ASCOT PERENNIAL AS FRESH AS EVER

17 June 2001

Former champion jockey Pat Eddery is determined to add to his remarkable tally of 71 victories at the Royal Meeting, which starts on Tuesday

AT five past three on Tuesday, Pat Eddery will reach up and flick the goggles down over his eyes as Vision of Night is led into the stalls for the King’s Stand Stakes.

Forty minutes later he will do the same thing as the unbeaten Dandoun gets loaded for the St James’s Palace Stakes. A mount in each of the three remaining races of this opening day of the Royal Meeting will follow. Thirty-two years since he won the Wokingham Handicap on his first Royal Ascot outing, Eddery rides on. There has never been a better time to celebrate him, already 11 times champion and with 53 winners this year, eight clear of Kieren Fallon and 10 ahead of last year’s champion, Kevin Darley.

Last week, racing went through its latest, most heated and most crucial piece of parish wrangling as the British Horseracing Board and the Racecourse Association apparently went to war over the Go Racing consortium’s bid for media and TV rights. The folly of such factionalism was never better revealed. But another folly is too soon forgotten. It is that you take the public interest in horse racing at your peril.

Of course racing should negotiate its rights with one voice. In the Government’s and most people’s memories that was what the BHB was supposed to be for. But money offers will only stack up if there is something worth promoting. And Eddery’s 71 Royal Ascot winners over the last 32 years, more than double his nearest rival, is the longest running saga of continued achievement annually to be seen in sport.

He was a fresh-faced 17-year-old Cheltenham-based apprentice when he rode Sky Rocket in that Wokingham back in 1969. “He had never won a race before,” Eddery remembered yesterday morning. “There was a huge field but we got a good run, and he was 25-1. It was a great day but then Royal Ascot is a special place every year. It has been good to me.” And he to it.

Only six top-hatted Ascots have passed without Eddery’s name on the game’s most coveted scoreboard and more than half of those have been through suspension or injury. He rode four winners at the Royal Meeting in 1973, 1980, 1988 and 1992, five both in 1990 and 1993, six in 1986 and a stunning eight in the glorious summer of 1989. You need good horses but Ascot out on the track is a place where no quarter is asked or given.

Which suits Eddery to a tee. He may now be more circumspect than in his boldest apprentice days when they named him “Polyfilla” because he “filled in all the gaps”. But he still has competitive race-riding deep in his psyche. Son of an Irish champion jockey, he was born to it, flies on it, lives for it.

Eleven years ago I sat with him in the Ascot weighing room. He was in the middle of his most successful season, 93 winners already scored, a personal record of 209 to come at the close, the first double-century since Gordon Richards in 1952. As he towelled off his muscular eight-and-a-half stone torso you had to marvel at his freshness. Eleven years on, the marvel remains undimmed.

The first race at Goodwood on Friday was at 6.35pm. At 6.10 there was no sign of Eddery. Not surprising since the last of his five rides at Sandown had been at 4.50 and he then had to beat M25 traffic to reach his parked Cessna at Fairoaks Aerodrome. At 6.15pm there was scrape of suitcase wheels, the scamper of racing boots and the jockey was here for evening service.

At 49, there isn’t much difference in or out of the saddle. True, he took a day off last Monday but as he drove the two-year-old filly Massarra clear in the second of his four Goodwood rides, the completeness of his technique was as clear as ever. Not as “toe in the iron” stylish as Dettori, but compact, ambidextrous and with an old schoolmaster’s encyclopaedic understanding of the equine brain.

At this stage he understands himself well enough too. Three years ago he delayed an operation on an aggravated disc until he had landed the St Leger on Silver Patriarch and with it his 4,000th winner. With his Cessna flying and his agent, Mike Hawkner, to book rides he is as time-efficient as a calculus. He was dining with his family back in Buckinghamshire by 9.30pm on Friday.

That stud farm near Aylesbury is as public a tribute to his success as the continued keenness in the voice is evident proof of his secret. “I love it all,” he says with an unostentatious relish. “I have some great Royal Ascot rides, [17 at the last count] but Dandoun in the St James’s Palace on the opening day would be as good as any. He has improved through his races. He’s easy to ride, and will go on any ground. I’m looking forward to him.”

Pat Eddery is no extrovert, Dettori-like crowd pleaser. But at this Royal Ascot, as at so many, he could be the punters’ best chance.

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