By Hugh Taylor
I remember one day during my time as an agent I spoke to Ray Cochrane early in the season and he said something along the lines of “it’s so quiet at the moment, nobody’s ringing at all.”
That might seem a strange thing to say for someone who was booking rides for Frankie Dettori, the world’s most high-profile jockey, considering you’d expect Ray to be making the phone calls rather than waiting for the phone to ring. However, after a while I began to understand. If you had a rider who wasn’t dependent on riding fees, but wanted to get on horses with chances, sometimes waiting was the best policy, for a couple of reasons.
If you represented a rider who was regarded as being in the top division, but didn’t need riding fees, as was the case with Ray and I, you’d sometimes receive calls from unexpected sources, and that was often a sign of a horse that was expected to run well, and perhaps show improved form.
As an example, early in the 2008 season I received a call from Willie Mackay. I’m not really a football follower at all, and all I knew about him was that he was a football agent and had a big interest in horseracing. He wanted Kerrin for a horse called Spirit Of A Nation, who was making his handicap debut at Redcar, and the horse’s profile and the fact that he was ringing us for this particular ride was enough in itself to suggest the horse was expected to go well.
Mackay had told me the horse would win, but he didn’t really need to do that to convince me to take the ride – most owners and trainers didn’t ring me from out of the blue like that unless the horse was considered to have a strong chance. Spirit Of A Nation did indeed win, albeit narrowly over the odds-on favourite.
I’d never really been a big advocate of the significance of jockey bookings, but I did become a little more so as a result of my time as an agent. There’s one proviso I’d make though – when we see a jockey booking, we have no idea whether the agent rang up for what was just a spare ride, or whether connections made a point of booking the jockey themselves. I lost count of the number of times I’d look at race previews in the media and see comments such as “the booking of Kerrin McEvoy looks significant”, when in fact I’d picked up the ride at the last minute when Kerrin was the best available jockey of those whose agents rang up for the ride.
I also sometimes felt that an early “leftfield” phone call such as this was sometimes more positive than a last-minute one. There were a couple of trainers for whom Kerrin had picked up one or two late spares that hadn’t won, but when they rang me the day after declarations enquiring about his availability, those horses were worth taking notice of. When I see an unusual or potentially interesting jockey booking, I still occasionally look back through the entries a few days earlier to see if I can work out when the booking was made.
The other reason why waiting was sometimes the right thing to do was that having a top rider free in some races could pay dividends just before and just after declarations. Once I’d learned which connections tended to make last-minute changes of plan, it wasn’t hard to work out which jockeys might be switching meetings on the morning of declarations, and sometimes some strong spare rides would become available.
Moreover, the division of races could be a nightmare for agents, but also presented opportunities. At the time it was mostly maiden races which divided when receiving more than a certain number of declarations (usually 20). If your rider was set to ride one for his stable in a maiden, you’d often ring other connections offering him for their horse in the case that the maiden divided and theirs ended up in the other division, but other agents were of course doing the same thing, and sometimes when their two intended mounts ended up in the same division, we were able to jump on a horse that might start second favourite.
Moreover, there seemed to be no hard and fast rules about when divisions of races had to be run, and it wasn’t unusual for the second division of the opening maiden to be run at the end of a card. This caused all sorts of problems for agents whose riders were going on to evening meetings, but also represented some big opportunities – it wasn’t unheard of for rides on horses that would start favourite to become available half an hour after declarations had taken place.
2008 was to be the last year that Kerrin rode full-time in the UK. Midway through the season, he was offered the role, with immediate effect, as number one jockey to Darley’s Australian set-up. This was effectively a major promotion from his number two role over here, so it wouldn’t have been too difficult a decision for Kerrin.
On the face of it, Kerrin’s tally of 30 winners in his final season looks disappointing, even allowing for the fact that he missed half the season. However, from Kerrin’s point of view this was to prove one of his most enjoyable years.
Certainly we had fewer opportunities over here. Godolphin had a very quiet year and provided him with just 31 rides, but some of our biggest connections the previous year weren’t as strong for one reason or another. In particular, Ryan Moore’s appointment as stable jockey for Sir Michael Stoute meant that there were now very few spare rides at the yard, no other jockey being given more than 20 rides for the stable other than Sheikh Hamdan’s retained rider Richard Hills.
Some of the other trainers that had supported Kerrin so well, such as John Dunlop and Clive Brittain, had quiet seasons, especially in terms of quality, and overall we just didn’t have anywhere near the ammunition domestically that we had enjoyed the previous year.
However, where I struggled to find rides for Kerrin was mainly in the daily grind of ordinary weekday meetings, which didn’t worry Kerrin too much, and we were continuing to be in the mix for good rides in quality races.
These good rides didn’t always turn into winners – the James Eustace-trained War Artist, for instance, was placed in two Group One events and a Group Two under Kerrin, and could so easily have been a flagship horse for him. But we were still very much in consideration when quality spare rides were available, such as Doctor Fremantle, fourth in the Derby when the Stoute stable had two fancied runners.
Heading into Royal Ascot, I was hopeful we could finally find Kerrin a winner there, as his only success at the Royal meeting had come when it was staged at York. However, around a week beforehand there was a slightly bizarre development. Ray Cochrane and I were told that the Maktoum family, who always attended Royal Ascot in numbers, wanted the family horses – which extended well beyond those that ran in the Godolphin colours - to be ridden by one of their two retained jockeys wherever possible.
On the face of it this looked like good news for us, but I soon realised it was going to cause problems too. Different trainers took different degrees of literal interpretation to the instruction, with Mark Johnston’s racing secretary jocking Kerrin up on a range of horses, including in races where we had longstanding agreements to ride for other trainers.
A couple of fairly awkward conversations ensued with the yard - in fairness, they were only doing as they had been instructed, and I’m sure they weren’t thrilled at having their regular riders jocked off. Simon Crisford referred me to John Ferguson, who fortunately and sensibly adjudged that I shouldn’t be taking Kerrin off rides that had been booked well in advance.
The whole matter had been a bit awkward, but when I spoke to Mark Johnston and repeated what John Ferguson had told me he accepted matters immediately. As it turned out, Kerrin ended up riding three big-priced outsiders for Johnston, none of whom made the frame, but it had been a fairly uncomfortable episode, and not much fun for those jockeys who lost their regular rides.
Our biggest hope at Royal Ascot was a horse called Collection.
Kerrin had ridden him on his 2yo debut, when we had both been impressed. Unfortunately his maiden victory that year and then his 3yo debut came when Kerrin was back in Australia.
However, I’d made my interest in getting Kerrin back on board clear to trainer William Haggas, who had become a good supporter, and he was booked at the Dante meeting, when Collection won in tremendous style off a mark of 80.
Upped to 93, he had handicap options at Royal Ascot, but 1m2f looked his trip, which meant taking on good horses at level weights in the Listed Hampton Court Stakes. It proved no problem, Collection sweeping through from a long way off the pace to win in good style.
That wasn’t his first Royal Ascot win, though. Two days earlier, he had partnered Festivale to success in the Sandringham Handicap. This win was a tribute to the good relationship we had with Castle Stables, as on her previous start when third in a Listed race at York we’d opted to ride Marco Botti’s Raymi Coya, who won, rather than Festivale, yet Marcus Hosgood seemed happy to have Kerrin back on board at Royal Ascot.
The other major development in 2008 was that Kerrin started to be offered a number of quality rides in Europe, almost always on Sundays, when he was free to accept them.
The first of these was on Saddex, a high-class German-trained horse, who had finished second in the Prix Ganay on his seasonal debut. Kerrin drove him to a narrow victory in the Premio Presidente Della Repubblica, which was Italy’s most valuable Group One race (sadly Italian racing has subsequently fallen into decline and no longer stages Group One races). This maintained Kerrin’s record of riding at least one Group One winner every year he was in Europe.
A week later, he was off to Baden-Baden to ride a horse called It’s Gino in a Listed race at Baden-Baden. I’m not sure I’d even heard of the horse’s trainer, Czech Pavel Vovcenko, and I was only able to give Kerrin minimal guidance about how his form stacked up.
However, he was usually paid for his flight and a solid riding fee for these excursions, and given he was getting free travel to various interesting parts of Europe, it’s no wonder Kerrin was enthusiastic about these opportunities. Moreover, he was usually being offered rides with good chances – the top British-based riders were seen as being some way ahead of their counterparts in Germany, for instance – and although the race wasn’t televised, I received a call from a very happy Kerrin shortly after the race telling me It’s Gino had won.
Kerrin rode him twice more when placed, including in a Group One event, and It’s Gino went on to excel himself when third to Zarkava in the Arc. At one stage it seemed like he was riding in Europe every weekend, with trips to Chantilly for the Prix du Jockey-Club, Hamburg for the German Derby, and Maisons-Laffitte for the Prix Eugene Adam all included.
The latter race, when he finished fifth on Collection, was his final ride in Europe prior to starting his new job in Australia. I had driven up to Leicester earlier that week to say goodbye, which was a bit sad, but I knew Kerrin had an exciting new opening. He lost no time in making his mark back in his home country, winning the Caulfield Cup for Godolpin on 40-1 outsider All The Good, and he’s now long established as one of the elite jockeys in Australia.
From a personal point of view, this obviously meant I no longer had a full-time job, but I had been doing freelance work for At The Races and the Racing Post over the winter months during my time with Kerrin and was fortunate enough to be offered a full-time tipping role with At The Races shortly afterwards - a job that suited my temperament much more. I have some tremendous memories from those five years, and felt a sense of achievement at having battled through a job that I felt I was fundamentally unsuited to do, but I was happy to leave that line of work to others from that day onwards.