JAMES DOYLE is the first to admit that he did not have the highest of hopes at the start of the Flat season.
Riding in Australia for Sheikh Mohammed’s Godolphin operation, he could have been left in racing’s no man’s land.
However the globetrotting rider’s return to Britain was the prelude to a Royal Ascot to remember for Doyle.
He won the prestigious St James’s Palace Stakes, the one mile championship for three-year-olds, on Barney Roy, beating Aidan O’Brien’s 2000 Guineas winner Churchill amongst others.
Even better was to come 48 hours later when Doyle, deputising for the injured Frankie Dettori, produced one of the all-time great front-running rides to win the Ascot Gold Cup on the heroic Big Orange from reigning champion Order Of St George.
No wonder he enjoyed such an animated conversation with the Queen after winning the Gold Cup, a race won by Her Majesty’s Estimate in 2013. “A privilege,” said the rider who said they spoke about their mutual love of the race.
Such successes, and the goodwill afforded to the endearingly charming 29-year-old, means that he cuts a relaxed figure ahead of today’s reunion with Barney Roy in the Group One Coral-Eclipse Stakes at Sandown.
A historic race that celebrates Eclipse, the founding father of the thoroughbred, this 10-furlong contest is the first occasion that the Classic generation, headed by Barney Roy and Epsom Derby runner-up Cliffs Of Moher, take on older horses like Sir Michael Stout’s Ulysses.
Yet the challenge does not faze Doyle who won this corresponding race four years ago on Al Kazeem. For, while Roger Charlton’s stable star was a battle-hardened horse, Barney Roy long stride is perhaps his greatest attribute – and the reason why the colt’s big race rider does not believe the step up in trip to 10 furlongs will be a problem.
“He has a big powerful stride and produced very good sectional times in the final furlongs at Ascot. He was doing his best work at the end,” said Doyle as he reflected on how his mount surged from fourth place, and seemingly under pressure, to the front in a matter of strides.
“The trip is a question mark but everything suggests it won’t be a problem – his dam Alina is a mare by Galileo which suggests that there is stamina in the pedigree.
“He’s learning with each race and will only get more professional with experience – this will only be his fifth career start.
“The main thing is his long stride. When he gets going, he’s a proper racehorse. Al Kazeem was a Group One performer, and very good for my career, but Barney is a special horse.
“The 2000 Guineas was a messy race when we were betaen by Churchill, but I’d be disappointed if he didn’t come on for Royal Ascot. I committed him off of the turn and he stuck at it really well. It was great. I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed it.”
Though Doyle has not ridden the champion on the gallops, he’s fulsome in his praise of trainer Richard Hannon for both the preparation of horses – and his laid-back style.
Though tactics are discussed, the expectation is on the jockey to have done the necessary homework in advance and to take the decisions if the race does not pan out as expected.
And this relaxed rapport certainly helps Doyle whose career was at a crossroads when Saeed bin Suroor, one of Godolphin’s two main trainers in Britain, declared the rider surplus to requirements last year.
Left in limbo, it explains why he found himself in Australia deputising for New Zealand-born jockey James McDonald when the Kiwi rider was banned. “When I came back from Australia, if someone had said I would have two Group One winners at Royal Ascot, I wouldn’t have been able to name them,” Doyle told The Yorkshire Post.
“Though the Gold Cup is the most traditional Group One of the week, and a race I always wanted on my CV, Barney Roy’s was probably the more important.
“Not only was it for Godolphin, and we’re a big team, but because of his future value as a stallion as a result of winning the St James’s Palace.
“It has been an up-and-down season, but when I knew I got the ride on this fella, I was pretty excited.”
A rider who enjoyed great success with John Gosden’s champion miler Kingman, another unlucky loser in the Guineas, before taking up the Godolphin role just over two years ago alongside his great friend William Buick, Royal Ascot vindicated Doyle’s decision to maintain his own counsel when he lost the bin Suroor rides – one of racing’s more mystifying moves.
He deputises for Buick at Charlie Appleby’s yard; rides many of the Godolphin horses with outside trainers like the aforementioned Hannon and is forming an useful alliance with Newmarket trainer Hugo Palmer.
The pride is palpable whenever he dons the royal blue silks of Godolphin.
“This is why I joined Godolphin – to ride big winners. It’s very important and there’s a great sense of pride,” added the rider.
There will be even more if Barney Roy and James Doyle win the Eclipse.