Racing: Hail the professional amateur

He has yet to join the elite ranks but he is already a winner as Cheltenham calls. By Sue Montgomery
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The Independent Online
Racing is something of an oddity among sports for several reasons. For nearly 40 years it has acted as a host to a prosperous industry in a symbiotic but extraordinarily one-sided relationship. It is not an activity that prompts hero-worship among the young; kids can watch Michael Owen and then live out their fantasies with a football in the garden, but not many have to opportunity to emulate Frankie Dettori on a pony.

And it is one of the few sports in which amateurs are able take on professionals on a day-to-day basis. The Justin Roses of this game do not just have their moments in the spotlight against the big names, they are regular habitues of the weighing room.

Racing's structure means that trainee jockeys, called apprentices on the Flat and conditionals over jumps, do their learning on the job. There are no youth teams or reserve elevens and a first-time-out youngster could find him or herself lining up next to the champion. But because the jockey is only part of the sport's athletic equation it can sometimes go gloriously right for the rookie. Young Mark Smith, for instance, will probably never forget the moment at Taunton 10 days ago when he just about outrode Tony McCoy to pinch the seller on the line and notch the second win of his life.

And one of the accepted career routes for a jump jockey is via the unpaid ranks. There are amateurs and amateurs, though; many are of the bumping variety personified by dear Dido Harding, whose pet horse Cool Ground improved so much once he was released into competent professional hands that he won last year's Cheltenham Gold Cup. But others become names to conjure with. Richard Dunwoody, Adrian Maguire, Robert Thornton, Jim Culloty, Andrew Thornton, Seamus Durack, Tom Jenks and Joe Tizzard are but a few.

The man planning soon to join them is Alan Dempsey, whose tally of 34 winners this season have him well clear at the head of the amateur jockeys' table and in a creditable 16th place overall. It is the 21-year-old Irishman's first season in Britain and in 16 days time the curtain will go up on his first experience of the crucible that is the Cheltenham Festival.

Dempsey is from Thurles, a market town in the Suir valley of Co. Tipperary. Though the place is steeped in racing history and lore, he is the sole member of his family to have been drawn to the magic; his "da" works at the local sugar factory. But somewhere along the line his genes have directed him to find the truth in the poem about an Irish race meeting, the bit about finding hearteners in men who ride upon horses.

"I don't know where it comes from," he said. "But I've always loved them and I very quickly found I got on well with people who had anything to do with them. I started riding ponies for the next door neighbour when I was eight or nine and Natasha, Charlie Swan's sister, used to come to ride the point-to-pointers there. She invited me to their place and I went over to Cloughjordan for a couple of weeks and loved it. I started going over at half-term and in the holidays and in any spare time I had."

One thing led to another, as it does. First, the responsibility of hunting the young horses in his early teens. Then a few race-rides when he was still at school at the age of 15. And then, at 16, a transfer to full- time work in Kildare with the trainer Dessie Hughes, to whom Swan, many- times Irish champion, was first jockey at the time.

Dempsey rode 27 winners in four and a half years with Hughes, 24 of which were in bumper races against fellow amateurs. His was a promising, but static, career and he needed, like many before him, to get the break of a job in Britain.

A chance meeting on a train was the catalyst that brought the ticket to ride across the Irish Sea to the Cleveland coast. His friend and compatriot Eddie Callaghan was sharing the delights of the Great North-Eastern railway journey from Yorkshire to Edinburgh with senior jockey Peter Niven, who happened to mention that his stable - that of Mary Reveley - was looking for an improving young type. Callaghan sent the word back across the water, Dempsey asked trainer and pundit Ted Walsh to mention him favourably to Reveley. His record passed muster and he arrived at Saltburn last June.

Since then he has been given the opportunity to show what he can do and has taken it with both hands. Although she is self-effacing to the point of invisibility Mary Reveley is a most astute judge of both a horse and a rider and her opinion that her new protege is "a very good tidy horseman who uses his head" should be enough of a seal of approval for anyone.

Dempsey does very little that is obviously, horribly wrong, and if he does make a mistake he acknowledges, analyses and benefits. After No More Hassle fell at the last with the race won at Huntingdon on Thursday he admitted: "I asked him for a big jump, but it was a bit slippy and he put down instead of picking up. He's only a novice, and I should have realised. I'm gaining experience all the time, riding the different horses and the different courses. But then in this job you're learning until the day you stop."

Amateurs and conditional jockeys are given a weight allowance, that decreases in inverse proportion to the number of winners ridden, to offset their inexperience and encourage trainers to use them. Dempsey has only four winners to go until he loses his right to claim 3lb, after which he will be an amateur in name only. His target this season is his divisional title; win or lose that he will turn pro at the start of the new jumping season in June.

But that, along with the problems and pressures it will bring, is in the future. Right now Dempsey, his dark grey eyes alight with anticipation, is counting the days until Tuesday fortnight, when he will team up with his favourite horse, the marvellous veteran Cab On Target, in the Fulke Walwyn/Kim Muir Chase, one of the two contests at the Festival confined to amateurs.

Cab On Target has already done Dempsey an enormous favour by giving him his first winner at Cheltenham, over the Kim Muir course and distance back in October. The gentlemanly old horse, now 13, was a top-class performer in his palmy days and still has a sizeable fan club. Victory at the Festival would be of the roof-raising variety.

The Kim Muir, over three miles and a furlong, was the race in which a certain young Mr Maguire burst upon the British scene eight years ago by winning on Omerta, and Dempsey would not at all object to emulating him on the biggest stage of all.

But in truth, he will be happy just to be there. Cab On Target ("it's a privilege to ride a horse like him, to win would be unbelievable") will be one of several mounts during the week, others have yet to be specified. A year ago he was planning to watch the Festival on television.

He is very conscious of having fallen on his feet in riding for the Reveley stable. "The horses are all beautifully done, they all jump well and they've mostly got a winning chance, which gives you great confidence," he said. "And there's no pressure. If things don't work out they don't work out, but nine times out of 10 they do. Peter Niven and the lads on the Northern circuit are a great bunch. But then, I have been lucky all the way. The Swans, the Hughses, and now. I've always been with good people."

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