Racing: The hour cometh for Bradley and Bay

FESTIVAL FOCUS: The favourite for next week's Champion Hurdle will be partnered by a rider who has served his time with style; Richard Edmondson meets a veteran jockey with few miles on the clock
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The Independent Online
Graham Bradley, like all good judges of pace, is said to have a stopwatch in his head. Twelve months ago, however, the timepiece that worked in the jockey's favour was a dysfunctional alarm clock on his bedside cabinet.

Bradley had been due to partner Alderbrook, the Champion Hurdle favourite, in a piece of work when a power cut which embraced his Lambourn home meant he was late for the appointment. Kim Bailey, Alderbrook's trainer, was not amused and told Bradley where he could shove his saddle. Some weeks later, Collier Bay, the rider's replacement mount, swept away from Alderbrook up the Cheltenham hill with the speed of a second hand to his great rival's big hand. Time was proved to be a great healer.

When Bradley next week rents the Gloucestershire home he has occupied during the Cheltenham Festival for the last few years he will make sure the National Grid does not affect his attempts at a consecutive victory with Collier Bay. A battery-operated alarm clock will be part of his luggage.

These days Graham Bradley could be excused for climbing into bed earlier than most of his colleagues. At 36, and with his temples telling you what colour the rest of his hair is likely to be in future, he is one of the greybeards of the weighing room. At his age, most National Hunt jockeys have snapped their whips, embarked on a phone-tipping service and just started to buy a whole new wardrobe of clothes.

However, you will struggle to hear word that the Yorkshireman has lost his nerve or is a diluted athlete compared to the figure that already has seven Festival successes to his name. "I think I've still got the bottle," Bradley said this week. "You're a liar if you say you're not frightened. We're all frightened, but we just learn to cope with it somehow. Ayrton Senna once said that fear is a great part of self-preservation and I understand that because if you don't have that element of fear you'd be too dangerous and reckless and end up killing yourself.

"You expect to break bones during the course of the season but you just hope the really nasty falls don't happen to you. It's something that's always there in the back of your mind, and I suppose the time when it gets the better of you in the weighing room and you're too frightened to go out there is the time to pack it in."

This will be Bradley's 16th consecutive Festival, a record he has preserved largely by ignoring mounts that have unusual potential to transport him to the underworld. "I've had only about 4,000 rides in my whole life and the likes of Maguire, Dunwoody and McCoy would have that in four seasons," he said. "I'm quite selective in what I ride so there are not that many miles on the clock [and this one hasn't stopped].

"Michael Dickinson always told me not to ride a lot of bad horses or it would totally knacker my confidence. Going round for pounds 80 on a 66-1 shot that's got no chance and might bury you is a waste of time. It spoils your confidence, spoils your technique and might even spoil you. When people I don't know ring up and ask me to ride something in a novice chase for the first time I think it's a bit of a liberty."

Graham Bradley has lost his racing liberty several times since he rode his first winner in 1980. In fact, when he guides Collier Bay to post on Tuesday it will be hard to evaluate which side of the partnership has more form. Bradley first felt a ruler across his knuckles in 1982, when he was suspended for having a bet. Since then he has been punished for non-trying, riding a finish a circuit too early and being caught napping (not for the last time) and beaten on the run-in. He knows he has been silly, but there are explanations for many of his misdemeanours and it is easy to accept the belief that the jockey is the victim of unwarranted official attention.

It seems that a singed parchment poster bearing Bradley's features is nailed to the wall of all racing's sheriffs. If he parked on a double yellow line a team from the Jockey Club's disciplinary committee would probably come spilling out of a surveillance van. It may well be that he has to jump into a canyon to get this posse off his back. "It's been annoying and disappointing throughout my career and something I've had to cope with," he said. "The whole thing is a pain in the arse.

"There have been the ups and downs, but you've got to be very tough in this world and thick-skinned because lots of things go right but 10 times as many things go wrong. During the bad times, all I could do was keep trying, keep riding out and keep believing in myself until I had clawed my way back up. Confidence in my own ability and the love of what I do has kept me going."

The racing cognoscenti have understood Graham Bradley's capacities ever since Gold Cup day in 1983, when, as a 22-year-old, he led home Michael Dickinson's cavalry on Bregawn. The celebrations that night were conducted among a media scrum in the Flying Pizza in Leeds, but there was a limitation on the carafes of Lambrusco. "I was still a stable lad doing my three at the time and the last thing that Mrs Dickinson [the trainer's mother] said to me as we left at about midnight was don't be late for work," Bradley remembers. "And we were all there for seven o'clock." But then those were the days when he had a good alarm clock.

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