NORTH Yorkshire jockey Phil Dennis had low expectations on the morning of Derby day when he had his first ride at the world famous Epsom course.
Yet, after winning the £100,000 Dash, the race before the Derby, on Ornate, he left the track dreaming of returning one day to ride in the iconic Classic.
“It was very different to a normal day,” said the well-spoken 22-year-old as he reflected on the occasion and the big race win of Aidan O’Brien’s Anthony Van Dyck. “I watched the Derby down by the winning line.
“It’s just different class. I’ve never seen a race like that with five or six fighting out the finish right across the track. Before the race, you can hear a pin drop. After the race, it is mental. It’s a race people talk about. Even now with so much else going on. I’d love to ride in it one day – and win it, 100 per cent.”
The whole experience has given him extra motivation as he tries to establish himself against a clutch of top-class Flat jockeys in the North with thousands of winners to their name after Danny Tudhope became the latest rider to reach the four-figure landmark.
Having ridden out his apprentice rider’s claim in March, Dennis, who lives in Malton, is operating as a freelance and high-profile successes, like Duke of Firenze at York a fortnight ago, and then Ornate last Saturday matter when it comes to catching the eye of trainers.
Back in action at Beverley today, a meeting being broadcast by ITV4, the Northallerton-born rider stresses the important of keeping up the momentum – his 24-winner tally for the calendar year is only three short of his personal best recorded in 2017.
While he has at least half-a-dozen trainers in Yorkshire supporting him, it is the partnership with Bawtry trainer David Griffiths, and his wife Sophie, that led to the sprint successes on Duke Of Firenze and then Ornate, who made all at Epsom despite an unfavourable draw on the inner.
“Dave and Sophie are a great pair,” Dennis told The Yorkshire Post. “There are those two in the yard and another lad. They don’t over-train their horses. They have them happy and fresh.”
The link-up is also emblematic of the jockey’s can-do approach. “Last September, I had gone freelance. I was getting rides but it wasn’t a continuous flow of winning chances,” he explained. “I saw Dave did well with handicappers so I sent him an email and it went from there. I rode out at his stables and, my first ride, Pearl Acclaim, was a winner at Catterick.”
Griffiths, a former coach at the Northern Riding College, walked the course at Epsom with Dennis to discuss tactics before the Dash – the fastest sprint in the world due to Epsom’s downhill configuration on the straight course.
As for the rider, he was just determined to soak in the occasion rather than worry about the race.
Yet, while the 54-second race was the jockey’s biggest win to date, it was the culmination of a life spent with horses – Dennis’s mother has a handful of point-to-point horses while his father, a former jump jockey, is a BHA course inspector.
Dennis, himself, was destined for a National Hunt career before realising that his light frame for a relatively tall rider – he is 5ft 10in and can still do 8st 4lb with relative ease – was better suited for the Flat because there are so many more opportunities in the North.
“I had 20 to 25 rides as a conditional and three winners – a chase, hurdle race and Bumper – but people said I could ride on the Flat because, if I got a fall over jumps, I would get worse injuries because I’m light.”
That said, Dennis notes he rode out his Flat rider’s claim during the Cheltenham Festival – the same month that his best friend Tommy Dowson, attached to Phil Kirby’s dual purpose stables at Catterick, did the same over jumps. “It’s funny – we both went to the Staindrop School over the border in County Durham and both rode out our claims in March,” said Dennis.
However, while Dowson harbours ambitions of Cheltenham success, Dennis has his eyes set on Epsom glory. “Definitely,” he added for good measure.