JASON SETS HIS ‘HART’ ON MAIDEN CENTURY
In a weighing room dominated by run-away leader Ben Curtis, the record-breaking Hollie Doyle and emerging talent from the apprentice ranks, the progress of one young jockey from the North has been somewhat overlooked.
Jason Hart rarely commands the winter headlines, but the former champion apprentice has unassumingly ended February in fourth place in the jockeys’ championship with 37 winners, mostly achieved at a healthy strike rate of over 20 per cent this year.
Whilst the high profile rides may have passed him by, John Quinn’s stable jockey has become a reliable foil for respected All-Weather exponents Stuart Williams, Ivan Furtado, Julie Camacho, Eric Alston and even fellow Scot Mark Johnston.
“I’m just trying to keep the momentum going,” says the 25-year-old, who enjoyed his best year so far in 2019 with 88 winners and has already achieved almost a quarter of that tally in the first two months of the new year.
“My ambition is to get to a century and it would be nice if I could win a few more Group races for the boss along the way. We’ve got a very nice team to go to war with when we get back on the grass,” he adds.
Hart’s most notable success this winter came in a Class 2 handicap at Southwell in January on David O’Meara’s Gulliver – a talented gelding he won the valuable Coral Sprint Trophy on at York last year.
That association continued when the six-year-old ran in a Group 3 in Qatar on Winter Derby day. The result wasn’t quite what Hart was hoping for, but his first trip to the Middle East was a useful learning curve.
“It was great to keep the ride and I enjoyed the experience but we were a bit unlucky,” he explains. “He didn’t jump that well and then got caught on heels on the turn for home. He travelled like a dream in the closing stages but we just couldn’t peg back the leaders and finished fourth.”
The horse that really lights him up, however, is Quinn’s stable star Liberty Beach, the Molecomb winner who is back in training as a three-year-old. “I’ve seen her at the yard and she’s thrived over the winter,” adds Hart, whose success on the filly at the Qatar Goodwood Festival was a defining moment.
“The way she picked up that day was amazing. It’s not often a horse gives you that kind of feel. I don’t know what John’s plans are but she does hold an entry in the Irish 1,000 Guineas so she may step up in trip. I don’t know whether she would stay but she’s blessed with so much speed.”
Hart’s growing reputation was also boosted last year by his big wins on Quinn’s trailblazing sprinting star El Astronaute and the progressive Safe Voyage – both owned by the yard’s stalwart supporter Ross Harmon.
“They are both great horses to be involved with,” he adds. “I won a Listed race and a big handicap on El Astronaute in Ireland but one of the most exciting days was finishing third on him in the Abbaye on Arc day. Safe Voyage was another star for me. He beat a very good horse in Suedois in the Group 3 John Of Gaunt Stakes at Haydock.”
The link-up with Quinn couldn’t have come at a better time, as Hart was re-building his career after being sidelined by a long-term injury in 2015. “John’s son Sean invited me to come in and ride out and that’s how it started,” he recalls. “I rode my first winner for the stable on Project Bluebook at Beverley in April 2016, just a couple of months after coming back from my injury, and never looked back after that.
“John’s had enough confidence in me to put me on his good horses whenever he can so it’s been great to repay him with success at such a high level.”
Hart, who edged out Thomas Brown and Oisin Murphy in the race to be champion apprentice seven years ago, was making good progress without his claim when he took a crashing fall at Doncaster in the mid-summer of 2015.
“The horse I was riding was leading when it broke a leg and went straight down. I had no time to react and the field galloped all over me,” he remembers. “But I got straight up and walked back to the weighing room with the sole intention of getting to Newcastle for an evening meeting.
“I went up there but knew I’d hurt me knee badly as it was swollen but didn’t realise how serious it was and rode on for another week before I had it scanned. I found out I’d ruptured ligaments and needed surgery.
“They took a graft off my patella tendon to repair my knee and I knew it was going to be a long road back, but I’ve always been a positive person and just stayed focused on getting back as soon as I could.
“At that time Jack Berry House had just opened in Malton and was a god send to me. I did all my rehab there and actually got back in the saddle ahead of schedule.”
Hart is a member of an illustrious club, as he was born in the small Borders town of Hawick (pronounced Hoick) which has curiously produced other jockeys of the calibre of former champion apprentice Greg Fairley, Keith Dalgleish, Wilson Renwick, Iain Jardine and Craig Nichol.
“It really is unbelievable how many good jockeys and horsemen have come from that town,” says Hart, the grandson of another former jockey Derek Campbell who cut his teeth in pony races but insists that taking part in a traditional local equestrian event really shaped him as a rider.
“Every year in the Borders I used to take part with hundreds of others in Common Rides, which date back centuries and celebrate the capture of an English flag in 1514. We would be out for six or eight hours riding over all terrain and I loved every second of it. It certainly made a rider of me!”
He began riding out for local trainer Donald Whillans as a teenager and after abandoning his hopes of becoming a rugby player due to his size, secured his first proper job with Mark Johnston.
“Working for Mark was a great grounding and I learned such a lot from the jockeys there: Joe Fanning, Greg Fairley and Silvestre De Sousa to name but a few,” recalls Hart, who has always stayed loyal to his original agent Alan Harrison.
After a year in Middleham, Hart moved on to Declan Carroll who had helped to hone the careers of several other notable jockeys including Jamie Spencer, Danny Tudhope, David Nolan and Neil Farley. Carroll gave him his first ever winner, Spice Bar, at Ripon in 2011.
“I became champion apprentice with Declan. Winning that title meant a lot because I did it without any big Saturday horses,” adds Hart, who rode out his claim the following year on a horse called Lady Desire for Keith Dalgleish – the first leg of a memorable treble at Hamilton.
With well over 400 winners behind him already, few would bet against Hart achieving that maiden century this year and adding more top level success to his growing CV after enjoying such a productive – if somewhat inconspicuous - winter on the sand.