In this episode of Catching Up, geegeez-sponsored jockey David Probert offers a few thoughts on some hot topics in the sport – dealing with losing runs, sectional timing, and the prize money issue – as well as giving us the inside track on riding Wolverhampton.
Either side of the equine flu break I went a couple of weeks without a winner. Those spells when you’re not riding winners are difficult. The key is to keep your head still in the game, and try not to make any mistakes. When you’re going good guns, confidence is sky high, but when it gets knocked and you’re on a losing streak it’s important to still have faith in yourself and keep doing everything as you would do normally.
I think a massive part of it these days is social media: you get people who don’t know much about racing and they just hurl abuse at you. It’s so easy for them to tag you in a post and it ends up damaging your morale, no matter how much you know that it’s probably pocket talk. There’s often no awareness of the things which happen in race riding, and people don’t really put themselves in your situation.
When you’re having a difficult run it doesn’t help when you look on the Racing Post statistics and their ‘cold list’. I think that’s the worst thing ever. The guys in the weighing room know what’s happening, because everyone keeps an eye on each other. But it can be tough. The PJA [Professional Jockeys’ Association] have put something in place now where if a rider is struggling mentally they can talk to someone and get a bit of help. But it’s difficult for somebody to come out and say, “yes, it’s affecting me, I need help”. So maybe they need to sit down with everyone on a one to one basis and establish if there’s any problems.
It’s actually quite hard to see somebody standing up and admitting that they’re affected because in this job you have to stay pretty strong. You can’t show weakness or you’ll lose your place. I was always told that there’s always someone else to replace you, and that’s stuck with me. And as harsh as that sounds, it’s true. So it’s a case of keeping yourself switched on and keeping positive.
Jockeys tend to just keep their heads down and get on with their own thing, and that’s true for me too, so I wouldn’t really know if anyone had a problem. That hardness is quite institutionalised: it’s a dog eat dog game, no doubt.
A Quick Line on the Prize Money Issue
The prize money situation at ARC racecourses is something that needs to be resolved. All of us in the weighing room are strongly in favour of the boycott that took place at the weekend. We know that they’re worried about what might happen with bookie closures and what that means for their revenue, but it hasn’t happened yet and they’re cutting purses. If you’re taking a horse from one side of the country to the other, unless you win you’re probably not even going to cover your costs, which can’t be right. It needs to be sorted.
I’m a fan of sectional timing. It’s always good to see what’s finished well in the last couple of furlongs. I use the information when it’s available to understand which horses are capable of finishing strongly, and if I’m riding something else I obviously need to think about how I can maybe draw the sting a little bit by perhaps helping to ensure the fast finisher doesn’t get everything its own way!
It’s obviously very dependent on what the pace is in the race, but I’m always looking at which horses are going to finish strongly if they get the chance such that I can put myself in the best position to beat them on the day.
We’re a long way behind most of other major racing nations with this sort of thing and I think it’s quite important that sectional timing is introduced to the game. Considering we have plenty of the best racing in the world, we do seem to be quite a long way behind the times from a data point of view.
Riding The Tracks: Wolverhampton
Wolverhampton is a flat oval, about a mile around, and it’s a pretty fair track. It doesn’t especially favour front-runners or hold up horses and there’s generally no track bias in terms of the inside rail or wider. There are some things to think about at different distances, though.
At the minimum, five furlongs, you can go too quick, so it’s not just a case of jump, handbrake off and try to last home; you need to ride a bit more of a race than that. If you don’t hold on to something I don’t think you’ll get home generally. A low draw is an advantage as there’s only a short run to the first turn and you don’t want to get fanned three or four wide there.
There’s a longer run to the turn over six, which means you’ve got more chance to get across from the wider stalls. The seven is a different game: it starts in a chute on the crown of a bend and, rather like the mile at Chelmsford, if you’re drawn low you’re in danger of getting squeezed for room a bit as the middle to wide drawn horses break across you. You need to be quickly away from an inside post or you’ll normally find yourself in a position from where it’s pretty much checkmate. If I’m drawn outside over seven I like to go forward and sit handy into and through that first turn.
Pace wise, they tend to go pretty hard from the gates over seven in order to grab a position, and then normally you can get a breather down the back straight, before kicking again from the three or the two. Races can often be quite stop-start at this distance.
Then there are two distances at around nine furlongs, one just a little bit shorter and one a bit longer. The shorter trip starts quite close to the stable bend; you need to be quick into the turn to get a position then, especially if there are a lot of runners. Obviously with the extended nine you’ve got a little bit more time to get in if you’re drawn wider. Both are pretty fair trips really. One thing to be aware of, especially with inexperienced horses, is that sometimes they like to have a look at the stable bend there, so a rider has to be ready for that and get his horse on the right lead, successfully navigate that turn and then ride a race from there on.
The mile and a half starts quite close to the first turn, so you again can get caught out wide as everyone shuffles for a position into the bend. It’s not until we turn into the home straight for the first time that everyone finds their own space and gets into a rhythm. Riders will then get a breather into their horses going into the bottom turn, unless there’s loads of pace in the race with horses taking each other on at the front. Otherwise, from there it’s generally fair enough to all.
Plenty of races there seem to have been pretty tactical lately and, when that’s the case, the slow early pace means you ideally want a horse with a bit of a gear change. But it does vary from race to race. You can get away with making the running round there, and at the same time you can come from off the pace as well. It’s probably the fairest of the all weather tracks in that regard.