TOMMY DOWSON’S face is a study of concentration as he weighs out at Doncaster to ride mare in a million Lady Buttons. He hands his saddle to trainer Phil Kirby before they talk tactics.
Nothing appears to faze Dowson as he returns to the weighing room to collect his helmet – and thoughts – before a season-defining race. Not even Kirby’s final instruction: “Ride her with balls of steel and don’t get there too soon.”
He didn’t. The 23-year-old then produced a ride-of-the-season contender on this magical mare owned and bred by Keith and Jayne Sivills. Third as the three protagonists flew the final fence in the £75,000 Yorkshire Silver Vase Mares’ Chase, he got up on the line to win a thriller.
Indeed, he couldn’t have left it any later on a home-bred horse who, incredibly, has now won 14 out of 31 career starts – and the hearts of the racing public.
And the nerveless Dowson’s tactical acumen capped a month to remember for racing’s ‘cheeky chappie’ who proved to many that he’s also matured into a serious jockey. It actually began with defeat when Top Ville Ben and Dowson finished an agonising third in Newcastle’s Rehearsal Chase after leading at the last.
Yet, while some say they hit the front too soon, the jockey had the confidence of the trainer for following instructions to the letter – loyalty is a key reason why Kirby’s Green Oaks Stables at Catterick is an emerging force in racing.
It is why Dowson, his cherubic looks are said to mask a mischievous streak, was back in the saddle when Kirby’s Desaray Girl won a Listed hurdle at Haydock’s pre-Christmas meeting – he needed all his strength to prevail in a hard-fought finish.
And the in-form combination’s tactics were spot on when the aforementioned Top Ville Ben dominated Wetherby’s Rowland Meyrick Chase on Boxing Day, taking up the running with a circuit to go.
“I was a bit worried I would get there too soon,” Dowson told The Yorkshire Post in an exclusive interview. “Once you get him travelling and jumping, he’s clever. He’s a touch quirky, but a very good ride. Now he’s learning to switch off, he’s, hopefully, only going to improve. Whether he runs in the National this year, or next, it will be down to Phil and the owners (Harbour Rose Partnership). My dream is to have a ride in the National – hopefully it will be on Top Ville when it comes.”
This win earned pleasing plaudits on ITV Racing from Sir AP McCoy, the 20-times champion jockey, and his great rival Ruby Walsh, the latter heaping praise on Dowson for watching replays of the Newcastle win and learning from it. The implication was that not all young riders do so.
And they were not alone. McCoy and Walsh’s great friend, Mick Fitzgerald, was then eulogising Dowson after his last-gasp win on Lady Buttons nearly a year after they nearly lost a mares’ hurdle at the same track when she idled on the run-in.
Last January’s race was the first time Dowson deputised for regular rider Adam Nicol whose cruel injury misfortune continues following a heavy Boxing-Day fall.
But there was no chance of history repeating itself – the strong early pace meant Lady Buttons settled and was still tracking La Bague Au Roi, a dual Grade One winner, and Happy Diva, winner of Cheltenham’s BetVictor Gold Cup, up the home straight.
“I was fairly confident coming up the straight,” said Dowson who gained in confidence when Lady Buttons flew the fourth last fence. “Unfortunately we just missed the last. She got in a bit deep, and popped short, rather than winging it. Going into the last half a length down, we came away from it a length down.
“But, as soon as I got stuck in, she picked up really well. To be honest, I didn’t know if I had won. The line is on a bit of a funny angle at Doncaster. You just keep riding. If you’re looking for line, you’re probably not doing your job good enough. It was some race. The first three are very good – and we had pulled well clear of the rest who were good horses too.”
Dowson’s winning run continued at Uttoxeter on New Year’s Eve when Kirby’s Aniknam won for the first time in five years, successes which could be a turning point now that he has lost his conditional rider’s weight allowance and is competing against Britain and Ireland’s best jockeys as an equal.
With 88 career winners to his name, his next aim is to reach a century. But he knows that he has to strive hard for rides and will never be in a position where success can be taken for granted.
It’s why he rides out at the Kirby stables from daybreak at 7am each morning – it helps, he says, that he knows them so well when it comes to the races – and why he went out of his way on New Year’s Day at Catterick to help wheelchair-bound trainer Jonathan Haynes saddle a horse.
Even though this horse was a 125-1 outsider, and a faller, Dowson views every ride as an opportunity to improve still further. “Riding winners is great, but riding the bigger winners is what you do this job for,” he adds.
“It’s also nice to think that, if you’re on a horse that is good enough, you’re more than good enough – you do get confidence from wins like Top Ville, Buttons and the others.
“And it’s great to have a boss like Phil. He’s laid back and keeps it simple.
“There’s no pressure – whether it be a modest race at Sedgefield or a Listed chase at Doncaster on Lady Buttons.”
Even when the trainer is imploring his jockey to ride with “balls of steel”.