Racing: Eddery ready to ride into winter: Richard Edmondson on the two-horse race for the jockeys' title which could last from now until Christmas

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The Independent Online
THE JOCKEYS' championship is usually decided when leaves are dropping off the trees, but this year, for the first time, the decisive moments may come when tinsel is on the branches.

Michael Roberts, the South African jockey, has already made it clear he plans to carry his title challenge past the turf campaign into the all-weather season. Less well known is that the champion, Pat Eddery, could also participate in the 14 meetings at Lingfield and Southwell after 9 November in the effort to claim his 10th crown.

Eddery already has experience of a duel to the wire - when he relinquished his title to Steve Cauthen on the last card of the Flat in the pre-all-weather times of five years ago - and he is now prepared to compete until Lingfield's last meeting on the last day of the year. 'If it's tight and Michael goes on the all-weather, we'll follow him,' Terry Ellis, the Irishman's agent and brother-in- law, said yesterday.

Ellis's man has been the dominant riding force in British racing for the last 20 years, winning nine titles, including five of the last six. As he has thumped in the winners, milestones have come his way. In May, Eddery passed Doug Smith's career total of 3,111 wins to move into fourth place behind Gordon Richards, Lester Piggott and Willie Carson in the all-time list, while last Friday the Irishman broke a 128-year-old record when he rode seven winners in a day.

In recent times, only Cauthen and Willie Carson have challenged his supremacy, but this term Roberts has entered the equation. The 38-year-old reached a landmark of his own earlier this year when he rode his 3,000th winner worldwide, most of which came in the course of 11 championship seasons in his homeland. Indeed, fewer than 700 have been within these shores.

This campaign represents the first time he has held tangible prospects of becoming the leading jockey in a different land. 'It would be great to be champion here because it's the best racing in the world,' Roberts said yesterday.

'To be honest I've never even dreamt about being champion jockey as I thought to have a realistic chance you've got to ride for a Cecil or one of those big yards that produces 100 winners plus a year.'

While Eddery's principal fount of winners is through his contract with the Saudi prince, Khalid Abdullah, and association with some of the country's leading stables, Roberts has garnered rides from a spectrum of smaller yards.

'It's really difficult to do it riding for the sort of people I do, but it has been a challenge,' he said. 'Pat's riding for Cecil, Stoute and Gosden and it's just about impossible to fight, but, saying that, we've still got a chance as he seems to be riding in France a lot for Abdullah. We've got a squeak.'

The incentive for Roberts is such that he has expanded what was already a redoubtable workload. 'We're doing a bit more travelling as we're trying to get to every possible meeting,' he said. 'In the past if I couldn't get a good card I just knocked it on the head.'

When he says 'we' Roberts is including the journalist Graham Rock, whom the rider credits with much of his success. Rock is one of a relatively new breed of men in racing, the agents, who spend all morning persuading trainers that their jockey is the man for a mission. Rock's day starts at 6.30 with analysis of the racing papers, and from 8.00 until 1.00 he is one of British Telecom's best customers.

'It's become easier in the last couple of months as Michael's tempo has increased and he's got more and more publicity,' Rock said. 'I think he has the potential to be a champion jockey.'

While Rock is in his debut season with Roberts, Ellis has been planning Eddery's itinerary for 19 years. Despite the Irishman's enduring hold on success, Ellis detects no dimming in his appetite.

'Winning the championship still means a lot to him,' he said. 'For him it's just the thrill of riding winners. It's a passion. Even if he rides a winner at Folkestone he's as happy as can be.'

Which should make Eddery an ecstatic man this morning as he recorded a double at the Kent course yesterday, and now leads Roberts, who registered a single victory at Chepstow, by one with 85 winners. Ladbrokes, who are taking bets on the calendar year, make him a 4-7 chance with Roberts on 5-4, while William Hill's book to the end of the turf season shows 1-2 Eddery and 6-4 Roberts.

If Eddery is dethroned, Rock and Roberts know they will have pulled of a coup of some substance. 'I think it's always been David and Goliath from the start,' the agent said. 'Pat's an outstanding jockey and he's got an enormous number of high-class horses to call on.

'I don't know any sporting champion who gives up his title easily. An old boxer will still go down fighting in the ring rather than just call it a day, so it's going to be a long old slog.'

(Photograph omitted)

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