Jim Crowley is counting down the days until he will be reunited with the brilliant Battaash in the Coolmore Nunthorpe at York.
It is 14 years since the former northern-based jumps rider switched codes. Exactly a decade later, he was crowned Britain’s champion Flat jockey – before being appointed number one rider to one of the sport’s most prominent owners in Sheikh Hamdan Al Maktoum.
It has proved a fruitful association for both, particularly this year, with Crowley booting home six winners for his boss at Royal Ascot in June and more recently steering crack miler Mohaather to top-level success in the Sussex Stakes at Goodwood.
The fact Crowley is now just seven short of riding 2,000 career winners is clear evidence of the remarkable progress he has made since his days in the National Hunt sphere.
Reflecting on the decision to go Flat out in 2006, he said: “I was very lucky that my sister-in-law Amanda Perrett had plenty of horses at the time and I had them to fall back on. I was riding for some good owners and was lucky I managed to get on some good horses.
“The year I switched I was doing the two – I’d be going to Newmarket and the following day I’d be going to Uttoxeter, which didn’t make sense really. I worked out quickly it was only about £26 difference in riding fees to go down to an open ditch!
“Financially it made sense to stick to the Flat. Never in a million years did I ever think I’d be champion jockey – but as every season progressed, things improved and I was able to get on some nice horses.
“I never really felt I scaled the heights I wanted to over jumps. I was probably too small and too light and kept getting injured. I had my collarbone removed after breaking it for the 10th or 11th time.
“I was in a rut really. I could have carried on riding 30, 40 or possibly 50 winners a year, but I didn’t want that – it’s not what I set out to do when I was 15 or 16 years old. I wanted to be a champion jockey, and I’m just fortunate I was able to do it on the Flat.”
The undoubted headline act of the Sheikh Hamdan-Crowley partnership is the Charlie Hills-trained Battaash, who will on Friday be a red-hot favourite to successfully defend his crown on the Knavesmire and confirm himself the undisputed king of the five-furlong division in a race that is part of the 2020 Qipco British Champions Series.
“I will wake up on Friday morning and I’ll be buzzing,” said Crowley.
“I’m looking forward to it. It’s not going to be as easy for him if the ground turns soft, and I’m praying the rain stays away. He’s won on good to soft, so that’s not a problem. Fast ground just makes it easier.”
While his searing pace has never been in question, Battaash has not always been easy to predict, with the fiery temperament that was a hallmark of his early career particularly evident when he was beaten in the Nunthorpe in both 2017 and 2018.
However, he produced a blistering display 12 months ago to put that particular ghost to rest – and he has looked better than ever this year in making it third time lucky in the King’s Stand at Royal Ascot, before landing a record fourth King George Stakes at Goodwood.
“He’s certainly not getting any slower, anyway – he’s just unbelievable to ride,” Crowley added.
“I’d forgotten what he was like, so I went to ride him before Ascot and I was just grinning all the way home. You forget how special he is – he’s so quick.
“In the past, getting him to the start was the most important thing – getting him down calm. But touch wood, this year he’s lobbed down to post at Ascot and Goodwood – Craig Witheford picks him up when he gets there, and it’s all routine for him.
“Before, you’d get on him in the paddock, he’d be tensing up and you’d canter to post and he’d be grinding his teeth. He was like a ticking time bomb waiting to go off and wanted to do everything at a 100 miles per hour, but he’s been so much more relaxed now.”
Hills has been delighted with his stable star since his latest triumph in a course record time at Goodwood.
Like Crowley, the Lambourn-based trainer would prefer it if the rain stays away from York over the next few days.
Hills said: “He had a nice stretch of his legs on Saturday, and everybody was very happy. He came out of his Goodwood run in good shape, and we’re happy with where we are with him at the moment.
“Goodwood was a great day, but this game moves on pretty quickly, so you have to come back down to earth.
“We’re well over Goodwood now and looking forward to this week. There’s a few showers around – but he has won on good to soft before, and York is a fast track, which obviously suits him.”
Many are hoping Battaash may showcase his speed on the world stage at the Breeders’ Cup in November.
Asked if that option was under consideration, the trainer added: “Sheikh Hamdan rang me the day after Goodwood, just to see how the horse had come out of the race. It was a pretty short call, but there was no mention of America.
“You can never say no, but we’re looking forward to Friday first.”