IT WAS in April 1996 that a horse called Fletcher made his first appearance on a racecourse. It was a successful debut, too, one which persuaded the Timeform race-readers at Newmarket that he was "sure to win again", but it soon became clear that the horse had other ideas. Over the next two-and-a-half years, 13 different jockeys tried their luck on his back, including Kieren Fallon, Pat Eddery and Michael Hills, in a total of 26 races. Though his ability was clearly intact, not one could persuade Fletcher to put it to good use. Timeform's commentators, their patience exhausted, allowed themselves a rare stab at humour. Fletcher was, they concluded, "a habitual criminal".
But then Richard Forristal climbed aboard for an amateurs' race at Ascot, and something astonishing happened - Fletcher won. Showing the steely nerve of a seasoned professional, Forristal delayed his run until the last possible second. By the time his mount realised that he was in front and tried to apply the brakes, the post was already receding.
Forristal, clearly, was not one of those amateur riders who thinks he is doing well if he simply points his horse in the right direction. Instead, while the race which first got him noticed was on the Flat, he is an amateur jump jockey from Ireland, which is often a different thing entirely. As it was for Adrian Maguire, who also arrived in Britain with a "Mr" in front of his name, amateur status is simply a useful starting point in Forristal's journey towards the senior ranks.
There are other similarities with Maguire too, such as his relatively slight build - Forristal weighs less than 9st. Then there is his pugnacious riding style, which developed first at a local riding school and racing yard in Co. Cork, and then during working holidays at Aidan O'Brien's stable.
The most telling entry on Forristal's cv, though, may be the 18-year- old's background in Irish pony racing, which is long on action and very short on rules. It is a tough school, which counts Maguire, Tony McCoy and Declan Murphy among its recent graduates.
"It's the best experience you can get, because you have to look after yourself," Forristal says. "You go as hard as you can from the start and there aren't many stewards' inquiries. It's everyone to their own, and more than anything, it teaches you to be a bit hard-edged."
So much so that at just 15, he was ready to leave home for Britain, and a job with Kim Bailey in Lambourn. It has been said that he simply walked up to Bailey's front door and asked for a job, though Forristal says that this is a misunderstanding - "they knew I might be coming, I just left home a month earlier than I thought." His natural horsemanship was quickly apparent, both to Bailey and Conor O'Dwyer, the stable jockey at the time.
Competitive outings were generally restricted to the point-to-point field, however, until this season, when Forristal started to ride regularly under Rules. There have been 20 winners this term, and the only minor irritation is that he is not the leading amateur (Alan Dempsey, who is riding almost as many of Mary Reveley's runners as her stable jockey, has four more).
This year will offer his only chance of the amateurs' title, though, since financial considerations will force him to ride professionally from next season. "I'm looking for a sponsor and turning professional is the next step. I couldn't afford to be an amateur for another season," he says. Unless Bailey's string hits peak form from now until May, he will do so as a conditional, although as ever, the transition which will matter is the one from conditional to senior.
"It would be a miracle if I lost all of my claim by the end of the season," he says, "but the hardest thing is definitely when you do lose your claim, or even when you go down to 3lb, whether people still want to use you. A lot of good jockeys are forgotten about when their claim is gone."
But at least one significant figure seems confident that he has the talent to move up and keep going. Dave Roberts, the agent to the stars with names like McCoy and Mick Fitzgerald on his books, agreed to represent Forristal at the end of last season. Roberts's famed ability to find spare winners could yet see Forristal pass Dempsey in the amateurs' title race, and should maintain the momentum as his allowance drops away.
At his current rate of progress, it seems inevitable that Forristal will begin the 2000-2001 season as a senior rider, and one to be reckoned with. Horses run and jump for him, and as his ride on Fletcher demonstrated, he knows to the inch where the winning post is. For the next few months, he will effectively be a full professional with a 5lb allowance, and punters who do not take advantage could spend the next 10 years regretting their mistake.
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