AS the Ebor festival begins at York Racecourse, what’s life like as a Flat jockey? Former champion apprentice Jason Hart spoke to Tom Richmond about the ups and downs.
The impatience in rider Jason Hart’s voice is plain to hear. He’s just ridden his landmark 200th winner and he’s stuck in traffic while making a mad dash to a second meeting.
“I need to make it,” he tells The Yorkshire Post. “Money to be made.” Minutes later, he says reassuringly: “I’m on the go.”
Welcome to the world of a Flat jockey where the day-to-day stresses and strains could not be further removed from the glitz and glamour of this week’s high-octane Ebor festival which begins at York today.
For, while racing’s elite riders like Frankie Dettori and Ryan Moore will fly to and from the Knavesmire, or travel in chauffeur-driven cars, the reality is very different for those just below top rank.
Not only are they a split-second away from calamity whenever they ride – horses gallop in excess of 30mph and jockeys have just a back protector, helmet and instinct to save them if they fall – but they invariably make extreme sacrifices in order to pursue the sport that is their life.
Champion apprentice in 2013, and still regarded as one of the country’s best young riders, Jason Hart’s typical week is emblematic of a Yorkshire jockey going flat out for success.
Hart, and three other riders, leave Malton at 7am for the 440-mile round-trip to Ayr. They get to the course at 11.15am after spending much of the journey studying the form. “Good run,” he says.
He has one ride – Size Matters – which wins well for up-and-coming Ryedale trainer Mark Walford. “I thought he’d run well. The ground helped – it was on the softer side,” reported Hart. “One ride, one win. Good start to the week.”
Hart then waits for later races and isn’t home until mid-evening. He’s sipping water – but not eating. “I’ve not had anything yet. I won’t be pigging out on anything. I might have to do a light weight later in the week,” he says.
Supper, when it comes, is a bowl of home-made tomato soup.
Up at 5.15am, Hart, 22, has a quick instant coffee (Nescafé, dash of milk and three sugars is his daily breakfast) en route to the much-respected John Quinn’s stables at Settrington, near Malton, where he’s the number one jockey.
He rides four lots on the gallops – he says it’s important to learn the quirks of the two-year-old juveniles at the start of their racing careers. The dream is one of these horses will become a career-defining superstar.
“Got home, showered, changed and left for Chelmsford by noon,” he said. “Cam Hardie (jockey) drove. Had a sandwich from the garage. Got there 3.45pm, studied the form, chilled out and rode at 7.40pm.”
Hart’s mount El Astronaute, victorious at Goodwood’s high summer meeting earlier this month for the in-form Quinn yard, is second in a race in which the world-leading rider Ryan Moore flew over from Chantilly in France to take part in.
He’s back in the car at 8pm and asleep in the passenger seat minutes later, the 220-mile homeward journey interrupted by the A1M being closed, necessitating a long detour. He’s back home at 11pm. “After 9pm, roads start closing left, right and centre. Big time. Nothing worse,” he bemoans.
Watch out for El Astronaute in today’s opener at York. He’s a good each-way chance.
Another 5.15am start in order to ride three lots for the aforementioned Quinn before Hart dashes home for a couple of hours of shut-eye. He drives to Beverley, has “a little bite to eat” before his two rides, Ghost and Carlini, are both unplaced despite the jockey pushing and shoving vigorously up the home straight.
He makes a point of talking at length to the connections to give them feedback – today’s owners have friends who have flown to Yorkshire from Australia – but has just a matter of seconds to change his silks and weigh out for the next race. He’s on auto-pilot.
Ghost was trained by John Quinn who said of the jockey: “He’s a good hardworking lad and has a bright future. He’s got a good work ethic and he’s young. It’s very important jockeys are familiar with the horses they are going to ride, especially the two-year-olds, to get to know them. It’s their racing education.”
As for Hart, he’s home by late afternoon. “Feet up, chill out,” he says. “I try and play golf – try – but it’s more for a Sunday because I’m racing up and down the country.”
Awake at 5.15am, he rides out at Quinn’s stables before heading to Classic-winning Tim Easterby’s famous yard at Great Habton, not far from the Howardian Hills.
Unlike most jockeys, his first instinct is not to check his weight on the scales – he does not want to be fretting about the need to lose a couple of pounds on the gallops.
It hovers at the 8st 8lb mark – he’s fortunate that he doesn’t have to work as hard as other riders who are taller and less compact – and building contacts is important if there are any spare rides available.
Injury is another constant fear. He was fortunate to escape with ruptured knee ligaments when his horse had a fatal fall at Doncaster in 2015. After months on the sidelines, it’s taken time to regain fitness and build up his contacts book. This is a sport which stops for no one.
It’s a good morning. He manages to escape the wrath of Easterby’s indomitable father Peter, the five-time Champion Hurdle-winning trainer. “He’s a character, but he’s a good man,” says Hart, who hopes that a ride or two might follow in time.
His one ride at Beverley in the afternoon, Northern Law, is a disappointing ninth. At least it’s a short drive home and he allows himself a steak – “only a small one” – and some salad, his first proper meal of the week.
After a 15-minute lie-in, Hart’s up at 5.30am for a busy work morning at the Quinn yard before driving to Nottingham in time for the first race at 1.30pm. Thankfully, the roads are clear.
He has a bottle of water, half a chicken wrap and a few jelly sweets en route. Lady Willpower is too keen in the opener before Northern Angel, a £100,000 acquisition by the Quinn yard, justifies the lofty price tag – and reputation.
Hart takes it up in the six furlong maiden. The challengers are poised, and it appears Bowler Hat has snatched the spoils but the photo-finish suggests otherwise.
As the result is announced, Hart pats his horse – and then hacks back to the paddock – with his face bathed in a satisfied smile. It’s his 200th winner and he’s surprised. “I thought I’d got done on the line.”
After Hart’s horse is unplaced in the 2.30pm, he dismounts, runs into the weighing room, collects his riding bag and sprints to his Mercedes car.
Despite being stuck on the road to Worksop, he makes the 116-mile journey to Catterick in time for the 6.30pm – just. Seen The Lyte is third while his two other runners beat just one other horse.
“All the time the roads are getting worse,” he says. “It used to be just a Friday but it’s every single day. You can know all the shortcuts in the world but other people know them, that’s the problem.
“If you don’t make it you lose your fee.” And possibly a winning ride and good contact.
Four rides at Ripon’s main meeting of the year begin with Reputation – Jason Hart and John Quinn’s winner on Epsom Derby day – unplaced. The race was marred by the ever popular sprinter Jack Dexter’s fatal injury. The risks are omnipresent.
On a luckless day, Hart’s ride Intense Style is last in the penultimate race which is overshadowed by Mount Rock stumbling – he suffered a fatal injury – and bringing down the pursuing Just Hiss in a pile-up that is wincing to watch.
Instinct saw Hart miss the melee – just. “Very nasty,” he says. Mount Rock’s jockey Nathan Evans fractured his pelvis while Rachel Richardson, on Just Hiss, was relatively unscathed.
“A good day is when you’re in the car going home,” says a philosophical Hart.
As Hart afforded himself a lie-in after going out to an Italian restaurant on Saturday night with his partner Jess McLernon, assistant trainer to Richard Fahey, he’s in the sauna at Pontefract an hour before Ascot Week’s race.
He said he had “ounces” to shed. “Not a bother”. Unfortunately this well-regarded horse, trained by John Quinn, is tailed off. The run was too bad to be true and he hopes connections find an explanation.
The week ends with a “quiet night” at home. It’s also, he says, been a quieter than average week – 16 rides and plenty of local meetings to cut down on the travelling for a jockey whose motto is ‘have saddle, will travel’.
On 41 winners for the year, he hopes to beat the 51 that he recorded in 2013 when top apprentice.
Yet, contrary to perception, only the top jockeys can class themselves as wealthy. They receive £120 per ride before deductions for their agent, valet, insurance, licence, registration and the cost of travelling 50,000 miles a year.
They win 6.9 per cent of winning prize money – that’s a fraction of the £3,300 won by Northern Angel at Nottingham for example – and three per cent if the horse is placed.
According to Dale Gibson of the Professional Jockeys Association, median Flat riders earn in the region of £30,000-a-year before tax. They do it, he says, because they love the sport.
Hart concurs. From the Scottish Borders, his grandfather Derek Campbell was a jockey, while his father Rodger is a saddler and his mother Helen works with children with learning disabilities. He finds this humbling.
He grew up with ponies and was 15 when he was told by his grandfather to apply for a job with Middleham trainer Mark Johnston, a fellow Scot. Yorkshire has been his home ever since.
He’s always been independent and loves “speed”. His first win was in 2011 and his biggest success came aboard Ridge Ranger in last year’s Summer Stakes at York.
Hopes for the future include an Ebor festival success and an elite Group One race. “I’m comfortable but I’m not a multi-millionaire,” says Hart after a profitable but not life-changing week.
“Everyone thinks jockeys are absolutely minted, but you get out of racing what you put in.”