Weight is not much of a problem for him and, workaholic tendencies aside (within four hours of leaving Doncaster on the last day of his season he will be on the way to Australia to ride Far Cry in the Melbourne Cup), he lives a normal family life with three meals a day. Assuming all goes smoothly in the next three weeks he will be the first Northern-based rider to hold the title since Elijah Wheatley in 1905, and the first Englishman to do so since Lester Piggott in 1982. It does, though, fall to few jockeys, champion or otherwise, to become household names or faces, but he is enjoying the plaudits and attention from racing aficionados.

"It is a minority sport I'm involved in," he said. "Even though it does get coverage on TV and in the papers it doesn't attract the same attention as football or cricket. I think it's probably because it's still at heart a fairly old-fashioned sport, the sport of kings and all that. And we, the jockeys, were traditionally at the bottom of the pile. I suppose in a way we still are; the employees of the owners.

"People like Frankie have brought us more to the forefront and he's great for racing, we need more like him. But unfortunately most of us jockeys seem to be a little reserved. It would be nice to be like him. But then I suppose if I was, then what's happening now may have happened a few years earlier."

Darley served his apprenticeship at Rugeley, Staffordshire, with one of the great boys' masters, Reg Hollinshead. He has Jean Collins, the PE teacher at Colton Hills Comprehensive, Wolverhampton, to thank for that. "Mrs Collins, the lady in the blue tracksuit," he said. "She knew Mr Hollinshead, and started me riding out there when I was about 14."

The first success came on Dust Up at Haydock on 5 August 1977. A year later he was champion apprentice and left his mentor, in hindsight a bad move. His first year as a senior brought just 14 winners. "I was too hasty," he said. "I thought I was the bee's knees but having only ridden for three years and losing my claim so young, I obviously didn't know enough about the job and then things rather slumped for a long time.

"But I am one of those people who never take anything for granted, simply the way I have been brought up and by being apprenticed to Reg Hollinshead, who always taught us respect for the job first and foremost."

The title apart, Darley has notched a century or more seven times in the past eight seasons, no mean feat in itself; unassuming, normal, pleasant should not be confused with a lack of steel. This season another point of satisfaction is the fact that he has served onlyone day's suspension for rulebreaking. "I'm quite proud of that," he said. "I know the rules are there and you can't help breaking them sometimes, but I think it reflects on the way I've tried to go through my career, tried to do things right."

Before this year, Darley's greatest success came when he won the French Derby five years ago on the one-time wonder horse Celtic Swing. He also stole the limelight three years ago in another Group One race, the Nunthorpe Stakes at York, when he forced a dead-heat on Coastal Bluff despite riding without brakes or steering after the horse's bridle broke early in the race.

This year the poise and confidence of a man on a roll were seen at their best in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Ascot, his own champagne moment. It was the day that he and the John Gosden-trained Observatory lowered the colours of Ireland's iron horse Giant's Causeway with a perfectly timed tactical swoop. "We had been beaten in our previous race at Goodwood by Medicean," he said. "It was a horrible day, foggy and rainy; the horse didn't want to be there, the jockeys didn't want to be there; I got it wrong, it just didn't happen.

"I went to the Queen Elizabeth thinking I'd like to prove the point by at least turning the tables on Medicean. But in fact it was more than that. We had worked out that if Observatory was good enough to win we would come wide of Giant's Causeway, not mix it with him. And it went just brilliantly. Those top horses are the true natural athletes, with racing in their blood, and riding them is sheer pleasure."

Having been a journeyman for so long, and being a champion of his weighing-room friends and colleagues through his work for the trade body, the Jockeys' Association, he almost fights shy of being considered one of the top men. But not quite. "To be honest, I'm revelling in the attention that goes with being a title contender, and the fact that I can feel disappointed at finishing second in so many Group Ones this season. Another year, I'd simply have been happy to be doing that. I feel I am like a good wine, getting better with age."

He laughed a little ruefully, and added: "I should be, I suppose. I've had enough practice."

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