By Great British Racing
GB: The race for the 2021 Flat Jockeys’ Championship begins on Qipco 2000 Guineas day at Newmarket on Saturday, May 1, and competition for the title has seldom been keener.
The sustained battle between Harry Skelton and Brian Hughes which ended at Sandown Park with victory for Skelton became one of the key talking points of the last two months of the jumps season, and the 2021 Flat jockeys’ title promises to be even more fiercely contested. No fewer than five credible candidates are generally trading at single-figure odds and bookmakers unable to even agree upon who should be favourite.
Will we see a new name on the trophy when the competition concludes on Qipco British Champions Day at Ascot on October 16, or can Oisin Murphy emulate recent three-time champion Richard Hughes by landing a third successive title? It’s all to play for.
Oisin Murphy Odds for 2021: 7-4f
Age 25 Last year: champion
Reigning champion Oisin Murphy likes to play down his chances of a third successive title, pointing to the strength of the opposition and to the physical and mental strain that chasing the championship places on a rider.
However, he showed when challenged hard by Danny Tudhope in 2019 and then by William Buick last year how determined he can be under pressure and he will not be letting go lightly.
Murphy said: “It’s a very competitive weighing room in Britain, as we all know, and there are stars and big-name jockeys everywhere you look. William Buick and Tom Marquand in particular are very eager to be champion jockey and they deserve a lot of respect.
“On a personal level it would be very special to me if I could win the championship for a third time. I’ve worked very hard ever since I got my apprentice licence and I’m fortunate to ride for a lot of great people.
“That’s been good enough for the last two years and hopefully it will be good enough again. It’s a long, tiring season, but riding good horses keeps you going and I’ll certainly be doing my best.”
William Buick 2-1
Age 32 Last year: second
William Buick was tipped as a future champion while his apprenticeship was still in its infancy, so impressed was Ian Balding, father of trainer Andrew and another renowned cultivator of young riding talent.
That it took him until last year to mount his first serious challenge was a surprise, but the responsibilities of riding as first jockey for John Gosden and then Charlie Appleby are not necessarily conducive to title bids and perhaps the injury which caused him to miss so much of 2019 has focussed his attentions.
The one-meeting-per-day limit introduced in response to Covid-19 arguably favours Buick, who has a young family and might not relish week after week of double shifts. In finishing only eight winners adrift of Murphy last year he showed that he could handle the travel and commitment required by his Godolphin job and also mount a pretty effective challenge.
Frankie Dettori was the only rider in the top 50 who enjoyed a better strike rate in 2020, and this time Buick is not being coy about his ambitions.
Buick said: “It’s no secret that it’s a big ambition of mine and I’ll be giving it my best shot this year. I’ve come close a couple of times, without quite threatening, but I’ve never before put my heart and soul into chasing it as much as you need to.
“Last year I learned a lot chasing Oisin and I’ve hopefully taken a lot of positives out of the experience. I kept my head down and kept trying, and I got almost within touching distance, but I was under no illusions about how hard it was going to be chasing winners towards the end of the season when I was adrift.
“We all know how much needs to go right throughout the season for it to happen. You need a lot of firepower, you need a lot of support, and you need to stay focussed and keep making the right decisions. It’s not easy, and that’s why it’s so sought after.”
Ben Curtis 7-2
Age 31 Last year: fifth
The 92 winners Ben Curtis rode for fifth place in the 2020 championship season tell only half the story, for in the calendar year he was the clear number one, his 170 winners taking him 19 clear of closest pursuer Hollie Doyle.
As only six of those winners were for Mark Johnston one can only guess at what heights he might achieve this year now that he is effectively riding as first-choice jockey to British racing’s winningmost trainer.
Bookmakers do not underestimate his chance, as he is pressing Buick and Murphy for favouritism in at least one leading list.
Curtis said: “I had a fantastic year numbers-wise in 2020, and there was a lot more quality too. The game plan again is to keep building up the quality and also to put my head down and ride as many winners as I can, then see where I am when we get to Goodwood. If I’m in contention at that stage I’ll be giving it 100%.
“Last year I had only a small and select set of rides for Mark Johnston but we had a good strike-rate and it ended up very fruitful. It’s great to be asked to jump on board a lot more for him this year and hopefully they can contribute to that big number I’m going to need for the title, whether it’s this year or next.
“It’s going to be very competitive and Oisin and William are entitled to be heading the market because of the ammunition they have. I’ll need everything to fall right, but fingers crossed it will.”
Hollie Doyle 9-2
Age 24 Last year: fourth
No rider made more headlines or achieved more firsts in 2020 than Hollie Doyle, who picked up three prestigious Lester awards after enjoying a first Group race win, a first Group 1 win, and a first prestigious retainer, not to mention taking third place at the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year awards ceremony and riding a five-timer at Windsor.
Doyle’s rise has been nothing short of phenomenal and she is unrecognisable now from the rider who took five years to shed her apprentice claim. As physically strong arguably as any Flat jockey of either sex, and just as effective these days on turf as on the all-weather, she could well be crowned racing’s first female champion on October 16. If she’s not, it won’t be for the want of trying.
She said: “It’s going to be tough for someone like me to win it but I give it 100 per cent every year. I try my hardest and it’s just whether I’m in a position to go for it. I had a great year last year and I must make sure I don’t give the people who used me then any reason not to use me in future.
Doyle has already assembled 57 wins in 2021 and leads the Annual Flat Jockeys’ title. She continued: “I’ve made a great start this year and through the pre-championship months I think I’m ahead of last year’s schedule, so I’ve just got to keep it up.”
Tom Marquand 6-1
Age 23 Last year: third
If Tom Marquand and his partner Hollie Doyle weren’t ambitious enough as individuals already, the day-to-day professional rivalry between the pair can only have helped spur them on to greater heights.
Marquand had the better of their personal battle in the 2020 title race, his 114 winners taking him into third behind Murphy and Buick, but Doyle outscored him in the year as a whole, a significant part of which he had spent in Australia, where he won two Group 1s on his subsequent Qipco Champion Stakes winner Addeybb.
The 2015 champion apprentice enjoyed a breakthrough first Classic win on Galileo Chrome in the Pertemps St Leger last year. He is raring to go after his recent return from repeating his 2020 win on Addeybb in Australia’s Queen Elizabeth Stakes.
Marquand said: “In my last ten days or so in Australia, while Newmarket and Newbury were on, I felt for the first time that I was missing out, especially with William [Haggas] having such a great week, and now I’m back it’s reignited a bit of a spark in me.
“I’m really looking forward to getting stuck in and hoping I can get off to a flier, as that’s what I’ll need for the championship. William has been my biggest supporter for the last year and a half or so, and he’s got an extremely powerful team – and Tony Carroll has provided me with 15 to 20 winners every single year.
“I’m also lucky to have a really wide base of support beyond them though, and in a championship season of under six months I think that really helps, because you need to be firing in winners every single week. If you are relying mainly on one trainer who goes quiet for a bit, that might be costing you eight or ten winners a week.”
About the 2021 Flat Jockeys’ Championship
The 2021 Flat Jockeys’ Championship will begin on Qipco 2000 Guineas day at Newmarket on Saturday, May 1 and conclude on Qipco British Champions Day at Ascot on Saturday, October 16.
Last year, the disruptions caused by Covid-19 led to changes. With Flat racing resuming at Newcastle on June 1 following an absence due to the pandemic, the 2020 Championship began there and was extended to conclude at Doncaster on November 7.
In 2021, with the approval of the PJA, the Championships will return to the period they have been run over since 2015, with the champion jockey and champion apprentice (together with the champion owner) crowned at Qipco British Champions Day.
• For more information on the 2021 Flat Jockeys’ Championship, visit greatbritishracing.com/championships