Donn's Articles » Ben Curtis

Ben Curtis

Ben Curtis wasn’t originally scheduled to ride Croisultan for Liam McAteer in the Listed Belgrave Stakes at Fairyhouse on Saturday. The horse was Pat Smullen’s ride. Fair enough, Smullen is one of the best riders in the country, multiple champion jockey, and he rode Croisultan to his last victory in a listed race at Navan in May 2009. Difficult to believe that it was 14 months and 12 runs since the gelding’s last visit to the winner’s enclosure.

So when Smullen’s agent phoned McAteer late on Friday morning to tell him that he was riding Snaefell in the race instead, the trainer was disappointed, but not despondent. Plan B, Ben Curtis, was a good plan. Curtis knows the horse well, he rides him work a lot, he had ridden him in a race twice previously and he is riding out of his skin on the track these days. McAteer had no hesitation in giving the young lad his chance in a listed race, despite the fact that he had never ridden a listed race winner before and that he couldn’t claim his 3lb allowance.

Strange the way that events conspire to present opportunities. McAteer weighs his horses regularly and he knew that Croisultan was at his optimum racing weight, as well as he could be. As well as that, the horse is at his best when he can get his toe in, which didn’t appear to be ideal given that soft ground was something that we could just about remember before last Friday. Then the rains came. The trainer left an empty wheelbarrow out in the yard on Friday evening, and when he went out on Saturday morning and saw a pool of water lying in it, he smiled to himself. Liquid gold.

It is easy to praise a ride when it is a winning one, but Curtis excelled on Croisultan. The rides that get a horse up on the line to win by a short head are usually the ones that earn the plaudits from the armchair jockeys, but it is the ones that keep everything so simple that you hardly even notice the jockey that are the truly good rides. In the same way as a referee has a good game when he goes about his business unnoticed, the good rides are the ones that inconspicuously maximise a horse’s chance of winning. No bells, no whistles, just correct positioning, correct pace, strength in a finish, and Curtis got the treble up on Croisultan on Saturday.

It was a similar story when the youngster rode Shareen for John Oxx in the Ulster Oaks at Down Royal last month. Nothing else wanted to make it, so Curtis had the confidence to allow his filly stride on. He was riding a long-striding filly, and assistant trainer Slim O’Neill had told him in the parade ring beforehand not to be afraid to make the running if nothing else wanted to.

Riding from the front, dictating a pace, is not easy. When you are tracking horses, you go at the pace that others set and you have targets at which to aim. When you are in front, you are responsible for the pace and you are the target. Curtis spent last winter riding out in America, honing his pace skills, acquainting himself with the clock, and that helped him find the right speed. He set cruise control, sat still for a mile, then kicked at the furlong pole and won easily.

Watching Curtis ride, his easy sit on a horse, his tidy style in a finish, you would be forgiven for thinking that he has been at this all his young life and that his involvement in racing goes back through his family tree. Not so. He didn’t sit on a horse until he was 14, and he only did so because he had to fulfill a work experience requirement in his schooling.

He didn’t have his first ride on the track until May 2006, when he rode Twilight Breeze in a handicap at The Curragh, and he rode his first winner three months later in an apprentices’ handicap at Gowran Park on Always On Top, who was trained by Ruaidhri Tierney, now his agent.

The young Corkman now leads the apprentices’ championship, five clear of Padraig Beggy, six clear of Gary Carroll, eight clear of Shane Foley in what appears to be an golden era for Irish apprentice jockeys. Not only that, but with 20 winners on the board, Curtis sits seventh in the overall jockeys’ championship.

When Martin Lane rode Wigmore Hall to win the John Smith’s Cup at York on Saturday, his agent Simon Dodds said afterwards that Lane wasn’t so much an apprentice jockey as a professional jockey with a claim. It appears that there are a few of those on this side of the water as well.

© The Racing Post, 13th July 2010