McCourt still a force in the day job

Greg Wood on the rookie trainer who commands enduring respect as a rider
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The Independent Online
It was about seven years ago - long before the days of overnight jockey bookings - that an angry punter wrote to a racing publication to complain about a late riding change before a West Country seller. A trainer had engaged an L-plated 7lb-claimer to ride his runner. "But 10 minutes before the off," the punter protested, "Graham McCourt was announced as the rider. And of course, he did the business."

Of course he did, and it is revealing that, even while ranting through his pocket, the backer could not hide his admiration for the jockey concerned. Perhaps, once he had calmed down, he could even perceive the most logical explanation for the course of events. Upon discovering that one of the best freelance riders to sit in a saddle was available, which trainer would not jock off a conditional if they had the chance?

Graham McCourt has been doing the business ever since his first ride in public, a winner at Ascot in 1975. Ron Barry, Graham Thorner and Bill Smith were among his opponents in those days. A generation later, McCourt is still getting the calls to ride serious horses for leading trainers, against the likes of Adrian Maguire and Tony McCoy.

And apart from Paul Nicholls, Philip Hobbs and Richard Hannon, there is another trainer who seems sure to provide McCourt with work for as long as he wants it. The new holder of the training licence at the Antwick Stud near Wantage is a certain G McCourt, and the latest recruit to the family business - both his late father, Matthew, and his mother Mary have prepared horses there - is enjoying the challenge.

"It will be very difficult to let go of riding," McCourt says, "but already I've found that I've had more pleasure out of the few winners that I've trained than I have out of riding them. Perhaps it's just a different stage of my life that I'm entering now."

Perhaps it is, and McCourt believes that next month's Festival at Cheltenham will "probably" be his last as a rider. Yet it is a sign of his enduring talent that it could also be among his most successful. Almost uniquely for a freelance, McCourt already has victories in the Gold Cup and Champion Hurdle to his credit, and he will go into this year's timber championship aboard Richard Hannon's Right Win, a serious contender in a very open year.

McCourt's two previous champions could hardly have come from more markedly different backgrounds. Royal Gait, the 1992 champion hurdler, carried the colours of Sheikh Mohammed and was saddled by James Fanshawe, better known for preparing Flat winners in Newmarket. Norton's Coin, 100-1 winner of the 1990 Gold Cup, was one of the three thoroughbreds vastly outnumbered by sheep on Sirrell Griffiths's farm. When they needed a jockey, though, McCourt was willing, able and, just as importantly, available.

"I think I was about fifth choice for Royal Gait," he says, "but the others were all tied to their employers. I didn't have any commitments. Being a freelance can enable you to put your leg across some very good animals." Others included Jimmy Lorenzo, who was steered to success in the Breeders' Cup Chase, and the hurdlers Osric and Gran Alba. "Royal Gait and Norton's Coin are the ones everyone talks about," he says, "but I've given horses a lot better rides than those two in a seller at Warwick."

Interestingly, the three best hurdlers McCourt has ridden were all excellent performers on the Flat too, at a time when crossing codes was not as fashionable as it is today. Right Win, Group class on the level, is from the same mould, and on the form of his success in the Tolworth Hurdle at Sandown, he will be among the principal players at Cheltenham.

"He's full of class and quality," his jockey says, "and I was delighted with the way he won. But even so, my riding's very much a business nowadays. I came home afterwards and thought, that was a good day at the office, a job done properly and professionally. That's all I'm interested in."

But now, of course, there is an office at home, too. "When you're riding and you have a bad day, you can walk away and forget about it. You can't walk away from training, but then that's probably why you get more satisfaction out of having a winner as a trainer."

Soon, it will be time for the pilot to concentrate on preparation instead, and while many former jockeys have turned to training, few have done so with McCourt's wealth of experience. As he admits, though, "it's a totally different side of the sport when you're stood on the ground. Of course, it will be a big advantage to be able to sit on one, but the angles are so different that it's difficult to pinpoint any particular asset that you can take with you from being a jockey.

"I suppose one thing you do learn is that you can't predict every situation. I've ridden for a lot of former jockeys, and some were hard to please while others were the living best. In my case, I know that you need a free rein out there and there won't be a lot of instructions."

There should be no need for instructions either on the opening day of the Festival. In a profession which can sometimes seem to be about the big boys and the rest, Graham McCourt has carved out a very successful niche through being, for almost 20 years, the best of the rest. If Right Win truly has the quality to be a champion, you can be sure that McCourt will do the business.