Racing: The Also-Ran

There are many more losers than winners in horseracing, and Vince Slattery - the ultimate journeyman jockey - knows all about the less glamorous side of his sport. Richard Edmondson spent a day with him
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7.40am The day is just breaking in the frosted Cotswolds village of Shipton Oliffe and it is time for Vince Slattery to go to work in the dark. The Irish-born jockey has been riding in England since his first winner in 1988.

At 36, he remains an everyman of the saddle, riding a variety of horses on the Flat, on turf and the all-weather, and National Hunt, over hurdles and fences. The one thing the vast majority of his mounts have in common is their speed. The lack of it. The day before at Wolverhampton's twilight meeting Slattery, a twilight jockey, took four rides. He came, chronologically, 10th of 12, last, next to last, then last.

"Being a jockey is a matter of fashion," he says, "and it's getting a bit late for me. But I know I can get the job done given the chance. I still get that real buzz from it, trying to give a horse a ride, get it involved in a race, the buzz I'll know I miss when I pack up.

"When you are pulling yourself out of the ground you sometimes ask why in God's name you are doing this, but I always get a good mention from the press, especially considering I don't do anything. I just don't get the quality of rides. The winners don't come along very often. Maybe it's me."

8am Slattery arrives at the Glenfall Stables in Charlton Kings of Jim Wilson, who rode Little Owl to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 1981 and has also trained a Festival winner. Now, though, he is down to just 12 horses. Slattery is a regular work rider.

"He knows the job backwards, but he also knows he doesn't ride all of mine," Wilson says. "There is nothing more disheartening than riding bad horses, but Vince has got worker written all over him. For him it's difficult, but when 99 get away you're always grateful for the 100th."

At the top of a vertiginous all-weather gallop, Wilson is smoking his pipe. Gold Block and a Scottish mixture is going into his mouth. Expletives are coming out.

Slattery canters four furlongs uphill and then goes back to the schooling ground, from where some deer are scared off. He schools three horses over logs and small hurdles. It is cold, but not as cold as it has ever been.

"In the winter, it's worse because you haven't had anything to eat, your ears, toes and fingers literally feel as though they are freezing," he says. "I've come to hate that east wind.

"You don't get paid for working or schooling horses, but it's a means to an end. You hope trainers and owners are going to keep you on horses you ride in the mornings when they get to the track. One thing is for sure, if you don't get down here, then someone else will do it for you."

9.30am Vince Slattery is a journeyman, and most of them are long journeys and most of them fruitless. Today he sets off for Leicester. In October, he received a prize to mark a feat that not even Frankie Dettori or Tony McCoy can claim. He rode at Kelso to complete the set of tracks. He has ridden at all 59 racecourses in Britain. "And I've fallen off at most of them as well," he says.

Slattery's car is a Toyota Celica, which provides the myriad roles of transport, office and dustbin. The vehicle runs on LPG, liquefied petroleum gas, which is cheaper than petrol but can have harrowing effects on an engine. The car stalls at most of the roundabouts up to the Midlands, while Slattery vainly chases rides on his mobile phone.

"I never buy expensive cars," he says, rather unnecessarily. "And you have got to like travelling with this job. I spend around £6,000 a year on fuel and do about 65,000 miles.

"I don't like taking holidays because you are missing out if you're not here and I have my break in my car every day, calling trainers. You have to be thick-skinned. You ring people up and the phone goes virtually straight down. I've been chasing my arse trying to get a ride for today and I have ended up with these two creatures.

"People just see you arriving at the racecourse and they don't realise the riding out you've done in the morning, that you might have done 200 miles before you started.

"I'm not really an extravagant sort of person. That's my wife. She thinks money is what the postman delivers in the morning. I buy as little as possible if I can help it. When I'm riding out I'd be spotting posts and stuff as I'm going around. At the weekends, when I'm not riding, I go out to the woods with the kids and we chop up logs to use in the stove.

12.45pm Slattery emerges from the weighing-room for his first appointment, on St George's Girl in the Welcome To Day Juvenile Novices' Hurdle. He knows nothing about the filly apart from her form summary in the Racing Post. "Very moderate from 6f-1m on the Flat and pulled like a train on hurdles debut when 50-1 last month; hard to make a case for."

St George's Girl is 100-1 in the early market, but then there is a move. She is pushed out to 150-1. In the paddock, Slattery asks her trainer, John Jenkins, about which tactics to employ. "Do what you like with it," he says. "Jump it out and do what you want."

St George's Girl proves intractable both before the start and during the race. Two hurdles from home, Slattery pulls her up and canters back past the stands. "I promise you," he tells our cameraman hanging over the rails, "that this is the very last time this horse will ever have its photograph taken.

"I could barely hold her going to the start because she was getting in a white sweat, sweating almost as much as me by the time we got to post. She galloped through the third last and that was enough for me.

"She was a typical horse coming off the Flat, too buzzy and just running from fear. As soon as she stopped pulling she stopped going. She's going to struggle. I ride a lot of horses like that. There are a few excuses that I could come up with but only one real one springs to mind. Ability. Lack of it."

2.45pm Slattery has been waiting in the edifice they call the jockeys' room at Leicester, a temporary hut inside a tent. His peg is next to that of champion jockey, Tony McCoy. This is as near as Slattery ever gets to greatness. He goes out for another hurdle ride on another creature, Vrubel, for which the racecard endorsement is less than ringing. "Unplaced in all three starts over hurdles. Well beaten at 7-2 when last of four on his seasonal reappearance in a hurdle race at Jersey and has been beaten in banded events on the Flat since. Plenty to prove."

Vrubel, too, is a drifter, going from 16-1 to 18-1 in the betting, before alighting at 20-1. He competes for a while before a mistake three hurdles from home knocks the wind out of him. Slattery keeps going, though, and rides vigorously to the line to beat one home.

"I should have pulled him up really, but I wanted to at least finish once," he says. "I would say there must be something wrong with the horse. When I saw him he had the tongue strap on and the visor, so they were using all the gadgets on him. The trainer told me I'd be able to track the favourite and that I might just about win. Well, he was half right."

3.30pm: Slattery starts his car, slowly, for the drive home. He rolls another of his Old Holborn roll-ups. Slattery is a man for all seasons, but most of them must feel like a stark winter. It has been yet another unsuccessful day. Nice guys do, indeed, finish last. Slattery has collected just seven wins this Flat season and his last jumps winner was on the first day of the year.

"I have always knocked out about 300 rides a year, which I need because it's all down to the rides I get," he says. "I've got to get six rides a week or seven on the Flat just to cover myself. Of course, I don't mind winners, but working out winning percentages is not really my thing. It's not usually a problem I have.

"I still love the craic with the lads. Nobody gets above their station over jumps. It's a great leveller because one minute you can be riding a winner and the next you might be buried. The summer boys haven't got that leveller and, sometimes on the Flat, young lads coming up can get a bit above themselves.

"Some of those Flat lads are minted, but they're the same to me if they've got £1 or £100 in their back pocket. Frankie tried to sell me a pair of his old boots for £45 one day, but I told him I only had £15 and he agreed. I gave him a score and asked for a fiver change. One of the valets calls me 'second-hand Slats'.

"A few of the lads might wonder why I bother going on, but I am making a living. Frankie probably thinks I'm a bit potty, but he's been spoilt, hasn't he? His money would be a dream. I'll keep going just as long as I can pay the bills."

6.00pm: After two bottles of Beck's in The Plough at Ford, Slattery is back home, back in the dark. The frost, too, is returning. It has been a struggle to get the chugging Toyota to its destination, which is probably a metaphor for the Irishman's day, indeed his career.

Despite the results, it has not been an unrewarding afternoon. A jumps ride is worth £95, and, after petrol, valet fees and tax, Slattery should clear £120.

A final act remains. He has to lose 2lb to take a ride on the Flat at Wolverhampton the following afternoon.

"I hate saunas," he says "I was in one once wasting for the Flat with Richard Dunwoody. I told him I could never be like him and sweat for a ride over jumps. Quick as a flash, he replied that he could never sweat for one of my rides over jumps either.

"Tonight it's the hot bath. You only get into it when it is just about bearable. Then you keep topping it up with hot water. It's boring more than anything else, but you get the chance to think.

"What I'm doing here is not setting the world alight. If you stay safe and come home with some money you would be doing all right. That was not a bad day today, a low-key day, a normal day, just another day at the office really."