HITTING THE GROUND WITH A THUMP

2 June 2002

On Derby day eight years ago Jason Weaver was in line to be a great jockey. Then arrogance and wasting unseated him

Eight years ago Jason Weaver turned Tattenham Corner with the big field hung out behind him. A month before he had won the 2000 Guineas with a brilliant move on Mr Baileys; now he let the same horse surge clear and for 20 wonderful seconds he had won the Derby. “It was the greatest thrill of my life,” says Jason, then in his first term as a senior jockey. But it did not last. Neither did he.

That year he soared as few jockeys have ever soared before. He became only the seventh British rider in history to ride 200 winners in a season. He had chased champion Frankie Dettori all the way and few observers doubted that the two great friends would be the principals in many title battles to come. This week Dettori will stride out to the Derby paddock in the blue Godolphin silks in which he has become internationally renown. Jason Weaver will have a suit and a microphone in his new career as a TV pundit. J Weaver the jockey is no more.

The decision was taken soon after his 30th birthday at the beginning of February, but in truth the Dettori-challenging promise of the early years had drained away by 1998 when the winner tally fell from over 100 to just 59 and his name was no longer one the big trainers were the first to call. At the end of last season he had 48 successes; but it was the first time he had scored below 50 since he won the apprentice championship in 1993 under the wing of Dettori’s mentor, Luca Cumani.

This January he had just one winner from 13 rides on the unsung delights of Southwell and Wolverhampton.That night in February he stood on the scales and faced the prospect of once again shedding 7lbs next morning. The mind could no longer beat the matter. It was over.

On that reading Jason Weaver is just another dehydrated statistic in the never-ending battle of the scales which saw the great Fred Archer blow his brains out with 12 championships already under his belt at only 29. But casting the mind back to the aspirant jockey of 1994 is to also find a more cautionary tale in the great sagas of great unfulfilled expectations in sport, to picture Jason as a young racing Icarus who flew too close to the sun; a rider of remarkable gifts who sold himself too dear and ended up counting the cost.

That is certainly how his agent at that time, Terry Norman, sees it. “Jason had so much talent,” Terry recalled last week in a break from working towards taking jockey Kevin Darley towards another championship. “He had great balance and flair and was tremendously strong. I thought he was better than Dettori. The ride he gave Bijou d’Inde to come back at Ashkalani in the St James Palace Stakes was one of the best things I have ever seen. But after three years I could not get through to him. I think it has been a terrible waste.”

For all young sportsmen there is a very fine line between self-confidence and conceit, assertion and arrogance. This is particularly true for jockeys who are facing employers and media not as part of a team, but on their own. One year Weaver was the eager Welsh-reared apprentice whose first love had been rugby; the next he was the classic-winning title-challenger with Press and patrons hanging on his every word. His main retainer was with Mr Baileys’ trainer, Mark Johnston, up at Middleham, but the big stables in the south were taking an interest. “I’ll wait,” he told Terry Norman grandly, “for the offers to come in.”

It is now part of racing history how in the autumn of 94 Jason forsook the growing strength of the Johnston stable (who head the trainers’ table today) for the higher-paid promise of David Loder’s Newmarket operation, only to fall out with them by the end of the summer and come back to Middleham for a slice of humble pie and a renewal of one of the best partnerships of the decade.

In 1995 they won the Ascot Gold Cup together, in 1996 Bijou d’Inde’s terrific St James Palace victory came after only missing the 2,000 Guineas by inches, in 1997 they took Ireland’s Group One Heinz 57 with Princely Heir. But when, in September 1997, Weaver refused to travel to Turkey to ride the prophetically named Fly To The Stars, the relationship was ended.

Reading Jason’s comments, “I wasn’t going to be treated like this,” and checking that in the previous season he had served no less than 42 days’ suspension for various riding offences, is to imagine someone who was quite big for his size-five boots. That may be partly true but Luca Cumani offers a revealing insight. “Jason was a very pleasant boy when he came to me, and since he has stopped riding he is a very nice chap again. But wasting did bad things to his temperament and made him hard to deal with. It happens to some jockeys and it is sad because it is not their fault.”

Weaver himself is admirably free of either recrimination or self-pity. “Lots of jockeys would give their left testicle to ride 48 winners as a freelance,” he says of last season’s comparatively lowly winner total before going on to admit that even in the Johnston years he was running 5lbs off on the treadmill even before going to ride work of a morning. “In the end my body was becoming like a sponge,” he adds, “I would wake up in the morning weighing almost 9 stone 7, with my face all blotchy and my hands swollen up like the nutty professor. Fiona, my fiancee had to walk on eggshells. We sat down and agreed I had to stop before I hurt myself both physically and mentally.”

What did not stop and has not left him, is a sense of self-belief. “I never felt that I could not do the job as well or better than anyone,” he says, reflecting on his final Newmarket ride last November, a stunning late run in a 30-runner handicap which got an old lag called Just Nick to produce a best-ever effort to win at 33-1. “I have had 12 wonderful years doing something I absolutely adored and rode over 1,000 winners world-wide. I have been very lucky.”

That good fortune is now being shared with emerging trainer Giles Bravery and the new AtTheRaces TV channel for which he made an impressive start galloping round Ascot, talking seamlessly to his viewers. In that role he is likely to last out a lot better than Mr Baileys did that heady day in 1994. “I had just given him a nudge,” remembers Jason, “and he really went for it. He destroyed them. We were miles clear. It was an unbelievable feeling. Then suddenly at the two furlong pole he was gasping for air. He was still in front a furlong out but Willie Carson shot past us on Erhaab and afterwards he was just completely shattered. He had run his heart out but we had had our try. So have I. Now I am looking forward to the rest of my life.”

“I have,” he concludes with with a degree of sporting magnificence, “no negative thoughts at all.”

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