6 SEPTEMBER 2008, Page 48

Character call

Robin Oakley

The one advantage of missing last Saturday’s race day at Sandown, thanks to being encased at the time in a throbbing MRI scanner at St Thomas’s Hospital, was the chance of going Sunday racing instead at Folkestone.

Posh it may not be. Trainer George Margarson and I were probably two of only ten people on the track wearing ties around the tree-shaded paddock. But Folkestone knows how to do family fun. There were rugs on the lawn around the goldfish pond, and those who weren’t simultaneously ferrying three gargantuan burgers back to their companions were queueing for the icecream van.

Everyone seemed to be there with children. And it was listening to the offspring outside the owners and trainers bar that made me realise where I may have gone wrong in educating mine. ‘OK, Mum,’ said one, ‘you need not pay me out yet for that 5–1 winner. But shall we say the interest on the sum outstanding runs at £5 an hour.’ Clearly, a tycoon in the making. Coolly, mother replied, ‘That’s fine, darling. Deal done. But you’ll pay for dinner.’ Good beginnings are crucial. And Saleem Golam, then apprenticed to Mark Tompkins, looked to be on the way to the top when in 2005 he shared the apprentice championship with Hayley Turner.

But one day recently Hayley Turner captained the British ‘team’ in the international Shergar Cup at Ascot, snatching a crucial photo-finish verdict over Frenchman Gerald Mosse. Saleem — born of parents from Mauritius — was at Newmarket with just one ride for Tompkins, finishing second on a horse still in need of experience.

Hayley has so far had 37 winners this season from nearly 400 rides. For ‘Sal’, as his friends know him, the Racing Post lists just ten wins from 195 rides.

Saleem Golam is the last to begrudge Hayley her success. But like so many young stars he has not found it easy after losing his apprentice claim. Riders who are good value for their 7lb, 5lb or 3lb apprentice allowance are in popular demand. At Folkestone young William Carson, claiming 5lb, rode an excellent race to win the Licensed Trade Trustee Handicap on Mandarin Spirit for the amiable Greg Chung, who pointed out that it was the eight-year-old gelding’s 15th career win.

Greg, whose operation would not be the biggest in Newmarket, was leading up the gelding himself so he left fellow Newmarket trainer Stuart Williams to do the honours in the winners’ enclosure. And it was Stuart who put his finger on the problem faced by the likes of Saleem Golam, who was riding a couple for him at Folkestone.

‘It’s very hard when young riders lose their allowance,’ he said, ‘and it depends very much on whether those who have helped to make them a success while they had it stick with them, like Michael Bell has done with Hayley Turner.’ Recalling that even one-time champion jockey Kevin Darley, when he came to Newmarket after being champion apprentice, had had a couple of ‘skinny seasons’, Stuart said, ‘The problem is they go from riding a lot of 3–1 shots to riding a lot of 33–1 shots. People who used to say they were good value for their claim start to have their doubts and the riders themselves don’t have the same confidence.’ There is not, he agreed, any easy solution to the problem and it is a matter of the young hopefuls having the character to stick at it. Anybody who has watched Saleem on the ‘hold-up’ sprinter Hogmaneigh know this is a jockey who can deliver the goods. Currently he is riding out for Mark Tompkins, for Stuart and for former jockey Walter Swinburn, who is also giving him a few rides. The realistic Golam, who admires Richard Hughes and whose chums include Royston French, Chris Catlin and Adam Kirby, says of his targets, ‘If you’d asked me at the start of the season I’d have said 40 winners. Now I’d settle for 20.’ But the determination is there, so is experience in Mauritius and in Dubai. He has no weight problems and, as with so many young aspirants, what he needs is a few well-publicised winners on TV days.

As Stuart Williams says, ‘I’d love him to get a decent run of victories. He’s a good rider and he’s so much on your side.’ The final pleasure at Folkestone was seeing Moreton Morell trainer George Baker win the seller with Singleb. Just six months after starting up with a target of ten wins by Christmas the former banker, former racing journalist was celebrating his 12th winner.

Another realist, and one advised by David Loder who started his career the same way, George Baker said of the sellers and similar races, ‘These are our Derbies. This is another notch. You can put them in a handicap and finish sixth and not be noticed. If you pick up the paper and see yours is the favourite you know you are in the right place. When you are starting out it’s all about momentum.’ George, who has had some comical confusions with the lanky Flat jockey of the same name, revealed recently that he had an ambition to name a horse George Baker and book the eponymous jockey, so the racecard would read: George Baker, trained by George Baker, ridden by George Baker. Gambler Harry Findlay, Denman’s owner, was so taken with the story that he has purchased and named such an animal.

Trainer Baker, meanwhile, is expanding so fast that he will soon have 60 horses for the Flat and jumps. ‘Come and ride out,’ he invited me. Unless he is planning to train shire horses too that may be an unwise invitation at my current riding weight. But I shall postpone my reply until my chiropractor has seen the MRI results.