Racing: Roberts thrives in the title role: Backing from a special agent has taken the champion jockey-elect to the brink of reaching a notable benchmark. Paul Hayward reports

Click to follow
IF YOU want a measure of Michael Roberts's achievements this season then consider that he has ridden winners for 57 different trainers on his way to the brink of the 200-mark, a point crossed by only four other British Flat race jockeys. You would not want his agent's phone bills, which will have reached pounds 3,000 by the end of the year.

The ascent of Michael Roberts to become champion jockey-elect is a triumph of strategy that has broken Pat Eddery's monopoly on the title. It took Eddery 20 years to heave himself beyond 200 victories - and no Flat rider had managed it since Sir Gordon Richards in 1952 - yet with three weeks of the turf season outstanding Roberts has 198 on the board and must be more than a fair bet to pass Eddery's best score of 209.

At his surprisingly unspacious Newmarket home last week Roberts was incongruously fresh and relaxed as he recounted his procession through 1992. The last time Willie Carson was champion jockey he could hardly leave his bed for days through exhaustion, yet Roberts manages to look as if he has just stepped off a plane from Jamaica.

Not so Graham Rock, the agent who, to borrow from the Monty Python it-was-tough-back-then sketch, gets up before he goes to bed in his efforts to secure the best mounts for Roberts. The effectiveness of Rock's organisational skills is demonstrated by one other statistic, besides the 57-varieties factor: before this year, Roberts had ridden no more than 128 winners in a British season.

Rock says he set off with two main criteria. One was that Roberts had never fully received the recognition he was entitled to. The other, more telling, calculation was that far from always being a benefit, the large retainers held by Eddery, Steve Cauthen and Carson (but not Roberts) often inhibited their freedom to accept outside bookings and compelled them more and more to ride abroad, particularly in France, where Khalid Abdullah (Eddery) and Sheikh Mohammed (Cauthen) have been concentrating a greater proportion of their forces.

From the day the newspapers began arriving at 6.30am by special arrangement, Rock was blowing a gale through the accepted hierarchy of the weighing room and its agents. Roberts's principal employer, Alec Stewart, was in trouble with viral problems, but the Clive Brittain and Richard Hannon stables more than compensated Roberts by supplying him with a torrent of winners. 'In May,' Rock said yesterday, 'Michael was the first to reach 50, and it was then that I felt he had a real chance of becoming champion.'

By mid-summer the Eddery camp were dizzy with the pace of Roberts's progress, and there was talk of there being resentment among those displaced by Rock's expansive methods. 'Sure there was the odd comment,' Roberts says, 'but most people just accepted that he (Rock) was doing a good job. He's very sharp on the form book, and it seemed to come quite naturally to him.'

So much so that Rock, and not Roberts, usually has the final say when more than one horse is available in a race. 'Often I have to pick up the paper to see what my rides are for the day,' Roberts says. 'Sometimes when I ask Graham what I'll be on the following day he says: 'you'll read them in the morning'. He doesn't like me to look too far ahead, he prefers me to concentrate on the day in hand.'

Suspensions have been another key element. Roberts has sustained just one four-day penalty for improper riding, in contrast to Eddery's wretched run of punishments this season. He concedes that the need to avoid chastisement has affected his decisions about which route to take and how forcefully to use his whip. Again, he says: 'Graham is at most of the meetings reminding me of the dangers of getting suspended.'

One of Roberts's foremost strengths is, as one rival agent says, that 'he gives every horse a ride'. Look for his little punching, ear-shoving figure in a race and you see him issuing an unspoken ultimatum to the animal beneath: I have to win, and you are going to help me. There are no educational outings, no can't-be- bothered afternoons for Roberts, chasing as he has been a first British championship to add to the 11 he has won in South Africa.

Three camera crews stomped into his living room in 18 hours last week. Between the BBC and Racing World came the South African Broadcasting Corporation, eager to inform the people of Roberts's homeland that his talents have, after all, been realised in foreign lands. He is likely to be voted sports personality of the year in South Africa, just as his application for British citizenship passes through the bureaucracy.

However many approaches he receives, Rock is unlikely to extend his jockey-booking activities beyond the promotion of Michael Roberts, who says he will not stop at one championship. 'I'd like to do it at least once more, to prove it wasn't a flash in the pan,' he says.

No proof required.

(Photograph omitted)