By Jon Lees
GB: Martin Dwyer has won the Derby and the Oaks and ridden over 1,300 winners, including 13 at G1 level – but when he lines up on Pyledriver at Epsom on Saturday it will be only his fourth ride in the Epsom Classic in 28 years as a jockey.
Fashionability and form count for a lot in Flat racing so the 45-year-old is determined to make the most of a chance to strike a blow for the underdog in the Derby on the Royal Ascot-winning colt, who is trained by his father-in-law William Muir.
“It shows how hard it is to get a horse good enough to run in a race like this,” says Dwyer, who won the 2006 Derby on Sir Percy but not has a ride in the race for 13 years.
“The opportunities have somewhat dried up for me in the last few years so you do kind of think you might not get an opportunity to ride in a Derby again. But the thing with this sport is you never know what’s coming round the corner.
“Of course it’s frustrating and disappointing because you feel you are riding well, but if you’re not getting the winners it’s a vicious circle. When you’ve proven it at the top level, won Classics and G1s all over the world and are not getting the chances it is frustrating, it’s a tough spill to swallow.
“But also I’m a realist. There is no point worrying about it, I just keep my head down and get on, keep trying to ride winners and when I get an opportunity I try to take them with both hands.”
Devoted Everton FC fan Dwyer, who was born round the corner from Goodison Park, has found that the power in Flat racing has become concentrated in fewer hands, just like in the Premier League.
Nevertheless he has converted his opportunities into multiple successes, not just with Sir Percy. He won the 2003 Oaks on Casual Look, rode Persian Punch to a memorable triumph in the Goodwood Cup and partnered multi-millionaire Phoenix Reach to G1 victories in Canada, Hong Kong and Dubai.
He has vivid memories of Sir Percy’s short-head success, then the tightest Derby finish since 1913. The pair secured the verdict in a four-way photo-finish after flying up the inside rail to get up in the last stride.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” he says. “The Derby is the biggest race in the world. We were pretty confident going into it, but a few things had gone wrong.
“The horse had got injured after the Guineas, then we nursed him back to health. The night before I had a fall at Bath and I had to pass the doctor to ride. Then Sir Percy wouldn’t go in the stalls and I thought ‘Jesus, we are going to be struck by lightning in a minute!’
“They put the blindfold on him – it was his last chance. They led him straight in. The race itself was a bit rough. There were plenty of runners, I got shuffled back but he flew home and he got his head there when it mattered.”
Like Sir Percy, who was a 16,000gns yearling, Pyledriver attracted little interest in the sales ring, having to be bought back by his owner-breeders Guy Leach and Roger Devlin for 10,000gns when offered for sale as a foal.
Put into training with Muir, he established his credentials by winning the King Edward VII Stakes from a field containing two of his likely rivals on Saturday, Mohican Heights and Mogul. He is not yet at the level of Sir Percy, but is on the right path.
“Preparations have gone well,” Dwyer says. “I rode him Tuesday morning. He went really well, he looks fantastic. He only did a light piece of work, nothing serious. He has had two relatively quick runs and he doesn’t need tons of work. It was the same regime as before Ascot.
“Depending on what Aidan [O’Brien] runs I think it is quite an open race. Kameko was impressive in the Guineas and if he stays, which I think is a bit of a question mark, he is the one we’ve all got to beat. You can’t knock Classic form.
“With Pyledriver, there is no issue on stamina,” he adds. “He ticks a lot of boxes. He is an improving horse who won well at Ascot, showing good acceleration to get me where I needed to be and then showed plenty of stamina to put the race to bed when challenged late in the last furlong. I have no concerns there.
“English King was impressive at Lingfield and looked like he would improve. I rode in that race, finishing fourth. He’s a big danger as well, but I think we have a live shot.”
Muir, 62, has been training as long as Dwyer has been riding and victory for a trainer of just 30 horses who is yet to have a G1 winner would be a shot in the arm for the smaller operators, helping belie Flat racing’s image as a billionaire’s playground.
“It’s become more apparent over the last few years that a small amount of people are getting all the good horses,” says Dwyer.
“Smaller trainers are struggling to get them and when they get them it’s hard to keep them. Fortunately Pyledriver’s owners didn’t want to sell, which is fantastic. It means everything to William and all the yard and everyone involved. To get a horse as good as him that has a realistic chance in the Derby is once in a lifetime.
“This would be good for the sport. It’s well documented that Pyledriver cost 10,000gns. The owner bred him and kept him. If it was the same old faces winning all the time, racing would end up like Formula 1. It shows you don’t always have to be a billionaire to have success in the sport.”
Investec Derby betting
Coral: 9-4 English King, 4 Kameko, 6 Russian Emperor, 7 Mogul, 8 Vatican City, 14 Highland Chief, Pyledriver, 20 Armory, Mohican Heights, 25 Emissary, Khalifa Sat, 33 Mythical, Serpentine, Worthily, 40 Max Vega, 50 Amhran Na Bhfiann, Gold Maze.