Racing: Serious aim for head hedonist: Cheltenham brings Steve Smith Eccles a chance to pursue old ambitions. Richard Edmondson reports

Click to follow
The Independent Online
AT FIRST contact Steve Smith Eccles's reputation as National Hunt racing's premier sybarite seemed spot on.

'Is it male or female?' the jockey asked a man who collected my initial phone call. When told it was the former, he added: 'In that case, tell him to go away (not his exact words).'

Smith Eccles, though, agreed readily to a meeting, with this parting shot. 'Bring lots of money, I like whisky.'

Steve Smith Eccles, the weighing room's senior jockey, does indeed like whisky (he drank two large ones during the course of our conversation at Lingfield). But more than that he enjoys playing up to the hedonistic image that has built up around his near 20-year career in the saddle.

When Smith Eccles rides at the Cheltenham Festival next week, 15 seasons after recording his first success there on Sweet Joe in what is now known as the Sun Alliance Chase, he will carry with him a fund of what he euphemistically calls 'scrapes'. 'Most jockeys seem to get into scrapes maybe once or twice in their career, but it seems to happen to me on a bit more of a regular basis,' he said.

Among these scrapes is the time in 1986, just before the Grand National, when a row with his then girlfriend, the Newmarket trainer Di Haine, meant he spent the night smothered in clothes on the back seat of his car. When Smith Eccles woke he was moving, at 80mph down the M57, with a teenage thief at the wheel.

And then there was the afternoon of the rubbish ride at Uttoxeter. 'I got beaten on an odds- on favourite in the first and obviously one punter had done his bollocks on it,' he said. 'Because when I was going past the stands in a later race this dustbin came flying over the rails at me, accompanied by the words 'Smith Eccles you cheating bastard'. It was full, and it was a good job too, because it only just fell short.'

But most of the stories have involved one particular subject, the one Smith Eccles lists as his hobby. Bird-watching. 'Over the years I suppose this reputation with the women has been well justified,' he said. 'And why not, I've had no commitments. I'm not married and I've got no kids, so if I feel like going off on a Saturday and coming back Thursday, that's OK. I'm sure if I'd not got involved with women over the years I'd have made a fortune.

'But it's a bit different these days. You do slow down as you get older and I've got a very nice girlfriend who I've been going steady with for quite a while. There's not so much of the parties or whatever any more.'

The severance of another relationship still lingers in Smith Eccles's mind. The day, eight years ago, when his fellow cavalier John Francome retired from the weighing room. Francome was then National Hunt's leading stylist, contrasting with the sweatier methods of Smith Eccles, but the men were bonded by their attitudes.

'Francome was a major part of my life,' he said. 'We sat next to each other for 10 years and we did have a lot of fun. Then one day he wasn't there. I missed him for a long while and it took quite a lot of adjusting to.'

On Francome's departure, Smith Eccles, known to all as 'The Ecc', took over the No. 1 peg in the dressing room (Peter Scudamore is at No. 2) and the right to determine how races should be run. 'At the start, I tell everyone what I'm going to do,' he said. 'I tell them I'll sit second or third on the inner, and the rest of the boys hear me and know it's my spot. If some kid got in my place, they'd certainly get sorted out in no uncertain fashion.'

Smith Eccles recalls the seasons when he was a kid jockey and an age in which he felt more comfortable. 'I caught the tail end of an era when people like Jeff King and David Mould were around and I must admit I was in my element in those days.

'Like them then, a big part of my job is after-sales service. Going into the bar and chatting to owners. In the old days, that was where you did a lot of your work and, over the years, that's how I've got a lot of my rides. The younger jockeys don't do it any more.'

Racing has its share of double- barrelled names, but Smith Eccles's is an unusual derivation. His grandfather, an orphaned Eccles, created the name as a tribute to the Smiths, a family of preachers who brought him up in a mining village on the border of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire.

The jockey himself has been shaped by this industry, his huge shoulders the legacy of a schoolboy coal round, when he humped 100cw sacks to cellars.

Smith Eccles will put these muscles to good use next week when his robust style will be particulary useful on the reluctant Sibton Abbey in the Gold Cup. 'He's lazy,' the rider said. 'He's the sort of horse you have to ask for everything.

'But I was quite impressed with the way he won at Cheltenham (in January) because you normally find that you give horses better rides once you know them a little bit. And he wasn't fully wound up that day, so all in all that was a good performance. If the ground came up soft we'd have a very realistic chance of finishing in the first three.'

Smith Eccles would like to crown his career by capturing a major chase (he already has three Champion Hurdles in the scrapbook thanks to See You Then), but most of all he wants to go down as a jockey who can ride horses as well as the surf of pleasure.

'OK, I'll be known for my cavalier attitude to life, but I would like to be remembered for my riding ability and the winners I've ridden rather than my character,' he said. 'Otherwise it would be a shame.'

And so he should be. If Smith Eccles had placed extra-curricula activities ahead of his trade, as the Chinese whispers of the racecourse might have you believe, he would never have partnered 850 winners or survived 20 years in a sport which spits out its participants with metronomic frequency. And the body and face, still taut despite his 37 years, would tell a different story.

Steve Smith Eccles will ride one more year at least, and while he is dreading the cold turkey of looking on from the stands, he is happy with the rewards his profession has brought him.

'I just cannot imagine life without race-riding and I'm not looking forward to the day when I actually say that's it,' he said. 'I love this game and it's been very good to me, in monetary terms and other ways. You can be rich in other things apart from money.'

(Photograph omitted)