Sean Levey is out to break new ground by claiming his first winner at Royal Ascot next week.
The Swaziland-born rider has been a pioneer for black jockeys in Britain – becoming the first to ride in the Derby in 2016 when steering Humphrey Bogart to fifth place, before claiming Classic glory two years later aboard Billesdon Brook in the 1000 Guineas at Newmarket.
Success at the Flat season’s showpiece meeting has so far eluded Levey, but he is hoping to put that right on his return to Berkshire.
“My form at Ascot alone is very good – but when it comes to Royal Ascot, not so much,” he said.
“I wouldn’t say I’ve been unfortunate. I’ve been placed many a time, mostly in handicaps and what have you.
“I’m disappointed it hasn’t happened yet, so I would just like the box ticked now.
“It’s a bit of a monkey on my back, that one.”
It has been quite a journey for the 33-year-old son of Epsom-based apprentice Mick Levey and Swazi mother Tini.
The family moved away from Africa shortly after the turn of the century, initially to Croydon in south London before heading across the Irish Sea to allow Mick Levey to work for Aidan O’Brien.
Levey said: “I wouldn’t say it was a huge culture shock as far as moving from Africa to Ireland was concerned – they’re not too far apart, to be fair.
“I did live in Croydon for a bit and I found that quite difficult. Being closer to London and being more closed, I found that quite tough. I preferred the open nature of Ireland, which is similar to Swaziland ”
Although only a teenager at the time, it did not take long for Levey junior to become part of the riding team at Ballydoyle.
“I was still at school, so I started working there on a weekend,” he said.
“I had a season pony racing and was meant to do a second season. But as luck would have it, I ended up just doing a summer in Ballydoyle and ended up signing on there as an apprentice.
“I won a few Listed races and Group races for Aidan and had the opportunity to ride, I think, in every Classic in Ireland. I rode in the Arc for him and a few other Group Ones, including the German Guineas, and I won the Irish Cambridgeshire on a horse called Poet (2009).
“It was a privileged apprenticeship. There’s no doubt he gave me a lot of opportunities, and I’ll be forever grateful.”
After six years on the Ballydoyle books, Levey made the bold move to return to continue his riding career in Britain in 2011.
Jockeys of ethnic minority were even rarer then than they are now, but he does not believe his opportunities have been diminished by his race.
“This has all been highlighted since the poor fella in America (George Floyd) was killed, but you’ve got to remember that I’ve been riding since I was 17,” said Levey.
“I was signed on for one of the greatest trainers in the world as a teenager, and thinking about the colour of my skin wasn’t at the forefront of my mind.
“I’d had massive opportunities as an apprentice and was wanting momentum over here. I was chasing my dream – and as much as racism exists in every walk of life, it’s becoming smaller and smaller worldwide, especially in countries like this.
“I was taken aback actually when they asked ‘how does it feel to be the first black jockey to win a British Classic?’, or ‘how does it feel to be the first black jockey to have a ride in the Derby?’.
“I didn’t look at it in that way at the time, but I am half-Swazi and I can speak Swazi, so I’ll take it – and if it benefits anyone looking in, then so be it.”
People from all over the world ride out in yards across Britain and Ireland.
Levey believes a lack of information, rather than systemic racism within the sport, is the main reason why many have not gone on to become jockeys – but feels improvements have and are being made.
Levey said: “What I am seeing, and should be seeing, is a lot more black and Asian people coming into racing.
“In Ireland there was only me – in England there is me and Royston (Ffrench) and Silvestre de Sousa, obviously.
“Now the next crop of apprentices are coming in, and I do see a lot more. If what we have done is give others the confidence, I think that is ultimately what everyone is looking for.
“(We want) to reach out to those urban areas where people don’t get the opportunities and show that the sport is open to anybody who would like to come into it.
“Rather than dwelling on ‘racing needs to change because it’s racist’, I personally don’t feel that that’s the case, but I do feel like more information needs to be put out there for people to know that they are more than welcome through those doors.
“I think what everyone has been doing in the last couple of years is making people more comfortable to take that chance, to get a licence and give it a go. It’s exactly the same with female jockeys.
“Sometimes people look at it the wrong way and think we’re trying to eradicate racism in racing because it’s rife, but that is not the case. I think everyone is just trying to say the doors open to anyone who wants to come in if they’re willing and want to give it a shot.”
“We want everyone to know you will get the opportunity if you work hard.”
Levey can look forward to a strong book of rides at the Royal meeting, with Snow Lantern chief among them in the Coronation Stakes – a race which is part of this year’s QIPCO British Champions Series.
The daughter of Frankel is out to emulate her dam Sky Lantern, who won the same race in 2013, but does need to bounce back from a slightly underwhelming performance at York.
“She’s in good order and all set to go,” he said.
“It was a slightly disappointing run at York – things didn’t really go our way. She was keener than you’d like on that occasion – and as a result, she didn’t quite run as well as we thought she would.
“She seems to be doing the right things at home and hasn’t put a foot wrong since. I’d like to think that if she runs her race nice and settled then she’ll have a big chance.”
Another filly Levey believes can make her presence felt at Group One level is Happy Romance.
Together, they have already won five races – and she is viewed as a lively outsider for the Commonwealth Cup.
Levey said: “Happy Romance is one that does all the talking on the track. She’s very straightforward, an absolute pleasure to ride and has plenty of ability to boot.
“I think Ascot is her track – she ran really well in the Queen Mary last year. She’s shown she wants better ground, and a stiff track will suit her style of running – she’s more an off-the-bridle kind of sprinter, rather than an ‘all guns blazing’ kind of sprinter.
“Against her own age group, I would give her a good chance.”