Lure of Global Riches Alters Face of Jockeys' Championship

Treble champion jockey Steve Cauthen hands William Buick the trophy for his second championship in 2023 | Racingfotos


The rider who streaked home in the £4.7m Sheema Classic in Dubai at the weekend is also odds-on to win something rather more quaint.

The title of champion Flat race jockey was once contested with fierce pride by men who thrashed car engines dashing up and down the land to ride a winner at Redcar or Salisbury. Lester Piggott, Willie Carson and Pat Eddery didn't care where it was, provided it landed a blow on their rivals.

Sometimes small private planes would lift them over the motorway traffic. But the mission never changed. Champion jockey was a crown worth fighting for. One year Carson expended so much energy to win it that he needed a week in bed to recover.

William Buick, who won the Sheema Classic on Rebel's Romance, has been No 1 for the last two seasons and is 8/13 to complete his hat-trick. Oisin Murphy finished in front in the previous three campaigns (2019 to 2021) but now says he will not forego a big international ride for the sake of being champion once again.

The truncation of the jockeys' league in 2015 so that it now operates from May 4 to October 19 owed more to politics than stage management. Nobody could pretend the 'narrative' of identifying the top jockey has been strengthened by starting it at the Guineas meeting and calling a halt on Champions' Day. The public isn't exactly on tenterhooks to see whether Buick can hold off Murphy, Rossa Ryan, Silvestre de Sousa and Tom Marquand, who complete the top five in the betting.

But behind the UK Flat Jockeys' Championship's struggle for relevance sits a reality we sometimes take for granted: the extraordinary globalisation of the Flat race pilot's trade.

In prioritising big races abroad above little ones at Bath or Beverley, Murphy was merely adopting a position now assumed by the world's best cricketers. Test matches no longer anchor their career planning. As England's Kevin Pietersen is fond of saying, cricketers are becoming international freelancers, attached to this or that T20 league, with the Indian Premier League the mothership of salaries. Playing for England or Australia may cease to be the defining honour for players who see themselves as hired guns.

Behind the UK Flat Jockeys' Championship's struggle for
relevance sits a reality we sometimes take for granted: the
extraordinary globalisation of the Flat race pilot's trade

In racing, tie-ins with owners and trainers still have a large say in where jockeys go. Buick was riding for Godolphin at Meydan and Ryan Moore was there to accompany Aidan O'Brien's runners. And yet, taking in the sweep of colossally valuable fixtures in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Dubai this winter, it's easy to form a picture of the elite end of racing becoming a game without frontiers.

Moore holds the title of Longines World's Best Jockey (he won it too in 2014, 2016 and 2021). We think of him as Coolmore's 'finisher' in the UK and Ireland. But his cv maps out his global reach (not to mention the time spent on planes). Outside Europe he has won the Japan Cup, Melbourne Cup, Hong Kong Vase and races at the Breeders' Cup. He's unlikely to be tortured by the knowledge that he hasn't been the champ in his homeland since 2009.

The champion jockey title still resonates. It still offers a measure of greatness in the saddle. Nat Flatman claimed the first 13 titles from 1840 to 1852. Gordon Richards won it 26 times between 1925 and 1953. Names still pop out to induce nostalgia: Joe Mercer's lone win in 1979, or Steve Cauthen's three.  Jim Crowley's victory at 38 years old in 2016, 10 years after he switched from jump racing, was a stellar accomplishment.

If Buick is anointed again this autumn the completion of his hat-trick will bring him joy. Nobody however could expect him to crave another winners-ridden victory ahead of a revival for Charlie Appleby's yard in this campaign (Rebel's Romance was a promising start).

Racing isn't alone in pivoting away from the old markers of excellence. The compulsion in world sport is to follow the money, which can be found in new places, new events. Ask the footballers signing for Saudi Arabian clubs.

This isn't just a British and Irish trend. Falling in love with Japanese racing yielded spectacular results for France's Christophe Lemaire. Three times Lemaire has been Japan's No 1 rider, by races won. Numbers though are less of a guarantee of immortality than his partnerships with Almond Eye and Equinox, a conveyance of extraordinary grandeur, and the worldwide horse of the year in 2023.

This free flow of human talent to where the best horses and biggest prizes are follows modern norms. If it means we see a less entertaining scrap for autumn wins at Catterick or Ripon then we'll just have to hope the champion buys us a drink from his or her vast international earnings. 

Racing may sometimes be stuck in a loop of self-doubt, but the growing opulence of the global calendar is one field where decline is not conspicuous. Piggott, Eddery and Carson boarded aeroplanes too, often in Europe, but usually to get them from an afternoon meeting in Britain to an evening one.


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