What was it Lester Piggott said about the Derby? "Just another race." The thought brings a rare smile to the face of Jimmy Fortune, though as a taciturn fellow himself he understands the sentiment. "Well, he could say that, couldn't he? He won the damned thing nine times."
Just once would be enough for the newest member of the weighing-room elite. Fortune has never won the Derby, but then he's never had a ride, which is an extraordinary statistical quirk for a jockey who has earned the pick of Robert Sangster's finest thoroughbreds and has been plying his trade in decent company for the best part of a decade. "I was offered a ride once, on something that would have been about 350-1," he says. "But I preferred to go elsewhere and ride some winners." He hesitates for a moment. "Better not say that, it doesn't sound too good, turning down a ride in the Derby." It sounds fine, I say. Why be associated with losers? "Yeah, but you can't win the Lottery if you don't have a ticket." "On a 350-1 shot?"
He relents, but his wariness is understandable. He is the new boy in town and people are watching. In racing, a whisper in the ear becomes a shout from the rooftops three doors away and last week Peter Chapple- Hyam, Sangster's principal trainer, had been the subject of a damning piece in a tabloid newspaper after a slow start to the season. He was about to be fired was about the gist of it which, given Fortune's recent arrival, was not a ringing endorsement of the new relationship, however tenuous the factual basis for the story.
Though Fortune's jockeyship has largely escaped censure so far, it will only be a matter of time before his ability to handle such a high-profile job becomes a matter for open debate. The estate agents' literature littering the house which Fortune, his wife Jan and six-month-old baby Kieran now rent near Marlborough, emphasises the air of impermanence. A win in the Derby on Saturday would help towards buying the nice thatched cottage with swimming pool that Jan has her eye on. Above all, it would buy time and breathing space.
Last year Fortune was at Epsom on Derby Day for the first time. He even rode a winner, Bishop's Court. But he had to watch as the big boys went out to play in the biggest race of them all and the feeling of emptiness was not one he enjoyed. "What do you do? Go to the toilet and cry. You'd love to be going out there with them because you want to be riding the best horses in the best races." For large swathes of a career which has hovered on the edge of fulfilment for an uncomfortably long time, Fortune has been riding quite good horses in quite good races.
His credentials are impeccable enough. He was brought up in County Wexford, one of a family of eight children, who realised blissfully early in his young life that his future lay in the stable not the classroom. He started working in Jim Bolger's yard at 13, left home at 15 to be apprentice to Tom Gallagher, Bolger's travelling head lad who had decided to take out a licence in England. "There was a lot of fussing and fighting about that," Fortune recalls. "My parents had no background in racing and they weren't happy about it at all, but once I've set my mind on doing something, I'm hard to shift."
So England it was, armed with a riding crop and a memorable name which he quickly began to justify. In 1990, at the age of 18, he became champion apprentice with Luca Cumani, riding as second jockey to a flamboyant young Italian called Frankie Dettori. But then came Aliysa's disqualification from the Oaks, the Aga Khan's wrath and the removal of 60 of the best thoroughbreds from Cumani's yard. Further down the economy, the effect on Fortune was devastating. Dettori was the No 1 and Jason Weaver was getting the pick of any spare rides. Having lost his 3lb claiming allowance, Fortune became the unwitting victim of his own prodigious talent. He left Cumani and went freelance.
"I couldn't get a ride, let alone a good ride," he says. "I was pestering every trainer in the country, but I knew what the problem was. I'm not stupid. I was too young, I'd lost my claimer and trainers thought I lacked experience. I rode out for everyone I could for nothing and I had a heavy overdraft. But I never lost my belief that if you work hard and have the talent you will get the chances." When his great friend and old sparring partner, Kieren Fallon, made the surprise move to Henry Cecil's yard, Fortune leapt into the champion's place with Jack Ramsden. In between, he began to winter in India where he has now spent seven seasons. He compares the standard favourably to the more prestigious circuit in Hong Kong.
Fallon's success with Cecil did more than give Fortune the proper stage for his ability. It narrowed the great divide between north and south, proved that the regulars at Market Rasen and Thirsk could hack it on racing's grand occasions in the south. Fortune had already ridden several winners for Sangster before a flurry of winners, 108 in total, last season confirmed the general belief that Fortune would follow Fallon south. The early days have been uncomfortably similar, as Fortune acknowledges. "They were taking bets on how long he [Kieren] would last. The press were on his back and I felt really sorry for him," says Fortune. "We'd grown up together and I knew just how good he was. Good brain and very, very, determined. I was delighted when he went south." And now it's Fortune's turn in the spotlight.
"It takes time to build a working relationship with a new trainer," he says. "They want to know how you work just as much as I want to know how they work. Their training methods might be different or the trainer might want his horses ridden a different way. You can't just walk into a yard and say, 'Here I am, I'm yer man'. The horses are running well enough, we just seem to be getting a lot of seconds and thirds. It goes like that sometimes. It's important that I don't start doing anything different."
Any spare time this week will be spent studying videos of past Derbies. He can rewind most of them in his mind anyway and will visualise the flow of the race 100 times between now and Saturday afternoon. Brancaster is 75 per cent likely to be his mount, he says. "He's a compact little horse, well balanced, which is what you need. He won his maiden at Haydock and a Group Three at Newbury at the end of the season. Then he finished fourth in the Guineas, he must have a decent each-way chance. To win the Derby you need a horse with six-furlong speed who will stay a mile and a half."
Fortune will not see it this way, but, win or lose, his first Derby ride will mark another little rite of passage for the Irishman. At the age of 26, he has waited his turn.