GEORGE Duffield was in his element this week as he rode out with his eight-year-old grandson Rhys.
For, as they lobbed around the Constable Burton stables that the retired jockey rides with his wife Ann, thoughts turned to his career-defining victory 25 years ago today aboard the legendary User Friendly in the Epsom Oaks.
Even though the Stanley-born rider had accumulated the winners since his first success at Yarmouth in 1967, and enjoyed a long association with Sir Mark Prescott, he genuinely feared that he would not win a Classic – the benchmark of greatness on the Flat.
“When you’re programmed to think this day will never come, and it does, it is unbelievable,” the 70-year-old told The Yorkshire Post ahead of the landmark. “I just wish there were more days like it.
“You have to remember I was riding for a trainer who didn’t have Classic horses so I was always hoping that I might pick up a spare ride, never mind one with a winning chance.”
User Friendly was trained by Clive Brittain and came to prominence when winning narrowly at Sandown under Duffield.
Yet, with Brittain’s stable jockey Michael Roberts, the great South African, unavailable for Lingfield’s Oaks Trials, Duffield kept the ride as the filly won with consummate ease and owner Bill Gredley kept the partnership together for Epsom.
However, Duffield says he was very confident of victory two weeks before the Oaks when Oaks favourite All At Sea only narrowly won York’s Musidora Stakes from the well regarded Perfect Circle, with User Friendly’s stablemate Armarama – a moderate horse at best – in close proximity.
“I watched the race on the weighing room TV alongside John Lowe and I said to him: ‘I’ll win the Oaks’,” said Duffield. “These two favourites we’d just watched were meant to be the favourites. If I thought I would win, I wouldn’t usually portray it. I would keep it to myself. Just watching this race, I thought nothing would beat her.”
So it proved, User Friendly taking up the running after Tattenham Corner and stretching clear in the home straight to test the stamina of her six rivals.
Though All At Sea briefly challenged under Pat Eddery, Prince Khalid Abdullah’s filly did not have the requisite stamina. “Unbelievable,” recalls Duffield. “I was 45 and I thought I would never ride a Classic winner. I thought the day would never come.”
Further success was to come in the Irish Oaks, Yorkshire Oaks and St Leger before an agonising second in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, Europe’s premier race.
Yet, while this Oaks was a sedate affair with just seven runners, Duffield is unimpressed with the quality of some of the 19 horses going to post in today’s Epsom Derby.
He says the presence of 1,000-1 outsider Diore Lia, a horse with no form, could make a mockery of the race, even after apprentice Paddy Pilley was booked for the ride when Gina Mangan was ruled ineligible because she has just one career win to her name.
Though he likes the credentials of Frankie Dettori’s mount Cracksman, who is a course winner, Duffield said of the outsider: “This horse has a rating of 56. They should have a certain rating before they run in the Derby. It spoils a fantastic race and makes it a farce.”