What is it like to be Flat jockey? Ahead of the prestigious Ebor Festival that begins today, up and coming Yorkshire rider Jacob Butterfield kept a diary. Tom Richmond reports.
JACOB BUTTERFIELD was not born to be a jockey. He is unusually tall and there’s no history of riding in his family.
He is having to graft his way to the top and 48 wins from just over 400 rides as a professional are testimony to his resilience and perseverance.
His ambition is to have just one ride at the four-day Welcome to Yorkshire Ebor Festival which begins today.
York is his local track – the 21-year-old lives in the historic city a short canter from the track – and the showcase fixture sees the world’s very best horses and jockeys competing for top honours.
Yet, while many observers are under the misguided impression that Flat racing is about the glitz and glamour epitomised by Frankie Dettori’s showmanship, the reality is, in fact, very different.
This is a sport of hard graft and even harder knocks. Only the very best will get a chance to compete at the highest level – many more will fall by the wayside because the opportunities are insufficient or they can’t win the unequal struggle with the scales.
Injury is never more than a split-second away, even on the Flat when two races yielded three falls on a particularly challenging afternoon for the fresh-faced Butterfield who stands at 5ft 8ins and weighs just 8st 6lb.
It is why The Yorkshire Post has followed the progress of the fresh-faced Butterfield – Jake to his weighing room colleagues – for the past week to understand the sacrifices being made by the Pontefract-born jockey five years after he joined Doncaster’s Northern Racing College.
Monday, August 4
As Hurricane Bertha dissipates, Butterfield’s alarm clock sounds at 5.10am to begin a new working week. There’s no time for a short snooze; work starts at 6am and breakfast is a cup of coffee on the drive from York to the family-run Norton stables of Ollie and Vicky Pears where he has been apprentice jockey for three years.
Horses – 23 in total – have to be mucked out, fed, exercised, brushed and washed down and the bond between the five-strong team is self-evident; there is no time or place for prima donnas.
Butterfield is excused at 8.30am to begin the 250-mile drive to Ayr for two rides after being fortified by an energy-boosting chocolate bar while behind the wheel.
Megamunch, trained at Norton by Kristin Stubbs, is last of nine. However Butterfield is encouraged; the horse has been off the track for a year and will improve.
Half an hour, Linda Perratt’s Findog beats just two home in a six-furlong sprint. Surprisingly, the jockey is not disappointed. Both horses are outsiders and there is the bigger picture. “They may run at Redcar next time and the trainer would be within their rights to say you can’t ride the horses because you couldn’t be asked to go to Ayr,” said Butterfield.
The money’s also not great – £118.29 per ride before deductions for Butterfield’s riding agent, valet, riding tack and cost of fuel. The final sum will probably equate to the minimum wage or thereabouts. He’s home shortly after 10pm and eats “scraps of food”.
The talking point is the return to the saddle of disgraced North Yorkshire jockey Fergal Lynch following a race-fixing scandal. It was before Butterfield’s time; his view is that simply it is yet another jockey competing for rides.
Tuesday, August 5
Another dawn start – Butterfield checks on his own horse, dogs and hens – before beginning his shift with Pears, a former journeyman jump jockey, who is becoming a respected Flat trainer with his wife Vicky, who he met while working for Yorkshire training legend Michael Dickinson in Maryland, USA.
He’s riding and mucking out before beginning a 300-mile round-trip to Carlisle to walk the track before racing. It’s a day to forget. Pafiya, making his racecourse debut for the aforementioned Stubbs, chooses to impersonate a bucking bronco leaving the paddock and unseats the jockey before galloping off to the start – the only time Butterfield is mentioned on Racing UK is when the pictures show the riderless horse.
After finishing seventh, Butterfield has high hopes for Geoff Oldroyd’s Bond City in the next. If only. The horse jinks entering the starting stalls and the rider hits the deck. He remounts and finds himself facing a wall of horses in the final furlong – the tack, too, has become disjointed – and is then unseated after passing the winning post in fourth.
He is disconsolate – three falls from two rides – and is still cursing his luck late in the evening. Not even jump jockeys are this unlucky. “If you’re on an outsider, you are riding for a better position. When you’re on a second favourite who finishes fourth, that’s when it hurts,” he says.
The TV replays make for uncomfortable viewing, made more difficult by the fact they don’t show the pre-race dramas.
Dinner was a light salad.
Wednesday, August 6
Just a 6.30am start today – Butterfield is not racing – and has already ridden three horses on Malton’s gallops before being tasked with sweeping the yard. There’s a wry look from former champion apprentice Robert Winston who is riding out. “Jake, he’s a grafter,” he said.
He’s not the first to use the word – Pears also uses the phrase between insults and when the jockey’s ears are not burning. There’s then the small matter of schooling the two-year-old Stable Star, sired by the 2009 York Gimcrack Stakes winner Showcasing, and fine-tuning the gelding ahead of Friday’s race at Newcastle.
It is clear that Pears and Butterfield share the same work ethic; Stable Star’s box is where the trainer lived in a caravan while he was renovating his yard. He doesn’t miss the riding and risks. “There’s more racing, that helps, but more jockeys,” he says. “Jake rode a winner for us while Vicky and I were on honeymoon in Barbados three years ago. He then phoned up and asked for a job. It’s a difficult lifestyle with the dieting, but he’s sensible. And graft, that doesn’t harm does it?”
Lunch for Butterfield is spent in the gym – a chocolate bar prepared him for a session on the rowing and running machine – before an afternoon mucking out and tidying the stables while Noodles Blue Boy wins for Winston and Pears at Beverley.
The win is slightly bittersweet; Butterfield admits that he would like to have ridden at one of his local tracks. Yet he notes that several top jockeys had just one or two rides at the meeting. He reminds himself that he will have to work even harder.
Evening meal is a light snack before lights out just after 9pm.
Thursday, August 7
An even earlier start – 4.15am – so Butterfield can drive to Michael Herrington’s stables on the site of the former Hambleton racecourse on the summit of Sutton Bank.
He’s there at 5am and able to ride two lots, as daylight breaks, before driving to the Pears yard for 7am. “I’ve ridden a few winners for Mike and it is important to keep in with connections,” he explained.
Today is spent mucking out, driving the horsebox to the gallops to ride out and tidying up the yard. Frustratingly, Butterfield has no rides at Beverley for the second consecutive day.
He spends the evening studying the form ahead of Studio Star’s race at Newcastle.
Friday, August 8
Breakfast is a cup of coffee as Butterfield drives to Malton to report for duty with Pears at 6am, and to ride out before driving to Newcastle for Studio Star’s race.
He has a Twix en route to the races and an Isotonic sports drink in the weighing room. Wednesday’s gallop is vindicated when the horse wins at 6-1 in a tight finish and foils the gamble of the heavily-backed Snoway who is only fifth. Studio Star’s first victory at the fourth attempt, Butterfield is particularly pleased because he – and Pears – spent the winter “breaking in” the gelding so the horse would be able to be fitted with reins and respond to the jockey’s commands.
Butterfield will receive less than 10 per cent of the £1,900 prize money but his pride is palpable. “It’s brilliant. Because Ollie and I broke the horse in, it’s more special because we’ve been working with a blank canvas. From day one, the horse has been a trier.
“The second was trained by David Griffiths who was my tutor at Northern Racing College. He came up and said ‘well done’.”
There’s also praise on television from former jockey Jason Weaver who rode Mark Johnston’s Mister Baileys to victory in the 2000 Guineas in 1994.
Illustrious Prince, for Malton’s Julie Camacho, is sixth of 14 in the next before Butterfield heads to Catterick for one in the “lucky last” at 8.15pm where Ad Vitam is 13th of 14 runners for Suzanne France.
Butterfield was helped today by the fact that his lightest racing weight was 8st 10lb. “Big weight today,” he said. “I could have a bit of fruit at Newcastle and a tiny snack at Catterick so I don’t have to eat when I get home.”
Saturday, August 9
Just a 6am start at the Pears yard before two rides for Brian Ellison at Ripon – Butterfield only learned about them while riding on the gallops on Wednesday.
Mon Brav is sixth in the William Hill Silver Cup before Dream Walker is a gutsy second to Bartack who enjoyed a first run under The Yorkshire Post’s guest columnist Danny Tudhope.
Butterfield admires Tudhope who is stable jockey at the in-form Nawton yard of David O’Meara; the jockey has not allowed his height to prevent him becoming one of the best riders in the North. “Danny’s a role model. Dream Walker ran well. He had missed a bit of work and Brian said he would need the run and he got a second wind. He’s one to follow,” said Butterfield who spent a relaxing evening with his girlfriend Libby Wharton – her father Henry was a professional boxer from Leeds – and racing friends.
Sunday, August 10
A rare lie-in for Butterfield who has every second Sunday off. With no rides at Pontefract, where he enjoyed many childhood trips with his grandfather Anthony that sparked a love affair with racing, he’s up at 7.30am to look after his own horses before meeting his mother Sally who runs Sally’s Kitchen On The Green in Clifton Green, York.
Her culinary expertise has helped Butterfield to keep his weight in check. He then has a jog in the late afternoon. “I am used to doing something every day. If I don’t do something, the weight suddenly goes up,” he says.
This, says Butterfield, has been a typical week – a winner and nine rides for seven different trainers. In just two and a half months, he’s driven 12,000 miles in his Kia cee’d and hopes to get a sponsor in time. He says the week won’t have made him rich, but he will cover his costs and pay his bills.
The dream of big race glory still burns brightly, but even a top-name jockey like Frankie Dettori only has one ride on the Ebor festival’s opening day.
“I’d love to have a ride at York because you want the experience of riding at big meetings,” he adds.
“There won’t be many spares because all the ‘big boys’ will be after a full book of rides, but you can only do your best. It’s not glitz and glamour, it’s hard graft, but I love it.”