Last week, jockey David Probert began wearing some new ‘lucky pants’. Actually, they’re breeches adorned with the geegeez.co.uk logo and, so far, they’ve proved four-tuitous for the Welsh rider, who has since accrued four wins in six days.
David was kind enough to take time to chat with me about various things, amongst them his career to date, influences, and horses, trainers and jockeys to look out.
His introduction to horses came via his father, who had point-to-pointers and ponies, and David started out in pony races. Then, as a fresh-faced 16-year-old he travelled to the British Racing School to undertake a nine week pre-apprenticeship course. From there, he was dealt the plum hand of an apprenticeship at Andrew Balding’s Kingsclere stables.
Kingsclere has an exceptional – and thoroughly deserved – reputation for schooling young jockeys, under the diligent tutelage of Andrew and father, Ian. And it is a yard from which Probert has formed a robust allegiance that has lasted close to a decade thus far.
David’s first ride under rules was in December 2006, when he partnered Tiny Tim, a 20/1 shot, to fifth of twelve at Lingfield. In an age where persistence seems rather unfashionable, it is sobering to consider that a year (less a few days) and forty further rides elapsed before Probert’s maiden victory.
That was aboard Bernard Llewellyn’s Mountain Pass in early December 2007.
And then the fun started…
In 2008, this no-name seven pound bug jockey scaled the saddle for 458 rides, winning on exactly fifty of them. That half-century was enough for a half-share of the Apprentice Championship, the other half going to William Buick – remarkably also riding out of the Kingsclere stable.
Recalling that year brings a broad smile to the now relative veteran of the weighing room. “It was pretty special. We got on very well, we’ve always been very good friends and we just bounced off each other that year”.
Probert is keen to acknowledge the setup at Kingsclere, and the variety of terrain at the horses’ – and riders’ – disposal. “It’s such a great facility, with different types of gallops to suit pretty much every horse. It improves your riding so much. Riding different horses on different gallops prepares you physically and mentally for race riding”.
He also had praise for the work that Balding, Snr., puts in with the young lads. “Ian always takes time to go over the races after the apprentices have finished their rides, to help them. He’s always riding out in the mornings telling them what they’re doing right and wrong and so on. He’s very good”.
Currently starring in Kingsclere’s version of The Apprentice are Rob Hornby, Ed Greatrex, and a couple of younger pilots in Will Cox and Josh Bryan. While the latter pair have had just three rides apiece to date, Bryan unlucky to get chinned on the line at Salisbury last week, Greatrex and Hornby are steaming ahead.
The more experienced duo have notched 107 wins between them, Hornby claiming the lion’s share to date, with 65. Of the younger pair, Probert likes what he’s seen, noting that “Josh is very talented and is definitely one to keep an eye on, while Will is up-and-coming too”.
Looking at the bigger picture, Probert’s model jockey is Kieren Fallon. “I think Kieren’s a great rider. I follow him quite a bit. He was always very good when I was an apprentice as well, helping me to understand things I could do better. Ryan [Moore] is also very good, as are all the senior lads really. They’re always willing to give help to the young lads”.
As well as the physical attributes – a lot of strength and agility summoned from not a lot of body mass – jockeys need mental strength, too. In response to my question about whether riding was a confidence game, Probert nods. “Yes, I think it has a lot to do with it. When you’re riding winners, it definitely helps you mentally, perhaps reading races a bit better. Race riding involves a lot of split second decisions, and when you’re riding with a lot of confidence less things seem to go wrong.”
The Kingsclere model clearly imbues riders with confidence, the trainer happy for his jockeys to use their racing brains when Plan A goes west for whatever reason.
With the season now well underway, what, I wondered, was David’s target for 2016. Unsurprisingly, he is keen to “just keep riding winners”. After a short pause, he added, “I rode a hundred winners two years ago, and I’d love to do that again. If I could achieve that, that’d be perfect.”
Probert rides for lots of outside stables – that is, besides Kingsclere – and, when pushed to nominate a couple for whom he has done especially well, he flagged the yards of Michael Blanshard and Philip McBride. “Michael hasn’t got many horses, but he seems to place them very well, and his horses are always fit. The same is true with Philip”.
McBride has a very nice filly, called Squash, on which David was second in the Nell Gwyn Stakes, and about which the form book attests to Probert’s assertion that she is an “exciting filly for the season”.
It was my intention not to ask about specific horses but, despite myself, I couldn’t resist fishing to see if there was one in the yard that might be worth following through the year. On David’s behalf, I’d like to scream caveat emptor and, in that spirit and by way of closing, offer his two word answer. “Dark Shot”.