Donn's Articles » Apprentices’ championship

Apprentices’ championship

If apprentices Gary Carroll, Ben Curtis and Joseph O’Brien were to ever find themselves standing together at the far side of Sir Alan Sugar’s board room, it is probable that all three would get the job.

Before racing at Cork yesterday, the three young riders were locked together in the battle for the 2010 Apprentice Championship on 33 winners. Curtis’s lead of seven at the end of July was reduced to three by Carroll by the end of August and completely scuttled by the end of last month in a competition that had effectively developed into a match. However, O’Brien has gone into overdrive in October, riding nine winners from 33 rides, representing a remarkable strike rate of 27%, and joining his colleagues – both of whom rode just one winner during the same period – at the top of the table.

There is little doubt that the profile of the contest is heightened for O’Brien’s presence. Bred in the purple, son of champion amateur rider and trainer Aidan, and champion amateur rider Anne Marie Crowley, it is probable that young Joseph was learning the finer points of pace and positioning while his contemporaries were learning how to put one unsteady foot in front of the other. This game is in his genes, it’s in his blood, and you can see it when he rides.

True, he has been afforded the opportunities that his lineage has presented – it is not every jockey who gets to ride at Royal Ascot less than a month after he has ridden in public for the first time – but he has had the ability and the aptitude to grasp the opportunities as they have arisen. While 17 of his winners have been for his dad, 16 have been for outside yards. In total, he has been employed by 56 different trainers so far this season. He can ride from the front, he can deliver from behind, he is strong in a finish and he seems to have a cool head to go on top. As long as he can keep his weight in check, the racing world is his oyster.

Like O’Brien, Gary Carroll is bred for the game. The son of Raymond Carroll, who rode extensively for John Oxx and Dermot Weld, and the grandson of Frankie Carroll, one of the top National Hunt riders of the 1960s, the young Kildare lad burst onto the scene last year, claiming the apprentices’ championship and finishing joint seventh in the overall championship with 44 winners, the same number as Michael Kinane. And just to put the cap on it, he went over to York in August and rode Sesenta to win the Ebor for Willie Mullins.

But just because he won the championship last year, don’t think that he is being complacent, don’t think that he does not have a burning desire to do it again this year. He has struck up a hugely successful partnership with Michael Halford, riding most of the trainer’s top horses, including Invincible Ash, who was completing a hat-trick when she won the Listed Abergwaun Stakes at Tipperary in early August. Also, significantly, Halford had no hesitation in putting the youngster up on the top class Casamento when that colt made his debut at Tipperary at the end of August.

Ben Curtis is unusual in that his roots do not descend several generations into racing’s turf. Actually, he didn’t sit on a horse until he was 14, and he only did so because his schooling required that he fulfill a work experience module. Once he did, however, he quickly realised that this was something that he wanted to do. He had his first ride in public on Twilight Breeze in May 2006 and kicked on.

This year, Curtis has been presented with the opportunities that the talent that he displayed last year deserved, landing his first listed race win when he rode Croisultan for Liam McAteer to win the Belgrave Stakes at Fairyhouse in July. He proved that he had the judgement of pace to ride from the front when he won the Ulster Oaks on Shareen for John Oxx, and he showed that he had the patience to ride a waiting race when he rode Hazarafa, again for Oxx, to get up and collar Fran Berry, riding the stable’s better-fancied Roses For The Lady, in the Listed Finale Stakes at The Curragh last Sunday. Significantly, while Michael Halford has provided 14 of Carroll’s 33 winners and Aidan O’Brien has provided 17 of Joseph O’Brien’s winners, Curtis has ridden no more than six winners for any one trainer.

While the championship will obviously be decided on the field of play, there is also a piece to be played out on the sidelines. Last Tuesday, Joseph O’Brien won an appeal against a two-day ban imposed for careless riding at Dundalk last month, but he lost an appeal against a four-day ban imposed for careless riding at the Listowel Festival. On the same day, he picked up another two-day ban for excessive use of the whip also at Listowel, which he can appeal, and he has another appeal pending. To sum up, then, as things stand, he will miss five of the 13 flat racing days that remain, but that could be increased or decreased depending on the results of his appeals.

Given the firepower at his disposal, all things being equal, O’Brien would be a warm order to win the championship. Indeed, Paddy Power have already paid out on him as the winner. However, his impending absence leaves the title race wide open.

However this pans out, it makes for an intriguing end to the flat racing season. Any one of the three would be a worthy champion. All top apprentices, all hired.

© The Sunday TImes, 17th October 2010