Callan Enjoying The Green Grass Of Home – And Bahrain

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Neil Callan, right, with William Buick at the races in Bahrain | Emma Berry

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In conversation with Neil Callan, you would never guess that the nickname given to the jockey in Hong Kong was 'The Iron Man'. He is quietly spoken with a soft Irish lilt that indicates his nation of birth, despite the fact that he refers to his return to England in July as “coming home”.

Newmarket is indeed home to his wife Trish, whose grandfather David Ringer trained successfully for many years from Saffron House Stables, where he lives still and which is now leased to the swiftly rising George Boughey.

Callan may have been mostly absent from Britain since 2014, when he moved to Hong Kong full-time following four years of short-term stints, but he swiftly reinserted himself to racing HQ this summer to be reunited with plenty of old friends and forge new acquaintances with others. He clearly fits in well wherever he bases himself, and who can forgive him for ensuring that he is currently based in a place which is significantly warmer than Britain in midwinter?

As the curtain fell on the turf season in Europe, the jockey headed out to Bahrain for the winter, but with more in mind that just topping up his tan. This Friday sees the first two legs of the 10-race Bahrain Turf Series run at Sakhir racecourse, which recently staged its third annual Bahrain International Trophy. That race was given Group 3 status for the first time this year and it is unlikely to be the only black-type race on the card in years to come. With its international meeting and launch of the new series, the Bahrain Turf Club has clearly signalled its intent to become a more major player on the world racing stage. Callan's winter riding principally for Shaikh Sultan Al Deen Al Khalifa of Al Mohamediya Racing will doubtless be time well spent. 

“I'm here until March and things are going well,” he told TDN during the international race day in late November. “I've never ridden here in Bahrain before this season but it's a lovely island and the people are so nice and hospitable. I'm riding for Shaikh Sultan and he's such a nice man.”

Shaikh Sultan's silks are familiar beyond the shores of Bahrain. In England, he has horses with Clive Cox, Richard Fahey, David O'Meara, Andrew Balding, Karl Burke and Mark Johnston. His most notable runner to date has been the G1 Commonwealth Cup winner Golden Horde (Ire) (Lethal Force {Ire}), who is now at stud for Sumbe in Normandy.

Callan continued, “I think when you feel comfortable in a place like this it gives you confidence to ride to the best of your ability, whereas in some other jurisdictions they like to put a lot more pressure on you than you need. I'm not saying that pressure affects me but it's unnecessary and unwanted at certain times. 

“So many of the owners here have had horses in England for a long time. They are certainly not new to the game but they are a more conservative nation and they don't really like to announce that they've arrived. But they are slowly but surely putting themselves on the map and I like the way they are doing things. They are doing it their way and it's gradual, and I really like that style. There are some very knowledgeable people here and it's a country steeped in racing history.”

As the Bahrain Turf Series gets underway, Callan is the co-leading overseas rider for the season in Bahrain with Rosie Jessop, and he has rides in both the seven-furlong Manama Cup and 10-furlong Muharraq Cup for trainer Hesham Al Haddad. Each race has also attracted the desired overseas horses, with seven British-based trainers fielding runners. The series reaches its conclusion on Feb. 18, at which stage Callan will begin to turn his attention to the start made last year to rebuilding his British career.

“Hopefully I'll keep getting some luck here [in Bahrain] and riding for owners that also have horses in England, and who knows where that might lead. Ideally I'd like to get back before the start of the turf season at home just to get myself up and running on the all-weather and get on some of the horses of certain trainers that I ride for and to make some new contacts,” he said.

“Back in the days when I was riding for Kevin Ryan and Roger Varian, I'd also always ride for a lot of different trainers and owners. It's like anything, you don't turn down an opportunity when it comes. I don't have any retainers, so that's what my plan is, to just go back and get out there riding as many winners as possible.”

Among the range of trainers who put him up in England last year, the most successful relationship was forged with Marco Botti, trainer of the smart juvenile Tatsumaki (GB) (Charming Thought {GB}), who was unbeaten in three starts, twice with Callan in the saddle. 

“I've grown a good association with Marco,” Callan said. “I got on a good 2-year-old for him, Tatsumaki, and unfortunately the horse was sold to Hong Kong, but I kind of knew that that was going to happen. But the positives that have come out of that is that we ended up having a good horse together for a while and that helped me get noticed a bit and hopefully it will get me into a stronger position for next season.”

At the age of 43, the Iron Man certainly looks every bit as strong and fit as ever, and in his quest to return to the forefront of the British ranks he has the assistance of agent Shelley Dwyer, who has helped Silvestre de Sousa to win the jockeys' championship on three occasions. Callan himself is no stranger to chasing winners, and he has twice finished runner-up in the championship: in 2005 when he rode 151 winners and landed a Group 1 juvenile double for Kevin Ryan on Palace Episode (Machiavellian) and Amadeus Wolf (GB) (Mozart {Ire}), and again in 2007 when he recorded his personal high of 170.

Clearly far greater riches are on offer in Hong Kong for all participants in racing, as well as a more relaxed way of life for jockeys, with only two race meetings a week during the season. Callan's lengthy stint there was a productive one, with Group 1 wins aboard Beauty Only (Ire) (Holy Roman Emperor {Ire}) and Blazing Speed (GB) (Dylan Thomas {Ire}). Towards the end it was clouded by a harsh suspension for his perceived disrespectful conduct at a stewards' enquiry, which he successfully managed to have overturned on appeal. 

He said, “I came back in July after the season ended in Hong Kong and I'm happy to be home. Most importantly the kids are getting to an age now where they had to be back here to follow their dreams. That was the most important thing and it was probably the deciding factor for me.

“The timing was right and since we've been back, of course I've had to establish myself again, but even when Frankie departed from Godolphin, I think he had to re-establish himself in a sense. He had to get himself back up. He may be one of the best jockeys in the world but nothing is ever a given and you can't take anything for granted. So I was prepared to get my head down and work my way back and get some new contacts. It's a challenge but it's one that I am enjoying.”

 

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