I would like to pay tribute to the Roy Rocket, a true icon of Flat racing that very sadly left us last week.
Roy Rocket provided more joy to racing fans than any other low-grade handicapper that I can remember. He may have had an advantage over many of his contemporaries in that he was a dashing grey (everyone loves a grey) but there was a lot more to Roy Rocket than the colour of his coat.
Roy failed to win any of his first 15 starts but his career took a dramatic twist in April 2015 when connections decided to send him down to Brighton for the first time.
That was our first glimpse of what was to become common event down on the south coast. After a slow start, Roy cut loose down the hill, sweeping past rival after rival before taking control of the race in the final climb to the line.
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It was those come-from-behind tactics that really struck a chord with the racegoers who packed the grandstand whenever he was about to race.
On the couple of occasions that I was present for a Roy Rocket victory, the atmosphere in the grandstand would rise tangibly as Roy began to make his move from the back of the field, building up to a crescendo as he invariably hit the front in the final furlong before the final roar as he crossed the line.
Roy went on to win nine races at Brighton and on every single occasion he came from near last to first – indeed, slow starts often meant his pilot had no choice but to employ such tactics. The jeopardy of such a run style was a key driver in cranking up the excitement levels for the audience, and that is what I think made Roy Rocket such a star.
The nature of the Brighton track undoubtedly played its part in Roy’s success there. He was able to gradually wind up as the field free-wheeled downhill and that momentum propelled him up the climb to the line.
Roy’s love affair with the seaside venue was so strong that it prevented him winning anywhere else (0-37) but this one-track wonder built up a fan club that only superstars of the sport like Enable are able to surpass. Not bad for a horse who was never rated higher than 74.
New Faces Breathe Life Into Jockeys' Championships
We are reaching crunch time in the 2021 jump jockeys' championship, with Harry Skelton and Brian Hughes neck and neck in the sprint to the line.
The jockeys’ title, under either code, has never really been something that has interested me that much. That is probably because the jumps version has tended to be a procession or won by default by a McCoy or Johnson, while the Flat boys – certainly the higher-profile ones – don’t seem that bothered about it.
But 2021 has a very different feel. Brian Hughes is desperate to retain his title and actually get to celebrate it with people on the track, something he was denied 12 months ago, while the Skelton’s are throwing the kitchen sink at Harry’s bold bid to win it for the first time. He may never get a better chance.
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And it feels like we have new life in the Flat title, too. There appears to be genuine belief and excitement that the trailblazing Hollie Doyle has the necessary skill, drive and backing to become the first female champion on the level and, just as importantly, it looks as though there is a genuine desire on her part to go all out to win it.
Hollie could work herself into a strong early position if Archie Watson’s 2-year-olds hit the ground running and, if she was to be anywhere near the top of the pile by mid-summer, that momentum could take her all the way given it is guaranteed that the racing world (and possibly beyond) will rally around her to get her over the line.
Flat Jockeys Championship Odds
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Many feel that the biggest threat to Doyle’s championship hopes may come from within her own household because fiancée Tom Marquand, third in last year’s title with 114 winners, looks nailed-on to have another big year. However, despite a hugely successful season - in which he rode a classic winner, he eventually fell well short of Oisin Murphy and William Buick so he needs to kick on again.
William Buick, who went so close in 2020, will be keen not to leave his challenge as late as he did last season. His position with Godolphin means he doesn’t have the freedom to go wherever he wants in the same way many other jockeys do but that didn’t stop him racking up 134 winners last term, just eight shy of Oisin Murphy. Buick has won many of the richest prizes in the sport but has made it clear that he wants to add ‘champion jockey’ to his CV.
Don’t underestimate Ben Curtis, whose star is rising fast in the north. That ascent is likely to continue given his blossoming association with the all-conquering Mark Johnston stable. That association in itself could take Curtis to 100 winners in a season for the first time.
Defending champion Oisin Murphy has said publicly that he didn’t enjoy the climax to last season but Murphy is as fresh as paint having only recently returned from his three-month ban and there will surely be a good deal of determination on his part to show the world that he is still the best in the business.
So, finally, we have a genuine Flat title race involving jockeys with a burning desire to become champion – something that we haven’t always had.
A strong field should ensure that no one runs away with the honours this time around and we could be in for an epic second half of the season with at least three riders in the hunt for glory. If one of those is Hollie Doyle then this could be one hell of a title race.