JOCKEY James Doyle’s special affinity with his equine warrior Al Kazeem is made even more special by horse and rider’s incredible journey from near anonymity to the cusp of racing greatness.
Two years ago today both were relative unknowns. Al Kazeem was chasing home Sir Michael Stoute’s classy but unspectacular Sea Moon in the Great Voltigeur Stakes while Doyle had no rides on the Ebor festival’s opening day.
How times change.
The impeccably polite Doyle’s career took off when he rode a breakthrough Grade One win on Cityscape at the 2012 Dubai World Cup meeting while Al Kazeem, now five, has shown incredible resilience since missing most of last season with a serious pelvic injury.
They are made for each other ahead of today’s Juddmonte International – Al Kazeem is a relentless galloper with great battling qualities in the latter stages of his races while 25-year-old Doyle, unhealthily tall for a Flat jockey at 5ft 10ins, hones his fitness by going swimming each day after morning gallops.
It works. Doyle and Al Kazeem have a 100 per cent record from five starts while their last three victories in Ireland’s Tattersalls Gold Cup, the Prince of Wales’s Stakes at Royal Ascot and Sandown’s Coral-Eclipse have all been at Grade One level.
However, no horse in history – not even Brigadier Gerard – has won the Prince of Wales’s, Eclipse and International in the same season, but that does not perturb the jockey who says Al Kazeem will benefit from a six-and-a-half week lay-off since the Eclipse.
“I am very confident in my horse,” Doyle told the Yorkshire Post in an exclusive interview ahead of today’s mouth-watering clash with top miler Toronado.
“I know how good Al Kazeem is, but I respect Toronado greatly. It’s a small field so there is a chance it will be tactical but my horse is pretty versatile.
“History is against us – even Brigadier Gerard got beat in the Juddmonte – but it was when Al Kazeem backed up his Ascot win in the Eclipse.”
There is not a trace of arrogance in James Doyle’s voice after Al Kazeem’s final gallop at the Wiltshire yard of trainer Roger Charlton who says Al Kazeem is better physically, and on official ratings, than his 1990 Epsom Derby hero Quest For Fame.
Doyle only teamed up with Charlton after acclaimed horse whisperer Gary Witheford, the man who calmed the William Haggas-trained Stewards Cup winner Rex Imperator, recommended the young rider to work with one of the trainer’s ‘problem’ horses.
His patience worked. His work ethic also impressed. Soon, he was riding out at the yard and then made the most of his opportunity when the luckless Steve Drowne was sidelined by injury.
It helped that Doyle’s great friend William Buick was already enjoying multiple Grade One riches with John Gosden; his success and encouragement have been infectious and Doyle laughs when he recalls how he used to chauffeur the young Buick back to Andrew Balding’s stables at the outset of his career.
“I first saw Al Kazeem at home about three years ago and he looked a fine specimen. I had not even ridden a race for Mr Charlton – I didn’t have a clue what would happen,” says Doyle.
“I sat on him for the first time last season and he gave me a good feel. He felt a very decent animal. Again I didn’t have a clue.”
A comfortable winner at Newmarket in May last year under Doyle, the horse’s injury setback meant the jockey had to wait 51 weeks before beating Sir Robert Ogden’s ill-fated Thomas Chippendale in the Gordon Richards Stakes at Sandown.
A bigger scalp came in the Tattersalls Gold Cup in the form of Aidan O’Brien’s 2012 triple Classic winner Camelot.
“A bit of cat and mouse. A good match race,” he says.
Doyle and Al Kazeem proved this win was no fluke when they were the first to respond to Paul Hanagan’s early charge for home on Mukhadram, a notable Juddmonte absentee, at Royal Ascot. “That race was very straight-forward or me. I saw my target out of the corner of my eye – that horse had never shown that level of form before – and it was a question of reeling him in.”
Doyle’s first Royal Ascot winner was followed by victory in the next two races on Royal Hunt Cup winner Belgian Boy and Clive Brittain’s Rizeena to complete an 891-1 treble. He celebrated by riding on the unglamorous Kempton all-weather that evening.
Eclipse success followed, despite Al Kazeem and Mukhadram clashing late on, and Doyle heads to York anticipating Group One success rather than scratching around for a ride in such prestigious races.
It would not be possible, says the jockey, without such a willing horse – or trainer.
“He is a very intelligent man, Roger. He is aware and alert to everything,” says Doyle whose professionalism extends to 40 minutes in the swimming pool most days and finishing each session off with some frenetic, lung-filling freestyle to boost his fitnesss. “You see him watching his string trot round and he is so forensic – how they are moving, how they are behaving, how they are mentally. Al Kazeem is a great example of what he can do.
“Beaten by Sea Moon as a three-year-old, his turnaround has been pretty remarkable.”
So, too, has James Doyle’s rise to prominence.