It was a lovely sunny morning in late May. I was slurping on a coffee next to the boating lake in Victoria Park, London, musing on the simple pleasures in life when the phone rang. The tone at the other end was subdued, overwhelmed even.
The voice belonged to Callum Rodriguez, rising star of the weighing room prior to a six month ban imposed for a failed drug test in February. He’d called to tell me that he was struggling, that the situation had got the better of him, and that he was headed to Liverpool John Moores University for some help and guidance from their specialist jockey support team.
Just a couple of months previously an agreement had been reached for geegeez.co.uk to sponsor Callum for the next two years; I was excited about the prospect of adding this talented young rider to our portfolio of jockeys, and about having a presence on northern racecourses alongside David Probert (principally) in the south.
But, just 17 rides and three winners into the new agreement, Rodriguez’s world was turned upside down with the news that he would have to sit out half a year due to the presence of a metabolite of cocaine in a random test. The day before he called, the enormity of his situation and its implications had become almost too much. He broke down in front of his mum before contacting the PJA who quickly put him in touch with professional assistance.
Up to that point, his was an ascendant career that looked set to flourish in 2019. Five wins in 2015 were followed by eight in 2016 before a leap to 39 in 2017, including Ebor success aboard the Iain Jardine-trained Nakeeta, and 68 last year. The momentum of that impressive trajectory was firmly checked when, on the dozen winner mark in 2019, he was obliged to take that enforced sabbatical.
Rodriguez is contrite about events, recalling that it was a “stupid mistake” and a “one off incident” for which he has paid dearly. He is not alone in succumbing to the temptation, joining names as big as Kieren Fallon and Frankie Dettori as well as, more recently and a more direct parallel, Kieran Shoemark.
The issue is not unique to the jockey community, as cricketer Alex Hales can attest. Indeed, in cricket a first such incidence is treated as a ‘health and welfare’ issue rather than a punishable offence. A second failure results in wider public awareness though still no ban. It is only after a third failed test that a lengthy veto is administered by the England and Wales Cricket Board.
That stance seems to be too lenient, but it does serve to highlight the severity of penalties imposed on riders by the BHA, where a zero tolerance approach means first offences carry a brutal sting.
Six months on, after what must have seemed like an interminable hiatus, Rodriguez has continued to ride out for his boss, Michael Dods, as well as for his other major patron, Keith Dalgleish. And it is for Dods that he will enjoy his first spin back, on the flying mare Intense Romance in a top class five furlong handicap at Haydock on Saturday. The combination has previously enjoyed success in five of their ten unions, most notably in a brace of Listed events last autumn.
Understandably, Rodriguez just wants to look forward now, and to repay the faith of his main supporters. “I can’t wait to get back out there, get my head down and re-establish my reputation. Of course I want to thank Mr Dods, as well as the owners in the yard, for their loyalty, and I’m really looking forward to riding as many winners as I can for them.”
It may be the experience of Shoemark upon whom Rodriguez draws most in the coming days. Since his return to race riding in June, the Lambourn-based pilot has added 22 victories to his tally and is now firmly re-established in the weighing room community.
I’m delighted that Callum will continue to fly the flag for geegeez.co.uk as he resumes his career, and all of us here wish him every success for the future after what has been the most difficult period of his young life.