CALLUM RODRIGUEZ still has a vivid recollection of the career-changing moment when he became an Ebor-winning jockey.
He’s on Nakeeta 12 months ago and can sense the cheers of the York crowd as the historic race reaches its denouement.
“I just remember getting to the furlong pole and bursting through a little gap that opened,” he told The Yorkshire Post.
“For a second, I thought to myself ‘I’m going to win the Ebor’ and I went into a trance. It was a surreal feeling.”
He did – and today the Rodriguez-ridden Nakeeta, trained by the unheralded Iain Jardine, has a chance to make York history.
No horse has won successive renewals of the Ebor, first run in 1843, since Flint Jack prevailed in 1922 and 1923.
Yet, while Nakeeta is a headline horse in a £500,000 race sponsored by Sky Bet, Rodriguez appears unfazed by the weight of expectation.
It’s because the 21-year-old believes he’s a much more rounded jockey compared to a year ago when he was still a relatively raw apprentice.
Now challenging the pacesetting Jason Watson, who rides Scotland in the big race, in his quest to be this year’s top young rider, Rodriguez – a one-time youth boxer – won’t be giving up his Ebor title without a fight.
“I can’t wait. I’m really excited” he said last night. “I think he has got a massive chance.
It’s a tricky race to win once, let alone twice, but he goes there with every chance. I am happy with the draw in 15. It’s a race that favours the higher numbers rather than the low ones.Nakeeta jockey, Callum Rodgriguez
“It’s a tricky race to win once, let alone twice, but he goes there with every chance.
“I am happy with the draw in 15. It’s a race that favours the higher numbers rather than the low ones. The favourite Stratum is drawn four.
“Like last year, and previous winners like Litigant and heartbreak City, the danger is any horse that has gone under the radar.”
Trained by Ireland’s multiple National Hunt champion Willie Mullins, who won this race with Sesenta in 2009, and the mount of Robert Winston, Nakeeta was an eye-catching fifth to the Emerald Isle challenger at Newbury last time out.
Yet, with Nakeeta better off at the weights compared to the favourite, and good enough to follow last year’s Ebor triumph by finishing a brave fifth in Australia’s Melbourne Cup when the Antipodean jockey Glyn Scholfield took the ride, Rodriguez has genuine grounds for optimism.
“I’ve ridden him in all three starts this season – the Chester Cup, Northumberland Plate and Newbury – and he’s come on with each run,” said the Northern Racing College graduate whose family hail from Spain.
“Iain has not rushed him and has been targeting this race since last year. I’ve been up to Scotland a couple of times to ride Nakeeta out He looks in great shape and his work has been good so fingers crossed. Everything is looking good at the moment and he’s versatile ground-wise.”
Though Rodriguez is now an integral member of the team at the Darlington stables of trainer Michael Dods, who was narrowly denied a third Nunthorpe win yesterday, he rode a couple of winners for the quietly-spoken Jardine last year and was rewarded with the Ebor ride.
“Iain is a very good horseman – he was a jockey as well – and trains each horse individually,” explained Rodriguez. “He knows the time of day and has very good knowledge of horses and what level they are at. Winning the Ebor last year helps.
“He’s not one to big himself up. He does a lot behind the scenes. You always see him with a brush in his hand, riding out in the morning, tacking up, driving the horse boxes to the races. He’s working harder than ever.”
As for Rodriguez, he’s not stood still in the past 12 years.
He spent part of the winter riding work at Gulfstream Park in Miami to learn different styles of riding while still protecting his three-pound apprentice jockey’s claim in this country.
“I think I improved for it,” he said. “Timing and judging pace, they’re very important to get right.”
Like so many young riders, Rodriguez now has an official jockey coach designated to him and he’s clearly struck up a great rapport with North Yorkshire’s Phil Kinsella, who was a successful jump jockey, with a victory to his name over the Grand National fences, before suffering a career-ending injury.
“He’s a big help and I speak to him every day on the phone and go for regular sessions on the equicizer at his home to do some technical work,” said Rodriguez.
“It’s very important at a young age, doing well and having lots of rides, to keep up with everything. It’s good you have someone to talk to on the way home to discuss races.
“If you’re told by a trainer that you’ve done something wrong, it’s good to get a second opinion so you can put things right.
“In the last 12 months, when you’re riding every day, everything starts to come naturally. Everything. Your strength, your feel for a horse, your feeling for a track, everything comes naturally. Just after the Ebor last year, I got a lot more races and a lot more chances. A couple of months down the line, the Ebor is forgotten about and it’s on to the next race. You’re only as good as your last winner.”
Even Ebor-winning jockeys.