By Nicholas Godfrey
GB: Ben Curtis, the jockey who is setting a record-breaking pace on the all-weather circuit this winter, hit the 100 mark for the season this week with an across-the-card treble on yet another day-night double shift at Lingfield and Kempton.
Luke Morris’s all-time all-weather record of 102 was a formality until coronavirus intervened, leaving Curtis stuck on 101. So now, as much as any of us can in the current crisis, the relentlessly determined 30-year-old will be left to set targets for the remainder of 2020.
All-weather champion-elect Curtis has improved his seasonal numbers every year since he moved permanently from his native Ireland in 2014 – to the extent that last year’s 137 was enough for third place on the jockeys’ list. As more than 50 of those winners came outside the arbitrary parameters of Britain’s official championship (approximately May to October), he was sixth there, a position he intends to improve this time around after his prolific winter.
And yes, while the usually loquacious Curtis says he isn’t overly keen to talk about his ambitions for fear of heaping the pressure on himself, the jockeys’ title ‘proper’ is certainly in his thoughts.
“Of course it is,” says Curtis who is based in Thirsk, North Yorkshire. “Everyone wants to win a jockeys’ title. It’s on everyone’s to-do list in this sport and a lot of the lads will have it in their minds.
“It is in my mind,” he goes on. “But whether it’s something that’s achievable this year, I don’t know. It will be very, very competitive – Oisin Murphy is riding at the top of his game and has lots of support, and I think Silvestre de Sousa will be hungrier and Danny Tudhope up the north had a taste of it last year so he’ll be giving it a kick.”
‘I’d be giving it 110 per cent all the way to the finish line’
Doubtless that final remark also applies to Curtis and his agent Simon Dodds, whom the jockey credits for much of his success. “My agent and I always try to set goals,” he explains. “I think you have to in this game, even if you don’t succeed, or you’ve nothing to aim for.
“He set the goals for me and we’ve put the foot down and gone through them,” he adds. “We were aiming for 100 by the end of March and obviously we got there a bit before that. They are goals but I like to keep them in my head – when I start talking about them to other people, they might start weighing on my mind.
“But first and foremost we want to build up a trainer base with better-quality horses with the aim of potentially going for it, and if we’re in a position to go for it, I can tell you one thing: we won’t be taking a day off. Every meeting that’s on, we’ll be there. If I was ever in a position to go for it, I’d be giving it 110 per cent all the way to the finish line, win, lose or draw.”
Not that such words will be any sort of surprise to those who have followed Curtis’s career from his younger days in Ireland. Hailing from the seaside town of Kinsale near Cork, with no obvious horsey background, Curtis became well known for his sheer volume of rides.
That workaholic trait that has served him well during his head-on assault on the all-weather title as he has travelled the length and breadth of the country; his dad Dane also get kudos for doing a lot of the driving (“and motivating me – or bollocking me when I do things wrong!” says the jockey).
‘It’s been pretty nonstop’
“It’s been pretty nonstop and it’s been fantastic from start to finish,” Curtis adds. “It is probably the hardest time to be going racing as you leave in the dark and get back in the dark but when you’re riding winners, you don’t mind doing it.
“It is very full on. Whether you get time to reflect is questionable but I have had breaks” – indeed, he is planning a few days off this week, to spend some time with his two-year-old son Brodi.
“That is what I was planning this winter, just riding on the all-weather when I was called upon. It didn’t quite work out like that. Even when I went home for Christmas we cut it short because I was getting itchy feet.”
In that context, Curtis seems to count quickfire trips to Dubai as a bit of a vacation, albeit very much of the ‘busman’s holiday’ variety. Quite how he finds the time is anybody’s guess, but even at Meydan, Curtis made it count, riding the Mick Channon-trained Certain Lad to a 33-1 success in a valuable carnival handicap in January. “It’s nice to get a bit of sun,” he says, “even if it’s just for 12 hours. It freshens you up a bit.”
Officially a freelance, Curtis’s main regular employers during the summer months are trainers Karl Burke and Roger Fell. On the all-weather, however, it is Mick Appleby and Tony Carroll who have supplied the bulk of his ammunition – though it is noticeable how other higher-profile yards have also been calling him up. He is three-out-of-four this year for Godolphin trainer Charlie Appleby, for example.
‘You always want to be on the big stage’
“I’ve been lucky enough to get on some nice horses and I’ve been riding for a lot of good trainers,” he says. “I’ve made a lot of new contacts down south as well.”
He is looking forward to All-Weather Championships Day on Good Friday, saying: “You always want to be on the big stage, and I hope I’ve got a nice few good rides. It is a big day and you can get your name out there; if you’re in the limelight, you might get the call-up when people have spares at other times.
“When I came over to England, we set a goal to improve our numbers every year but then it’s been about quality as well for the last couple of seasons,” he goes on.
“My prize-money nearly doubled last year, which shows the quality had improved. I’ve had a few Group winners but that elusive Group 1 is out there somewhere. That’s what we’re aiming for and I’m hoping trainers will have the confidence to put me up in those sort of races.”