At the start of the season, the odds suggested that the jockeys' championship would again be a two-horse race between Michael Roberts and Pat Eddery. Instead, Eddery has a clear, though not overwhelming, lead, and Roberts is languishing in 10th place, with around half the successes of the same stage last year.
True, the job as Sheikh Mohammed's jockey means he has been abroad more often and has thrown his leg over only 371 mounts in Britain compared to 522 by 12 July 1992. That his employer has many more late-developing two-year-olds has also been cited as a reason for Roberts's tardy start, but the most surprising statistic, considering the quality of horse he can now call upon, is that his strike-rate has dropped from 19 per cent to 14 per cent. With the retirement of Roberts's predecessor in maroon and white, Steve Cauthen, Eddery is now the only jockey with a strike-rate better than one in five.
That Roberts would endure such a difficult start - and Saturday's Irish Oaks defeat on Intrepidity will not have improved matters - to what should be such a pleasurable job was not easy to predict at the season's start. Trickier still would have been guessing the identity of the rider who this week joined Eddery at the top of the statistics.
Nine wins in a week have hoisted Kevin Darley into second place on 68 successes, still 20 behind Eddery but also six clear of the chasing pack. The 32-year-old, who five years ago recorded only 38 wins in an entire season, is now on course to become the first northern-based rider since Edward Hide to hit 100.
The transformation has been due to his job as retained rider for the Peter Savill-owned horses (a partnership now in its fourth year), the impetus of a new agent, but perhaps most of all because of a change in trends.
The perception that two or three riders are significantly better than the rest seems to have dimmed - witness the criticism of some of Eddery's performances this year - and the championship table reflects this. The support that some jockeys obtained from a retainer with one high-scoring stable, such as Henry Cecil's, is also consigned to history as rides are now shared between, in some cases, several owner-retained jockeys attached to each yard.
Riding the 45 Savill horses scattered around Britain's stables has brought Darley rewarding links, particularly with Mary Reveley, who has supplied over 20 per cent of his successes. 'Mary's helped a lot. Whenever I've not been needed by Peter, she's put me in for rides,' Darley said yesterday. 'With getting so close last year (91), the aim is 100 wins.' In Mary Reveley, who saddled four winners on one card this week and is behind only half a dozen in winning numbers this year, he could not have a better ally.
Darley will have to work though, the chasing posse are a determined bunch. George Duffield got where he is today through grit rather than blue-chip beginnings; Richard Quinn, Frankie Dettori and John Reid have points to prove.
Quinn, remember, lost the Fahd Salman horses to Alan Munro (62 wins plays 37 this year); Dettori's Hong Kong ambitions separated him from the job with Luca Cumani now occupied by Ray Cochrane (57 plays 41); and John Reid would not have been aboard Robert Sangster's bright band of juveniles had not illness affecting Mick Dittman's wife's prevented 'The Enforcer' coming from Australia.
And Britain's most revered riding name? He has only 28 wins, but the punters' respect as the first in the table to yield a profit to a level stake on all mounts.
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