Two to watch
Deering into the glass tank in an Athens I restaurant the other night I had to look twice before confirming that the parrotfish propelling himself lugubriously round the enclosure had only one eye, having feared at first that the ouzo was getting to me. But when I queried the fish's condition with our waiter there was not a moment's hesitation: 'Oh, no worry, Sir, he lost it in the war.' I wasn't fool enough to ask which one.
Jump jockeys are usually better with whips than quips but you had to hand it to the much-criticised Jacques Ricou after Gilbert Macaire's jockey had ridden an exemplary race in Cheltenham's Pillar Chase to restore the horse's reputation and put him back in the Gold Cup reckoning. 'I have a dream,' said Ricou, 'that we have a race ridden by journalists and written about by jockeys. And not on the Flat. That would not be funny enough.' As one of those former critics I have to acknowledge a palpable hit, and since his victory put one of our Ten To Follow back on track at 11-4 I will buy him a glass of the sparkly stuff any time.
There is plenty of sparkle this season from the younger jockeys based this side of the Channel. Charlie Mann's stable jockey Noel Fehilly showed style and determination driving home the 33-1 shot Ela Re in the first at Cheltenham, and once again there was a Saturday winner for the seemingly unstoppable combination of Venetia Williams and Sam Thomas with Ballyconnell.
At Kempton the previous Saturday hardened professionals were deeply impressed as the 19-year-old rode a 164-1 double on Limerick Boy and Cotopaxi. Good enough, but even better when you realise that the jockey he beat in a driving finish on Limerick Boy, duelling all the way from the last in the feature race of the day, was Ruby Walsh. Not many 51b claimers take his scalp. 'He has a very good approach,' said Venetia of Sam Thomas. 'In the early days quite a lot of improvement was necessary but he's done nothing but improve, especially in the last six months. Winning races is often a matter of having a horse in the right place at the right time and he's got an excellent racing brain. You only have to tell him anything once.'
Perhaps that is because Sam Thomas, from Abergavenny, does not have a racing pedigree but is the son of two head teachers, with both of his sisters teaching too. At the end of last season he had ridden only one winner, but he has 28 victories to his name already in this one. After attending the Newmarket training school, Sam Thomas started with David Evans before responding to an advert from Venetia Williams, who was looking for a conditional. Perhaps we are seeing here the natural successor to Norman Williamson, who rode so many big winners for the yard before his premature enforced retirement. Certainly Sam Thomas is exceptional value for his 5 lb claim, riding already as if he had been at it for years.
Another level-headed young rider who has continued to prosper, unlike some, after losing that precious allowance is Tom Doyle, now stable jockey to Paul Webber and picking up plenty of outside rides too.
Son of an Irish bloodstock agent, he start ed the classical way, working in school holidays and at weekends for Aidan O'Brien, for whom he initially had a few rides on the Flat. He then rode his first half-dozen winners over jumps working for Eamonn Sheehy in Kilkenny before moving to Lambourn, where he started with the canny Roger Curtis and soon picked up some useful rides, too, for Noel Chance, who knows a good thing when he sees one.
I first noticed Tom because of the longpriced winners he was booting home — one day at Plumpton he rode a 1,750-1 double for Curtis and Chance — and he seems to have a way of getting horses to run for him. He might have been champi on amateur but chose to turn professional halfway through the season when upsides Tom Scudamore and feeling the pinch financially: It was nip and tuck and it would have been great to be champion amateur but at the end of the day I was in the game to make a living.'
Realism is the keynote of Tom Doyle's approach. He pays tribute to the help he has received from Curtis and from senior riders like Mick Fitzgerald, Tony McCoy and Jimmy McCarthy and says that he is happy to ride out six mornings a week.
'You've got to get up and do the work in the mornings because there's always going to be somebody else to fill your boots if you don't,' And he is fortunate with his weight. `I'm lucky. It's a huge advantage not to have to bother about it. I can do ten stone any day of the week.' Like most in the weighing room he would relish a few more winners in front of the TV cameras on a Saturday. But aiming for 50 winners this season after 28 last year he is well on target with 34 already and is full of enthusiasm for Paul Webber's novice chasers, horses like Atum Re and Patrick's Nineteenth, whom he rates the best he has ridden so far.
If happy men make happy horses then Tom Doyle seems to fit the bill, as he declares: It may be a hectic schedule start ing early every morning. But at the end of the day we're being paid to do what we care about, we're being paid for our hobby.' Sometimes journalism is like that too.