By Simon Mapletoft
Like so many young jockeys, Rob Hornby was bracing himself for a tough year when the Covid-19 pandemic forced racing into lockdown back in March. But far from surviving those months of uncertainly, the 25-year-old has taken his career to a whole new level, riding more winners than in any previous year.
Few in the game would have expected to see the Hungerford-based rider closing in on 80 winners and muscling his way into the top 10 in the All-Weather Championships table, yet hard graft and the patience to nurture new contacts has helped thrust him into the limelight this winter.
By the end of the first month of Season 8, Hornby was sitting in seventh place in the title race, just a handful of winners behind leader William Buick and other weighing room A-listers James Doyle, Oisin Murphy and Tom Marquand.
Thanks mainly to his productive association with the in-form Ralph Beckett, one in five of Hornby’s rides have been winners and he boasts easily the best strike rate on favourites inside that esteemed top 10 – an impressive 75 per cent.
“It was all about survival when lockdown came,” he admits. “I was determined to work hard behind the scenes and just get as many rides as I could to pay my way once racing resumed, but I got off to a very good start and it’s just snowballed.”
Hornby was just beginning to turn heads when the sport ground to an untimely halt. His old boss Andrew Balding had entrusted him with stable star Bangkok in the Listed Winter Derby Trial when the horse’s regular partner Silvestre De Sousa was still riding in Hong Kong.
Not only did Hornby guide the talented colt to victory but together they also lowered the track record. Looking back, it proved in many ways to be a breakthough success – a sign of things to come.
“It was a big opportunity for me at the time and I was determined to do as well as I could on the day,” he recalls. “The chance to ride quality horses like that is what keeps you going and it was great to win as well as we did.
“I expected to be taken off him in the Winter Derby that followed. Silvestre was back and that’s just the way it goes. I can’t expect to be kept on the best ones every time they run – I’m not there yet – but it’s all about grasping the chances when they come along.”
Balding hardly needed convincing about the capabilities of his former apprentice. He had already achieved a Group 3 success on Morando and had also won the John Smith’s Diamond Jubilee Cup at York on Pivoine the previous summer – just a month before landing the Group 3 Geoffrey Freer Stakes on Martyn Meade’s Technician.
“Andrew has always been good to me from day one. I rode out my claim on one of his, a stayer called Haines, and he’s trusted me in some big races. He gave me my first Classic ride on Maid Up in the St Leger two years ago, which was special.
“It’s a massive operation at Kingsclere with over 200 horses so to be a part of all that has been really important,” he acknowledges. “It’s quiet this time of year but in the summer I go in and ride work on Wednesdays and Saturdays.”
Hornby has also forged a fruitful partnership with another top trainer, Ralph Beckett, who has provided him with almost half of his winners this year, including Manuela De Vega in the Group 3 Pinnacle Stakes at Haydock just six days after resumption in June.
“I picked up a spare for Ralph at Kempton a couple of years ago and won on it. After that he rang me and suggested that I came in to ride out once a week. Since then I’ve ridden a lot of winners for him. He’s been very loyal and likes his jockeys to know his horses as well in the mornings as in the afternoons.
“The difference now is that I’m lucky enough to be riding a better calibre of horse than I was in the early days. I can look at my rides now and feel confident that most of them have a good chance of running well or even winning.
“The good horses are a pleasure to ride. You can put them where you want them in a race and make better decisions. They travel smoothly and make things much easier,” he adds.
Hornby, who began his career with National Hunt trainer Henry Daly before securing a place in the Kingsclere academy, has a 22 per cent strike rate for Beckett at a level stakes profit of around £80 and hopes to build on that this winter.
“A lot will depend on what Silvestre is doing in respect of the King Power horses, as he is retained by the owners, of course, but I was blown away by Fox Duty Free at Lingfield earlier this month. He won a handicap so impressively and gave me a very special feel. I knew the horse from his time at Andrew’s (Balding). We thought he was going to be our best two-year-old but he lost his way and has thrived for a change of scenery.”
The eloquent young rider also gushes about Beckett’s Lord Protector, a back-end juvenile who made an eye-catching debut in his hands at Kempton Park in mid-November. “I don’t know whether he will run again this winter but he’s very exciting. There’s just something special about him. He has a great attitude and will be even better when he steps up in trip.”
Beckett’s Rock Eagle was another to benefit from Hornby’s astute horsemanship when scoring what appeared an unlikely victory at Kempton recently. “He needed every inch of the 2m to get up that night,” her adds. “I didn’t think he’d be suited by Kempton – tight bends and a stop-start gallop - but he’s a very relaxed horse.
“He might just do well in those Fast Track Qualifiers for the Marathon Final if Ralph keeps him going. I’d have to get on my bike early to have a chance on him around Lingfield if he turned up on Good Friday because you wouldn’t want anything to get first run on him, but he’s going the right way.”
Hornby is also hoping to see Bangkok back on the All-Weather for another tilt at the Middle-Distance crown. “I thought he ran very well for a long way in the Bahrain International and wasn’t beaten far. He’d be very interesting back in those Listed qualifiers and goes into the winter a fresh horse after being sidelined by a setback. Hopefully I might be lucky enough to get another chance on him.”
Hornby remains loyal to the smaller trainers who supported him in the early part of his career. It’s only six short years ago that he registered only eight winners. “Trainers like Jonny Portman, Simon Hodgson, Pam Sly and Mandy Rowland were very good to me when I was an apprentice and I’ll always be grateful for their help.
“Simon has acquired a nice sprinter of Peter Hedger’s called Total Commitment so it was nice to win on him around Kempton the other day. He’s up to a mark of 90 and is on the verge of those better sprint races so it would be lovely for Simon and Peter if he could qualify for the Final on Good Friday.”
Hornby might be rubbing shoulders numerically with the big guns of the weighing room, but won’t allow himself to get carried away by this year’s success. “I’m still only 25 and I’m learning constantly,” he adds. “Oisin (Murphy) and James Doyle, to name but two, have been great for help and advice. Oisin was always going to be a star from the first day he walked into Balding’s.
“Looking back, I’m pleased my success hasn’t come overnight. It’s been tough at times but having the time to build up my contacts with such big yards and get a little more maturity on my shoulders has been really beneficial.
“Sticking around on the All-Weather each winter has also helped enormously. It would have been easy to go abroad but I’ve always made it my priority to build enough momentum to take me into the spring and its paying off. But I won’t be taking anything for granted. I’ll keep working, keep my eye in and take my chances when they come along.”