James Doyle: in the top one per cent of anyone who has ever ridden

Our golden age

Today’s jockeys are the best ever

Turf Account

This article is taken from the June 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

My first proper job after college was as the very first graduate trainee at the Jockey Club, in the days before the arrivistes of the British Horseracing Authority took over racing.

They’d decided they ought to move into the nineteenth century. Modern organisations had graduate chappies around, so they should get one, too. They meant well. I only lasted six months before the lure of working in politics took over. But I spent those six months in the Disciplinary Department, which managed to be both as fascinating as the name suggests and yet also fantastically tedious, a not-so-glorified filing clerk in the 1980s days before computers took over much of the grunt work.

I still consider jockeys to be the most heroic of sporting figures

The one thing I took away which remains useful today (other than a determination never to let my teeth get into the state of Mick Easterby’s) was the realisation that the vast majority of trainers and jockeys were not and would never be bent, and would do anything to get rid of those that were.

To this day, more than 50 years since I first became fascinated by the same obsession as my dad, I still consider jockeys to be the most heroic of sporting figures — all the more so for the sangfroid with which they approach what should terrify any sane person in steering 70-odd stone of horse while galloping at around 40mph. That is before we even think about those that jump fences. They’re all mad, even the sane ones.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of bemoaning the passing of the characters of old — the Steve Smith-Eccleses, the John Francomes, and the amateurs like Brod Munro-Wilson — just as the received wisdom a few years ago was that there was a paucity of top-notch jockeys. It’s all nonsense.

We can all think of the true greats, the immortal few whose talent genuinely both changed and defined their era. Lester Piggott, Steve Cauthen and Pat Eddery on the flat, for example. But step down into the mere mortals — the solid, successful professional — and, pound for pound, they are in a different league to previous generations.

Take a jockey like James Doyle. He’s not even number one for his stable (although admittedly being number two at Godolphin is hardly making do). But you could parachute him back in time and he would run rings round most of his peers.

Until last month he had been riding for 18 years without a classic win. But he was as good — far better — than 99 per cent of anyone who has ever ridden professionally. Winning the 2000 and 1000 Guineas has been a wonderful achievement for him, but it says precisely nothing more about his ability as a jockey.

For one thing, the James Doyles of this world are so much fitter than their predecessors. But that only takes you so far. Crucially, their racing brains are, as a rule, far more sophisticated.

Harry Wragg rode over 1700 winners in his 27-year career before turning to training in 1947. His nickname, The Head Waiter, was an affectionate comment on his come-from-behind riding style. And with so many winners, who can criticise that?

Far from looking back, we should be celebrating the golden age of jockeyship

But who would you rather have on your horse — a jockey whose default tactic is to come from behind, no matter how unsuitable it may be or how many races he lost in doing so, or a jockey who can adapt as the race pans out and make sure his horse is in the best possible place?

Ryan Moore may be the least showy of all today’s top international riders, but he has the understated yet vital knack (99 times out of 100) of putting his horse in the right place so he can then go about the business of riding to win.

Put it this way: it’s not by mistake that Moore is in demand across the globe to ride the best horses, while Jamie Spencer, one of his predecessors as Aidan O’Brien’s stable jockey and Harry Wragg’s modern equivalent, is now more of a cult figure than first, second or even third call for the best horses.

Far from looking back, we should be celebrating the golden age of jockeyship. I haven’t even mentioned Ruby Walsh and Sir AP McCoy, two of the immortals. They may no longer be riding, but boy oh boy does their legacy still live on.

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