Making the switch
Robin Oakley Rider Mick Fitzgerald was asked by his careers master when still at school what he wanted to be. 'I've half a mind to be a jump-jockey,' he declared. 'Good,' replied the laconic pedagogue, 'because that's all you'll need.' Fitzgerald is actually one of the brightest men in the saddle, but though the thrills of the sport are uncontestable and the weighing-room 'craic' is better than in any sport you can name the teacher had a point. Jump-racing careers have a limited time span. The winners' percentages produce less than on the Flat, and a sport which brings a fall on average every 13 rides in company with half a ton of horse does have its drawbacks. Just share a changing room with a few jockeys and look at the collarbones, those who still have them.
Some jump-jockeys are born to it, some are would-be Flat jockeys who had jumping forced upon them by losing the battle with the scales. But, remarkably, one rider has done it the other way. Jim Crowley, still only 29, rode some 300 winners over fences. I still remember him in the spring of 2006 storming up the Sandown hill on Ungaro to win the Totesport Hurdle. But soon after that the Sussex-based rider decided to switch to the Flat. Last season he rode 36 winners without crossing an obstacle; this season he has already ridden 48, which puts him in the top ten, ahead of such respected riders as Kevin Darley and Darryl' Holland.
Jim Crowley comes from a point-to-pointing family — 'I had a pony under my arse even before I could walk — and so he took the jumping route virtually on autopilot, first joining Con Horgan then moving north to work for Sue and Harvey Smith. He rode, too, for such shrewd judges as Mary Reveley and Alan Swinbank. At a natural 9st 51b in those days he was sometimes humping lumps of lead to ride chasers allotted a couple of stone more. Champion jockey Tony McCoy was among those who urged Jim to try his luck in another code.
In the summer, when the jumping opportunities dwindled, and with his sister-in-law Amanda Perrett putting him up on a few, he found he was getting more rides on the Flat than over jumps. An effort to bring down his weight followed. 'Oh, I just ate more healthily,' he answers airily when asked for the secret which eludes the rest of us, and now he rides comfortably at 8st 71b. 'In the summer heat (where has he been?) with up to ten rides a day it's not a problem. I have to watch my weight but I don't struggle like some.'
Making the switch was a risk. Jim Crowley was established on the jumping scene, riding for good trainers. He had ridden four winners one day and several trebles. He had just been taken on by jockeys' agent Dave Roberts, the equivalent of a first England cap. 'It was,' he says, 'a matter of having the balls to do it.' But now he regrets not starting out on the Flat, and doesn't imagine he would go back to jumping, even if weight did become a problem. 'I did think of riding a few over hurdles but you'd want it to be a nice horse not to look silly. I'd rather go to Wolverhampton for three on the Flat than flog a three-mile chaser round Fontwell.'
Jim Crowley has built up a solid base among Surrey and Sussex trainers like Amanda Perrett, Peter Winkworth and Patrick Chamings. Epsom yards are using him regularly, he has a 30 per cent strike rate of winners to runners for Lambourn's Jamie Osborne, and there have been rides too for the multi-horsepower yards of Richard Hannon and Sir Michael Stoute. But it didn't all come on a plate, says Amanda Perrett, for whom he is now effectively the stable jockey and who in 2006 was having one of those years which come to all trainers. 'It can be a closed shop and difficult to get going. We had a bad season: he was riding rubbish and getting good results. We've got faster ones this year but he has done it the hard way.'
The easy-going, approachable Jim Crowley has been nicknamed 'Ruby' after jumping star Ruby Walsh by some of his Flat colleagues. He doesn't lack confidence, pointing out that you have to believe in yourself to deliver. Trainers appreciate his levelheadedness and his strength, and punters are beginning to appreciate his ability, too. But Crowley is determined to keep improving. 'You race so much tighter on the Flat,' he says. 'You have to tidy yourself up. You've got to keep your horse balanced and get him in the best possible position. In jumping there's more time to recover if you miss the break and are not quite where you want to be. It's not so good on the Flat if you're seventh or eighth and wanted to be second or third ... you've got to be on the ball.'
He has already ridden Group race winners on Hawridge Prince and Take a Bow and is just as happy riding sprinters as twomile stayers. The unpronounceable Mac Gille Eoin on whom he went down narrowly in the six-furlong race at Goodwood last Saturday just after we spoke will, he reckons, be a good horse next year. Intriguingly, his favourite courses are the tricky Brighton, where he recently rode his first Flat treble, and Goodwood, which even a jockey as good as Kieren Fallon finds a nightmare.
There is, though, just one regret from the jumping days. Jim Crowley would love to have got round in the Grand National and never did.