THIS celebratory photograph shows what Ribchester and big-race success means to acclaimed jockey William Buick.
The ecstasy is etched across his cherubic face as he roars at the Royal Ascot crowd after winning the prestigious Queen Anne Stakes on Yorkshire’s champion miler.
It was the performance of a true equine champion – and one of the highlights of the Classic-winning rider’s career.
Yet, while Buick says Malton trainer Richard Fahey’s stable star has nothing to prove, victory in today’s Queen Elizabeth II Stakes would confirm the colt’s status as a modern-day great ahead of a potential Breeders’ Cup tilt next month.
Buick, 29, was born for days like this, Britain’s all-time richest raceday in which the very best jockeys, trainers and horses compete for more than £4.3m in prize money at Ascot and the prestige of being crowned champion of champions.
Victory would mark the rider’s return to the big time after he fractured a vertebra in his upper back – and feared the worst – just two months ago when Dante and Royal Ascot hero Permian broke a leg at the end of the Secretariat Stakes in Chicago.
Victory would mark the rider’s return to the big time after he fractured a vertebra in his upper back – and feared the worst – just two months ago when Dante and Royal Ascot hero Permian broke a leg at the end of the Secretariat Stakes in Chicago.Tom Richmond
However, Buick made a winning comeback a fortnight ago and the rides – and winners – have accumulated in the subsequent two weeks. “I’m 100 per cent,” he told The Yorkshire Post in an exclusive interview. “I feel good. I prepared myself for my comeback. I did as much as I could in the gym, and also riding out. Having a few rides under your belt is a great help. There’s no substitute to race riding. I feel comfortable.”
Buick is also counting his blessings – it is nearly a year since his friend and rival Freddie Tylicki was paralysed following a fall and the dangers are omnipresent. Yet the rewards outweigh the risks in a sport which, at the elite level, is becoming more international thanks to the advent of meetings like Champions Day seven years ago. The prospect of riding Ribchester certainly spurred his recovery.
This end-of-season showcase meeting did not exist when Norwegian-born Buick, a graduate of the Northern Racing College, rode his first winner, Bank On Benny, 11 years ago at Salisbury when the saddle appeared as heavy as the slightly-built rider who had not filled out.
His horsemanship – and uncanny ability to control horses on gallops – prompted his first trainer, Andrew Balding’s father Ian, to place a bet, at odds of 500-1, that the so-called ‘baby-faced assassin’ would be champion jockey by 2020.
There is still time. Yet, while a top Flat jockey’s ultimate ambition 10 years ago was to win the title race, success now is measured by Group One triumphs as the remarkable Ribchester seeks a fourth success at the highest level in 2017 and a fifth in total – the same number accrued by Mark Johnston’s champion filly Attraction more than a decade ago.
This, says Buick, is not to diminish the accomplishment of Brazilian-born Silvestre de Sousa, who will be crowned champion jockey today. He has travelled more miles, ridden more horses and won more races than anyone else.
“Nobody would have caught Silvestre this year,” says Buick in fulsome tribute. “I was going a good pace before my fall and Jim Crowley (defending champion) was going a good pace. Silvestre deserves all the credit he gets because he makes a difference to all the horses he rides.
“He has a fantastic work ethic and is very professional. He goes off to Yarmouth and rides three or four winners in a day when everyone else is struggling for just one at one of York’s big meetings.
“It’s every jockey’s dream to be champion. I’d like to give it a go, but you have to give everything. You need a fast start, 50 winners before Royal Ascot, and, in the heat of the battle, you’d need two drivers because they would need a week on and a week off as they’d be on the road so much. We’ll just wait and see.”
It is now nearly three years since Buick and James Doyle became joint No 1 riders to Sheikh Mohammed’s Godolphin operation in succession to, amongst others, Frankie Dettori and de Sousa.
Now, they are likely to be travelling first-class around the world, with Champions Day preceding America’s Breeders’ Cup, Australia’s Melbourne Cup, Japan and Hong Kong’s international fixtures and then the Dubai Carnival.
To do so, Buick had to give up his job as stable jockey to top trainer John Gosden – he won the 2010 and 2011 St Legers for the Newmarket handler – for the honour of wearing those iconic royal blue racing silks that need no introduction.
Asked if it was a tough decision, he was brutally frank. “Yes,” he said. But Buick also knew he would be riding for one of the most respected men in racing. “Sheikh Mohammed has a great understanding of the game,” he pointed out. “He’s a very, very competent rider himself. He was in racing before I was born. He’s seen everything and he’s very understanding of the game. I am very proud of my job. Whenever you grow up and want to be a jockey, you want to be top of the tree. This is it.”
As such, the pride will be palpable when Buick dons the Sheikh’s silks, checks his saddle and adjusts his goggles before the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes, a race that sees established stars like Ribchester take on all-comers, including dual Guineas winner Churchill and the progressive Beat The Bank.
Yet, tellingly, he has every confidence in his horse – and Fahey’s team at Musley Bank – after top-level wins this year in Newbury’s Lockinge Stakes, Royal Ascot’s Queen Anne Stakes and the Prix Jacques le Marois at Deauville when Doyle replaced the injured Buick in the saddle.
The only blip came in Goodwood’s Sussex Stakes when heavy ground, rain and wind all conspired against Ribchester – extreme conditions remain racing’s greatest leveller and could be an obstacle today if the forecast monsoon drenches Ascot.
“Ribchester is a champion miler. He’s a very, very good horse. He’s done very little wrong in all his career,” says the jockey who, surprisingly, is still seeking a first Champions Day triumph.
“He’s very, very consistent. Richard and the team have done a very good job with the horse. He has always had the raw ability, but they have straightened him out and he settles better in his races, which helps.
“He’s not a horse that just goes and everyone says ‘wow’. He will do just enough and hold what’s behind him. You have to respect the others but he’s top of the tree for a reason.
“To win a Lockinge, Queen Anne and Jacques le Marois, you have to be special. You are racing against the best and these are the races that you want to be in. You want to be taking on the champions – and winning.”
If Ribchester prevails, do not expect William Buick to hold back on the celebrations if he passes the famous Ascot winning post in front – and with reason. It will mean the world to him – and a very special horse.
William Buick will be racing on Qipco British Champions Day at Ascot today. For more info go to www.britishchampionsday.co.uk