The Times, Wednesday 17 June 2020
It can only happen in horse racing. A 42-year-old athlete, 23 seasons into a brutally unforgiving game can have the most brilliant afternoon of his whole career and yet rueing the one that got away. Jim Crowley will never forget this opening day of Royal Ascot.
Riding three winners, all for his Sheikh Hamdan al Maktoum retainer and all difficult to pronounce let alone spell, Motakhayyel, Nazeef and the champion sprinter Battaash, was a dazzling feat, but it would be the run of the same owner’s Mohaather that would have rankled. He might have only been third rather than seventh but he was so endlessly blocked that Jim would have been tearing the remains of his thinning hair out if he hadn’t seen so much of the harshest side of what race riding can do.
Gush too much at Crowley and he will remind you of how he felt when he and Freddie Tylicki went down at Kempton in 2016 in a dreadful crash that saw his friend now permanently confined to a wheelchair. Push him further and he will tell of when his friend Tom Halliday got killed at Market Rasen in Jim’s first riding incarnation as a jump jockey. 10 season and some 250 winners he ground out across the country and even one major triumph in Italy before switching to the flat and climbing to the championship celebrated just 16 days before the Kempton disaster. Crowley has a wise head above those seasoned shoulders.
It served him very well on Motakhayyel in the opening Buckingham Palace Handicap. There were three Sheikh Hamdan horses to choose from but against others advice he chose the right option, and in the race watched from midfield as the leaders pressed on and then steered sweetly through for decisive victory. On Mohaather, the traffic problems might have resorted to racing road rage in a fierier temperament, and patience was again the watchword as he restrained the hard pulling Naseef in the Duke of Cambridge and then nailed Agincourt right on the line. But it was on Battaash in the Kings Stand that Crowley had to use the wisdom of the years.
That might seem on overstatement considering he was on the acknowledged fastest horse and he made all the running. But Bataash’s explosive qualities are always in danger of earlier eruptions without the calm horsemanship which has long been Crowley’s trademark. In this case the lack of atmosphere was welcome. “It had to help him,” said Jim afterwards, “mind you he has got better as time’s gone on. Two years ago at York he completely blew his lid before the race.”
But there was still the small matter of finally laying an Ascot hoodoo which has seen Bataash fail in three previous attempts at this deceptively tough straight five furlongs, and when we first saw the close up of Jim’s body position as Battaash powered to the front in the opening furlong you knew the lid was rattling. Here was 9 stone of man on half a ton of racehorse hell bent on running a hole in the horizon. Just what the actual strain must have been only the Crowley arm sockets who knows, but there was control enough to allow no weakening in the final uphill stages.
It had been a 58 second five furlongs, by far the fastest time of the day. At his peak Battaash would have been approaching 45 mph on hoof power alone but the verdict from the saddle has an impressive reality as well as wonder. “He’s such a naturally fast horse, it’s hard to find anything to lead him,” said Crowley. “He was on a bit of a going day and wanted to charge off and my only concern was to save enough for that finish which worked out. Every time he wins, he feels special. He’s just a superstar.”
Crowley may be the most grounded of sports star but Sheikh Hamdan is by any standard one of the biggest operations anywhere on the turf. What refreshing contrast then to see the King Edward VII Stakes go not to one of the big battalions, not to the half million buy Mohican Heights or even the three and half million Mogul representing the Coolmore team, but to Pyledriver whose owners were unable to find a buyer for him for as little as £10,000 and whose trainer William Muir and son-in-law jockey Martin Dwyer rarely feature in the classic world.
Not that Muir is anything but capable or that Dwyer does not know his way around having won the Oaks on Casual Look in 2003 and the Derby itself on Sir Percy in 2006. Pyledriver was an 18-1 outsider in a field of six yesterday but now he is shorter than that for the greatest of all the classics next month. There is a sort of racing snobbery that leads to scepticism but Willie Muir is quite unabashed.
“He was as weak as a kitten last year,” said the trainer. “I came here thinking I could have two winners. I was quite confident that this horse would run a massive race. Three days ago, he just started to spark. It can only keep getting better. This is probably the only year that we’d have a chance to run in the Derby because it’s the same entry stage as everything else. If he does well in the next three weeks, we’ll go there.”
Dwyer is a splendidly down to earth Evertonian who has ridden the racing roller coaster and lived to tell the tale. “He’s a different type to Sir Percy”, he said, “but he stays and he’s got a turn of foot.” Martin Dwyer is 45, only three years older than Jim Crowley. What price another greatest day?