Callum Rodriguez boxing clever on route to the top

Top triumph: Nakeeta, ridden by Callum Rodriguez, win the Ebor at York.
Picture: Anna Gowthorpe/PA
Top triumph: Nakeeta, ridden by Callum Rodriguez, win the Ebor at York. Picture: Anna Gowthorpe/PA
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FOUR weeks after a potentially career-changing win in the Ebor, Callum Rodriguez – one of the apprentice finds of the season – is already seeking another high-profile success.

He rides Shrewd in today’s Betfred Cesarewitch Trial at Newmarket for in-form Iain Jardine, the trainer whose patience was rewarded when the Rodriguez-ridden Nakeeta won York’s signature race.

The 20-year-old has his first ride at Flat racing’s headquarters and the one-time schoolboy boxer, who gave up the noble art for a career in the saddle, cannot wait for this two-and-a-quarter-mile marathon – the precursor to the Cesarwwitch next month which starts in Suffolk and finishes in Cambridgeshire.

He is optimistic. “He ran well in the race last year off 7lb higher and he’s been coming down the weights,” the jockey told The Yorkshire Post in an exclusive interview.

“He came back to form in a good race at Doncaster when he was third and he’s off a good mark. He goes there with a good chance and the race should suit him. He’s better in a big field, rather than a small field, and likes passing horses.”

There is a quiet confidence from a horseman who has seen how the careers of young riders Oisin Murphy and Adam McNamara took off following their Ebor wins on Litigant and Heartbreak City in 2015 and 2016, respectively.

Yet he is also taking nothing for granted. Born in Lancaster – his father’s family hail from Spain – he used to ride ponies on his aunt’s smallholding that was “two miles over the fell”.

As well as the riding, he was a young boxer with a precocious reputation – he won schoolboy titles and fought at a national level – before riding out regularly for trainer Richard Ford from the age of 14.

Yet, after obtaining his licence from Doncaster’s Northern Racing College and learning his trade with Ford for two years, he jumped at the chance earlier this year to join the Darlington yard of Michael Dods, whose now-retired filly Mecca’s Angel won successive renewals of the Nunthorpe sprint at York in 2015 and 2016.

Victory on 25-1 outsider Kiwi Bay at Newcastle in March got the new partnership off to a flying start and Rodriguez also found time to travel north to ride Nakeeta at the aforementioned Jardine’s stables in Scotland.

With 33 wins to his name this season, and with North Yorkshire jockey coach Phil Kinsella proving to be an indefensible ally, Rodriguez has no regrets about hanging up the boxing gloves.

“Once I started at Richard Ford’s, I didn’t want to do anything else,” he said matter-of-factly. “Both sports are as dangerous as one another. The reason I prefer racing is this: As a boxer, you can do all the training but when you’re in the ring, you are on your own.

“In a race, you work with a horse. You and the horse are a partnership and you’re together. That’s the way I see it – and going boxing training in winter is very good for the weight.”

Even Rodriguez is surprised by the progress he has made – and what winning the Ebor actually means. “I started off this year and my agent, Richard Hale, said we would win a big handicap – and we won the biggest one of all,” he says with the excitement clearly discernible in his voice.

“Ebor week is a massive festival for Yorkshire. The biggest raceday in Yorkshire and it is a massive event. The owners were very patient with Nakeeta – his last race was two years ago and they had the race in mind for a long time. Mr Jardine is a very talented trainer. He trains jumpers, Flat horses, five-furlong horses, three-and-a-half-mile chasers.”

The jockey is equally effusive in his praise for Kinsella who, 10 years ago, was winning the Grand Sefton Chase over Aintree’s Grand National fences on Lampion Du Bost for Saltburn’s Keith Reveley before his career, like so many, was curtailed by injury.

Kinsella is one of a network of riders, past and present, assigned to apprentices and the rapport that he has struck with his proteges like Rodriguez, and the equally promising Rowan Scott, is paying off. It explains why the ability of young riders entering the weighing room, and progressing through the ranks, has never been greater.

“He’s very good,” said Rodriguez. “He’s not just a jockey-coach, he’s someone you can talk to about all aspects of racing.

“Two days before the Ebor, I spoke to him, went round to his house and we watched the horse’s races and past Ebors. I came out of there totally relaxed and ready for the Ebor. It’s very important.”

Rodriguez is resigned to not riding Nakeeta in the Melbourne Cup, the race that stops Australia, in early November. Not only would he struggle to make the weight, he feels he would not be able to do justice to his horse in a contest that is more tactical than most and which can make the most experienced of horsemen look moderate.

Yet his approach – and mindset – is refreshing as he becomes a familiar figure on the Flat racing scene in Yorkshire and the North. Still able to make use of a five-pound weight allowance because of his inexperience, he says: “Lots of people ride through their claim and fade away.

“I am very, very focused that it won’t happen to me. It’s very, very important to keep improving so I’m ready to compete against the bigger name riders on level terms.

“I just want to keep improving with every season, keep riding, keep learning, keep everyone happy and continue to do well.”

By winning the Ebor, and being able to keep his feet on the ground, Callum Rodriguez – the one-time boxer – has shown that he is more than up for the fight.