All-Weather apprentices: New talent set to shine on the sand

Simon Mapletoft turns the spotlight on four young riders who are hoping their claim will help them make an impact on the sand this winter.

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TYLER HEARD

Tyler Heard is arguably the most sought-after 7lb claimer on the scene right now so is entitled to be excited about the winter ahead.

The 18-year-old couldn’t be in better hands. He is mentored by trainer and three-times champion jockey Richard Hughes, who also employs last season’s top All-Weather apprentice George Rooke.

Tyler Heard
Tyler Heard has his sights set on the apprentice title.

“The All-Weather title is something I’d like to have a go at,” says Heard – younger brother of jump jockey Liam. “It’s not the be all and end all but is definitely a target. My main aim is to ride more winners and make a few new connections for the summer.

“Riding the All-Weather tracks is great experience. Everything happens so fast and it sharpens you up,” adds the teenager, who has been based with Hughes in Lambourn since graduating from a hugely successful seven years on the pony racing circuit.

“I love working for Richard. He’s great for advice and teaches me plenty. I love riding out with him because I pick up so much. He didn’t push me too soon and made sure I was ready to go out and ride for other trainers.

“He brought me into it slowly then after lockdown things started to take off. I won two on a horse called Bay Watch for Tracey Barfoot-Saunt and since then I’ve been getting plenty of outside rides.”

Heard has also been riding out for Olympic eventing champion-turned-trainer Sir Mark Todd. “That’s been a great experience. He’s accomplished so much as an international event rider, and I’m also lucky to have John Reid as my coach. John puts me through my paces on the Equicizer and rings me to talk through my rides after racing.”

Heard has been inspired by the progress his good friend Rooke has made under similar tutelage. “Richard and John did wonders for George last year,” he adds. “He stayed and won the title and things haven’t slowed down for him since. Myself, George and Angus Villiers were all with Richard last winter but I was the last one to start riding so I’ve got a bit of catching up to do.”

Heard is bred to be a jockey. His father Colin Heard rode and trained point-to-pointers and older brother Liam made his name with a string of high-profile wins for Paul Nicholls.

“I started pony racing when I was nine and had a lot of success up to being 16. I rode around 75 winners which was a great grounding and was thankful for the support I had from Richard Prince, whose ponies helped me win the championship.

“Liam’s a great mentor. I always speak to him about my rides. He was champion conditional and has been riding as long as I can remember, so he’s been a real role model to me. If I can do as well as him I’ll be happy.”

ANGUS VILLIERS

This time last year Angus Villiers was being tipped to become the next sensation to emerge from the apprentice ranks, but his career hasn’t taken off as dramatically as many anticipated.

Still only 18, Villiers spent last winter “learning the clock” in America but by the end of lockdown had disappeared from many trainers’ minds.

Now the stylish young horseman is more determined than ever to re-establish himself among the most sought-after claimers on the circuit following a move to Richard Spencer in Newmarket.

Angus Villiers
Ambitious apprentice Angus Villiers is back from a spell Stateside.

“I went to Brendan Walsh near Gulfstream Park in Florida for a month last winter. Richard (Hughes) was keen for me to go away and keep my claim intact but, with the pandemic, things didn’t really go to plan.

“By the time I got back it was quiet and racing got shut down which took my momentum away. Suddenly I’d been off the track a long time and other apprentices had been making their names.

“It was no one’s fault but I got pushed under the carpet to some extent. There was nothing I could do about it but I think I’ve got my name back out there now so hopefully I can start to bang some winners in again.”

Still brimming with enthusiasm, the engaging Villiers is clearly enjoying his new role in Newmarket and is looking forward to the new All-Weather season after making some productive new connections.

“I moved to Richard’s about two months ago and have settled in really well,” he says. ‘I just felt I needed a change of scenery. I was struggling for rides and was one of four apprentices with Richard Hughes, so chances were always going to be limited.

“I thought it would be better if I found a new opportunity and I’d ridden quite a lot for Richard (Spencer) last year, so when he told me he was looking for an apprentice it seemed the obvious place to go.

“I plan to ride out every week for different trainers and it’s great to find more contacts and new people to get rides for. Charlie McBride’s a great help and I’ve got myself on the agenda of some other trainers, too.”

Villiers has also struck up a profitable partnership with northern-based Antony Brittain, winning four times in his first seven rides for the York trainer, and has renewed links with his former jockey coach Michael Tebbutt.

“I’d love to regain some momentum and have a go at the apprentice championship this winter but I’d like to keep some of my claim because my life’s ambition has always been to become champion apprentice on the Flat,” he says with the broadest of grins. There’s no doubt that ambition is still very much alive.

HARRY RUSSELL

Lancastrian Harry Russell hasn’t looked back since abandoning plans to be a jump jockey and switching to the Flat. The 22-year-old has established himself among the most popular claimers on the northern circuit following a move to Malton trainer Brian Ellison last year.

Now he hopes to emulate the recent achievements of other young northern-based riders Phil Dennis, Clifford Lee, Callum Rodriguez and Ben Robinson by graduating to the professional ranks.

Russell, from Clitheroe, rode out his 7lb claim with a double at Newcastle at the end of September and around a third of his winners have come from York based Antony Brittain – a lucrative link up initiated by the trainer’s stable jockey Cam Hardie.

Harry Russell
Harry Russell rode out his 7lb claim with a double at Newcastle.

“Antony’s horse Lucky Lodge was in an apprentice race last year and Cam, who is a good friend, recommended me. I won on him and I’ve been riding for Antony ever since. I’m very grateful because he puts me on most of the horses Cam can’t ride and I’ve been riding plenty of winners for him.”

Fascinated by racing as a schoolboy, the willowy Russell looked destined for a career over jumps when he joined the late Malcolm Jefferson in Malton, fresh from a course at the National Horseracing College near Doncaster at 16.

“I had three rides as a conditional for Malcolm – two at Sedgefield and one at Doncaster. It was a good grounding because Malcolm was such a great trainer and the yard was full of good horses. I schooled in the mornings with Brian Hughes, who was stable jockey, and he taught me such a lot, but I always had a leaning towards the Flat and was light enough.”

Russell decided to move on to pursue his dream and landed a plum job with Classic-winning Flat trainer Bryan Smart. “I used to ride out his Group 1 winner Alpha Delphini every day and got a good few rides. Stable jockey Graham Lee came in twice a week and was another big influence.

“I learned a lot at Bryan’s and rode him eight or nine winners but was mainly riding horses that were always going to finish ‘mid-div’ and needed to push myself forward.” That’s when he seized the opportunity to join Ellison’s big dual-purpose operation back in Malton.

“Moving to a bigger yard paid off and the winners have started to come on a regular basis. Ben Robinson, who works for Brian, has ridden out his claim there and still gets plenty of chances so I hope I can do the same.”

Though relatively tall, Russell hasn’t experienced any battles with the scales. “Everyone thought my weight would go and I’d fill out but I never did. I’ve always been quite skinny so at 22 I’m confident I can keep my weight good.

“My agent, Richard Hale, wants me to keep going through the winter and keep building momentum, which makes sense. I want to be busy and riding winners by the time the turf starts again in the spring.”

STEFANO CHERCHI

The island of Sardinia has already produced two of the greatest British-based jockeys of the modern era: Frankie Dettori, of course, and Andrea Atzeni.

Now teenager Stefano Cherchi is hoping to become the next Italian to break into the big time and the signs are promising after a successful summer with another talented Italian, boss Marco Botti.

Even Godolphin trainer Saeed Bin Suroor, who has promoted the careers of Shane Gray, Kevin Stott, Ali Rawlinson and Hector Crouch in recent years, has provided him with a winner and a big-race opportunity.

Stefano Cherchi
Sardinian Stefano Cherchi has ridden a winner for Godolphin trainer Saeed Bin Suroor.

“I’m really lucky to get the chance to ride for Godolphin but it helped that my first ride for Saeed (Gifts Of Gold at Chelmsford City in August) was a winner,” he tells me. “It’s so important to make a good first impression.

“After that he put me on one of his in the Cambridgeshire (Dubai Mirage), which was very exciting as he ran very well to be fifth, so I’m hoping the association continues. When you wear those colours people look at you with a different eye but I need to keep my feet on the ground and work hard.

“There is still a chance I may go to Santa Anita this winter to learn the clock and see different ways of training horses, but plans are very much in mid-air due to the Covid situation.”

Cherchi, who claims 5lb, wasted no time getting into double figures following lockdown and acknowledges the role the All-Weather Championships can play in helping a young jockey reach the next level.

“If I stay here I will continue to ride on the All-Weather because it’s great experience and important for getting new contacts, It wouldn’t be a bad thing to stay and try and win the All-Weather championship but I do want to keep some of my claim for the next turf season.”

The 19-year-old, who moved to England three years ago, has impressed on higher-profile Botti runners such as Atalis Bay and Pretty In Grey and won three times on Rae Guest’s progressive filly Rosa Gold back in the summer.

He also has plenty in common with fellow countryman and mentor Atzeni, who is always on hand to offer support and advice.

“Andrea has been helping me a lot,” he explains. “He’s a lovely guy and understands what I’m trying to achieve as he was a lot like me. He came from Sardinia at a young age, too, and also went to Marco’s.

“His family wasn’t 100 per cent in racing like mine so it’s been hard for him yet he’s made it to the very top. If I think I’ve done something wrong I ring him and he’s always very kind.”

Cherchi, who has already passed last year’s total of 14 winners, clearly has a strong work ethic and takes nothing for granted. And with such a strong support network, the young Italian looks set to take more significant steps towards elevating his own name alongside his famous role model this winter.

All-Weather apprentices: New talent set to shine on the sand
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