Behind the scenes with All-Weather sensation Ben Curtis

As jockey Ben Curtis continues to take the All-Weather Championships by storm, he chats to Simon Mapletoft about the nuances of riding on the sand, the biggest influences on his burgeoning career, the greatest horse he’s ever worked with - and why he never goes to the gym.

  • Wednesday 15 January
  • Blog
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With over 50 winners on the board at the half-way stage of Season 7 at a strike rate of over 20 per cent, and an increasing lead over your title rivals, your quest for success seems more determined than ever.

“You can’t rest on your laurels in this game. The success I’m having this winter has exceeded my expectations but I’m enjoying every minute of it. It’s just snowballed after a very good start and I’m riding with total confidence and a belief that I can win or go close in every race I ride in.”

Success comes at a price – you’ve already clocked up over 250 rides - so how are you managing such a demanding schedule?

“Carefully, I’d say. I’ve got myself a driver which has taken a lot of stress and strain out of the job. It means I can chat to my agent, Simon Dodds, study the form or even have a sleep on the way to and from the races. It also means that I’m fresher when I go out to ride.

“Also, I’m not riding out much in the mornings so I get more quality time at home with my wife (Shauna) and my little boy (Brodi). That’ll change at the end of February though, when I’ll be riding a few lots every day for the trainers who support me in readiness for the turf season.”

How important is your agent’s role?

“I’m very lucky to have Simon (Dodds), who has a lot of experience and great contacts. I’m constantly in touch with him about which horses to ride and never seem to give him a minute’s rest. I know I’m a hard task master but Simon is just as driven as I am.

“We both want success and increasing our trainer-base has been an important part of the strategy since last year. I’m very grateful to Karl Burke, Roger Fell and David Barron, who have been my principal supporters in the north, but building links with some of the big yards in the south is so important.”

You’ve certainly achieved impressive strike rates for several big southern trainers including William Haggas (35%), Hugo Palmer (26%) and Charles Hills (38%).

“Every time you pick up a racing paper or log onto a racing website it’s all about statistics, so strike rates are important to me. I’m mindful that a lot of the big boys are away at this time of year so opportunities to ride good horses from top yards open up. I’ve ridden plenty of winners for those trainers so hopefully they’ll continue to support me even when the likes of James Doyle, William Buick and Jim Crowley come back.”

How do you maintain your fitness?

“Because I’m riding so much I’m as fit as I can be right now. I can do 8st 9lb without any problem and can get as low as 8st 6lb if it’s worth it without feeling that I’m compromising my strength in the saddle. I do enjoy a good bit of swimming, which is good for your joints, and enjoy walking the dogs with the family. I’d rather walk than run as I don’t want to bulk up.

“I never go to the gym because if I did I’d build up muscle mass very quickly. My father and brother are both short like me but are very stocky and I’d take after them If I worked out. A few years ago I bought a house and did all the labouring when we renovated it – it was a big mistake. I built up muscles and my weight shot up to 9st 4lb.

“I remember turning up at Ascot one day after that and bumping into Frankie Dettori for the first time in months. He gave me a funny look and asked me if I’d been working out. I was heavy and would have been better off sitting on the sofa all winter to be honest.

“I don’t eat a great amount and work on the principal that I’ll eat when I’m hungry. I do enjoy an evening meal because you need to put some fuel back in the tank but I’m not one for breakfast or lunch. I get through a lot of the energy drink Red Bull to help me keep going all day.”

Who have been the biggest influences on your career so far?

“The jockey I looked up to the most was Mick Kinane. I was lucky enough to be at John Oxx’s as an apprentice when Mick was having all that success on Sea The Stars and he helped me so much. Back then Johnny Murtagh and Niall McCullough were in the yard, too, so it was a brilliant time to learn and improve.

“Sea The Stars was the greatest horse I ever got close to. I led him one day in a piece of work at The Curragh before he won the Arc but my horse could only stay ahead of him for about four strides and he’d gone. He had so much natural speed as well as stamina but as well as that he had a great attitude. He’d never overdo himself but he’d still manage to destroy horses in his work.”

Which of your weighing room colleagues do you admire the most?

“The weighing room is a great place to be and I get on well with everyone but I usually sit next to David Probert. He’s not only a good friend but a great rider who in my opinion is under-used. I’ve got a lot of admiration for Hollie Doyle, who has worked hard to strengthen up and just keeps on improving. Unlike me, she’s been able to work out and build muscle without it affecting her riding weight. Hollie and the relentless Luke Morris have been brilliant for the past two months, riding lots of winners, and keeping me on my toes. I’ve just been lucky to get a good start on them.”

How does riding on the All-Weather compare to turf?

“It’s a very different discipline. You have to ride more forcefully on the All-Weather as it’s imperative you get a good position early doors. You can allow a horse to find its feet a bit more on the grass but on the sand everything happens so quickly. Quite often you’ve got to be prepared to go to plan B very quickly, especially when the horse you expected to make the running has been dropped in, for example.

“We race much tighter, the gaps are smaller and they don’t stay open as long. Even the bad horses stay in the race longer. On the grass they tend to drop away sooner. It filters them out. Riding on the All-Weather demands a lot of concentration because you have to make split-second decisions. Do you hold your position? Do you switch wide for a run? We’re dealing with very fine margins all the time, which is something a lot of punters don’t really appreciate.”

Which All-Weather track do you prefer?

“They’re all good when you’re riding winners but I do enjoy Newcastle. It’s the closest one to riding on the grass because you can get your horse into a rhythm and let the race unfold. It’s a very fair track.”

Despite your relentless assault on the jockeys’ title, you’re still finding time to ride in Dubai?

“Mick and Jack Channon offered me the ride on CERTAIN LAD, who I’ve had a lot of success on, so I didn’t want to miss out on the opportunity. The night flights to Dubai mean you don’t have to miss much at home: fly out on Wednesday night, ride on Thursday and fly back that night to be home for racing on Friday. I’m hoping to go back a few times and plan to ride at the inaugural Saudi Cup at the end of February, as well.”

How exciting will it be to go head to head with all the top international jockeys on the world stage at Riyadh?

“The Saudi Cup is worth $20 million so has attracted some of the best horses from the biggest stables. Riding on big days like that is what every jockey aspires to and I’m lucky to potentially have two good rides. GOOD EFFORT, who I won the Fast Track Qualifier on at Newcastle, is entered in two sprints and Karl Burke is planning to take my Old Newton Cup winner KELLY'S DINO out there for one of the staying races. It’s something I’m really looking forward to.”

Back on the domestic front, you must also be looking forward to the £1 million Finals Day on Good Friday?

“Without a doubt. It’s another high profile day with big prize money and a lot of media attention. They are the days you want to be part of. Good Effort has already qualified for the Sprint Final and has the credentials to run a big race. He’s a big, heavy horse but well balanced and light on his feet so he’ll be a threat to them all if he takes to Lingfield.

“I won a good handicap at Lingfield on SILENT ATTACK, an ex-Godolphin horse, for Tony Carroll on 11th January and he could be a contender for the Mile Final. He was left in front long enough but saw it out well and he’s up to 102 now so he’s got a great chance of making the cut.

“I was disappointed YOUNG RASCAL didn’t run in the Fast Track Qualifier for the Marathon Final at Wolverhampton the other day as I think he’d have been hard to beat. He’s already won the Listed Floodlit Stakes over 1m4f at Kempton and should stay 2m on the All-Weather. Mr (William) Haggas likes to have runners on Good Friday so there may still be a plan to get him qualified.

“I’d also like to see James Tate’s grey POWER LINK take his chance in the Mile Final. I’ve been second on him twice over 7f but I think the extra furlong at Lingfield would really play to his strengths. He could travel within himself down the hill and use his turn of foot off the home bend.”

Getting plenty of rides doesn’t appear to be a problem, but how important is it to get on better quality horses this year?

“It’s very much in my thoughts. Last year I rode 137 winners and enjoyed some big days – it was my best ever year by a long way though I did ride over 100 winners in 2018. I rode in more Group races than I’ve ever done and that doesn’t faze me. I don’t get nervous about riding in a Group 1 – I just want to go out there and get that monkey off my back.

“Karl Burke has a great bunch of horses and I’m looking forward to continuing my association with him, especially on LORD OF THE LODGE who I finished second on in the Gimcrack. He’s a lovely big, strong Dandy Man who has really filled out over the winter and will make a very nice three-year-old.

“Karl has been good to me ever since I rang him and asked if I could go in and ride out when I first came over from Ireland. He’s had some very good jockeys in that time but I’m still riding winners for him and get on great with all the family - his wife Elaine and daughters Kelly and Lucy - who are all part of a great team and I’d love to bring them more top level success.”

BEN CURTIS FACTFILE:

Age: 30
2006: Won Derrinstown Rookie of the Year award in first season as an apprentice.
2009: Apprentice to John Oxx in Ireland.
2010: Joint-Champion Apprentice in Ireland with Joseph O’Brien and Gary Carroll.
2014: Switched to Britain from Ireland for better opportunities, initially with the late Alan Swinbank.
2018: First domestic century (113).
2019: Career best domestic total (137).
Biggest wins: Group 3s on Nakuti (2015), Above The Rest (2018), Little Kim (2018) and Comedy (2018); Most valuable victory: Kynren (heritage handicap 2019).

Behind the scenes with All-Weather sensation Ben Curtis
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