JAMES Doyle betrays no signs of nerves ahead of a potentially season-defining ride on Excess Knowledge, the unheralded horse and favourite to win today’s Ladbrokes St Leger at Doncaster.
“It’s all part of my racing education. First, to get rides in the big Group One races. Then, to have horses that have a good chance of winning,” he told the Yorkshire Post. “I’m looking forward to it. I’d never sat on the horse before I had a spin on him on the gallops on Thursday and I’m sure he will give me a great ride.”
A first Classic win on Town Moor would complete a remarkable rise to prominence for this engaging young rider who has won five races at the highest level this summer on middle-distance warrior Al Kazeem and veteran trainer Clive Brittain’s fabulous filly Rizeena.
“He has the world at his feet,” observed three-time St Leger winner Pat Eddery, the second-most winning Flat jockey of all time.
This statement, from a man as reserved as Eddery, needs putting in context before the modest Doyle, 25, dons the evocative pink, white and green silks off his owner Prince Khalid Abdullah in the Doncaster weighing room just after 3.30pm, adjusts his distinctive pink cap and walks out into the paddock maelstrom for a Classic first run in 1776 and which honours local sportsman Anthony St Leger who originally conceived the ultimate race for Flat stayers.
As recently as two years ago, Doyle could only dream about riding outsiders at such meetings. Now it is the likes of wonder-horse Frankel’s jockey Tom Queally who have been marginalised by the Saudi prince’s decision to appoint the likable Doyle as a retained rider – while Doyle is in the ascendacy, Queally is a notable absentee from the big races.
The determined Doyle’s first high-profile ride in his new role was a winning one when top juvenile Kingman won Sandown’s Solario Stakes to enhance his claims for next season’s 2000 Guineas.
It also means the nerveless rider rearranging his working day to get around as many of Prince Khalid’s roster of trainers each week rather than clocking on and off at his former boss Roger Charlton’s yard.
“To me, the big races are not new. I’m used to them now,” he explained. “You try and treat them just like another race. It’s good getting round the other yards, and and I went to France last weekend and rode at Longchamp for the first time. That was a good experience.
“This is just a fantastic opportunity. I’m delighted and honoured. A St Leger win would mean the world. A first Classic, it would be a dream start to the job. The Grade Ones matter, but you’re still judged on the number of Classics they win – like a golfer or tennis player in the big events – and it’s no different for riders.”
Such positivity is endorsed by Pat Eddery who carried the Abdullah colours to victory in the 1991 St Leger on Andre Fabre’s Toulon, the last French-trained winner of this race.
The winner of 4,632 Flat contests in Britain, a total only eclipsed by the incomparable Sir Gordon Richards, the 61-year-old three-time St Leger winner has no doubts that Doyle will excel – even if some are uneasy that the arrangement means, for example, John Gosden’s in-form and highly regarded stable jockey William Buick missing out on the ride on Excess Knowledge today.
“The Prince can get whoever he wants to be his retained rider,” explained Eddery who will be forever associated with Abdullah’s 1986 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe winner Dancing Brave. “The boy is riding well. He is a good jockey and Prince Khalid likes him. That is all that matters. You have to be good to get the call.
“To me, he was a gentleman to ride for. He’s a good man. He never puts pressure on you, it will be the same with James. The only pressure you will get is from the trainers because they’re so keen to win these big races – His Highness is very philosophical if things don’t work out.
“All I can say to James is ‘keep your head down’. He’s a young man, but he has the world at his feet now. Yes, he’ll want to get a big winner – but he did that with Kingman in the Solario. I was impressed with his attitude, he did not let the occasion to get to him.
“The same today. The Leger is the Leger – it’s a mile and six furlongs. You can’t win it at the start, but you can lose it if your horse doesn’t settle. You need a horse that is good enough to win the Arc. That is why today’s race is so open – I don’t see an Arc contender in the line up.
“When Toulon won, he had been favourite for the Derby, but was well beaten by Generous. He then won well in France before Doncaster. Don’t hit the front too soon. Horses will have gone off too quickly and will tire up that long straight. Lester (Piggott) got it wrong on Alleged in 1977, and that horse then won two Arcs. With Toulon, I know I bided my time – and it worked, he was then fourth in the Arc.”
Eddery’s comments are shared by Lord Teddy Grimthorpe, the chairman of York Racecourse and Prince Khalid’s widely-respected racing manager.
Like the former champion jockey, Grimthorpe says a St Leger winner requires proven stamina in its breeding and Excess Knowledge’s staying ancestry can be traced back to his fourth dam Gangster Of Love who became a broodmare for Juddmonte Farms in 1983.
He also says they need to have excelled in Group company and that this is his only quibble; Excess Knowledge has not won since landing his racecourse debut at Sandown in August last year. That said, he was impeded in his last outing – his fifth career run – by today’s rival Cap O’Rushes in the finish to the Gordon Stakes at Glorious Goodwood. “We are hopeful, but it is hard to be confident.”
And then there is jockeyship – and Grimthorpe has no doubts after Doyle won the Dubai Sheema Classic on Cityscape for the Abdullah team 18 months ago. “He’s a proven rider, He has the skill, the capability but also the temperament,” observed Grimthorpe. “You talk about Cityscape but he was on our radar before that because he would not have been given the ride otherwise.”
As for James Doyle, he will treat the St Leger as just another day in the office. He says Rizeena, victorious in the Moyglare Stud Stakes a fortnight ago, is “a very classy filly” and that his Al Kazeem showed true Arc credentials when a battling second to The Fugue in the Irish Champion Stakes last weekend. “He ran a smashing race and didn’t do anything wrong.”
Yet he knows it is a different proposition going into a Classic as favourite. His only previous experience of such an illustrious race came when the unfancied Top Offer was 16th in Camelot’s 2000 Guineas last season, but he’s ready to make the next jump on his ride to racing’s summit. “These are the days you dream about,” he added.
You also don’t require an excess knowledge of racing to understand what victory could mean to the new face of racing.