22 NOVEMBER 1997, Page 69

The turf

Ups and downs of a freelance

Robin Oakley

The soft-spoken man from Co. Kildare with the lived-in face and the smiling eyes is one of the most popular figures in the weighing-room, a good friend to a number of the younger jockeys as well as to his chum Adrian Maguire (each was best man at the other's wedding). At 36, he is now entering the veteran class. But, while Gra- ham McCourt has made a successful start on a training career and Simon McNeill is now combining riding with assistant trainer duties in the Charlie Brooks yard, Brendan Powell is still one of the busiest riders on the National Hunt scene.

When we spoke he had just come in from having narrowly failed to win the first after some enterprising tactics on Now We Know, the outsider of four. In the gather- ing gloom he rode in the last. But, while others were heading off as dark descended on a wet night for a spot of the Craic and the continuing celebrations of the Mur- phy's Gold Cup weekend, Brendan was jumping into his car to drive most of the way to Ayr, where he was due to ride in the 12.30 the next day. Flat Jockeys could have afforded to fly. Others with more pre- dictable lives would have been able to share driving duties, but as a freelance who rides out for a different trainer almost every day of the week Brendan Powell finds it hard to co-ordinate his plans with others. And yet this was the man who had told me with patent honesty, 'I love the buzz. I just love getting up in the morning and riding out and going racing, riding nice horses for nice people.' Perhaps being a teetotaller helps. Most journalists belong to the school which regards the pre-prandial question 'Shall we go straight in?' as the saddest five words in combination in the English language. But he almost had me signing the pledge.

He plans in time to become a trainer himself and has already had offers of yards from people who would like him to handle their horses. But as this total professional puts it with a disarming grin, 'I'm enjoying riding. I'm getting plenty of rides. I've rid- den fifteen winners already this season and I'm fourth or fifth in terms of the rides I get. Once I retire from riding I will have to work for a living, so I might as well go on as long as I can.'

It was not a particularly easy start for Brendan Powell. After working for P.P. Hogan in Ireland as an amateur, he came over to join Jenny Pitman's yard. They remain good friends and he still rides work for her and schools horses one day a week. There were spells with David Gandolfo and Stan Mellor. But he was six years in racing before he rode a winner and the break was a long time coming. It did eventually when he picked up a spare ride for Les Kennard and won by a short head. The trainer gave him four more the next day and Brendan Powell then rode the Kennard horses until the trainer's retirement.

He rode successfully for a couple of sea- sons for Tim Forster and still retains the ride on the spectacular Dublin Flyer, though only on him. If former Mackeson winner Dublin Flyer is a special favourite, especially at Cheltenham where the crowds love such a bold jumper, there are other favourites too. He won a Grand National on Rhyme 'n Reason, an Irish Champion Hurdle on Nomadic Way and a Scottish National on Chris Popham's Roll A Joint. On Popham's Panto Prince he won no fewer than 23 chases. Brendan Powell has ridden winners in Norway and Sweden. Australia and, uniquely for a British jump jockey, in Japan. He used, too, to ride peri- odically in Italy.

One secret of Brendan Powell's success has been his readiness to ride for a number of small-scale trainers. In the lean times after injury they have been quicker than the big stables to put him up again and he has the experience to tell them plenty about their horses. His most regular source of rides these days, though, is expanding West Country trainer Bob Buckler.

Three Buckler horses, he reckons, should give a good account of themselves this sea- son: the lightly raced Copper Boy did not jump all that well on his fencing debut at Newbury the other day but has real quality. The seven-year-old Scotby won novice hur- dles last year at Plumpton and Newton Abbot and goes well on the heavy. He was due to make his chasing debut this week. And Ground Nut, also seven, hacked up at Exeter the other day with Richard Dun- woody aboard after Powell had taken a tumble in the previous race. All should repay an interest and with the experienced Irishman aboard you can be sure they'll get a ride.

Robin Oakley is political editor of the BBC.