By Paul Haigh, ThoroughbredRacing.com
If an international company is going to start a major award with the purpose of raising its global profile yet higher, they’d probably order a winner who’ll gush for the crowds and the cameras, an air-punching cheek-clasper instinctively adept at milking the moment while uttering all the usual cliches about how “humbling” it all is and how he just just can’t believe it.
What Longines got for its inaugural World’s Best Jockey Award was Ryan Moore, an undemonstrative young man whose chief social skill is for understatement. There wasn’t much choice as the 31-year-old Englishman had won so many of the world’s greatest races, but, of course, the Swiss watch company had no reason at all to regret it.
That doesn’t mean the once famously taciturn champion has suddenly transformed himself into the media dream of the babbling extrovert. That’s never going to happen. He has far too much not exactly shyness, more self-awareness to ever go through the stale old routines. But the way he comports himself radiates honesty, and people are coming to respect the fact that when he speaks his mind he does it with a genuine attempt to get to the truth.
When he got up to make the demanded acceptance speech at the Hong Kong Convention Centre Dec. 12, he did so more with teeth clenched than bared, but most of the 600 present were fans already. They warmed to him from the start, and willed him through to the end.
If the speech ran into the sand a bit – you could see him thinking “well that must be about enough” – nobody minded. He had the audience in his palm from the moment he admitted with his frequent wry half-grin that “this isn’t exactly my favourite environment.”
Afterwards, at a largely inaudible press conference, he told the media scrum he’d “rather be home with a cup of tea.” If the assembled dignitaries could have heard that, they’d have liked that too.
The day before, on a little sofa on the mezzanine floor of the Grand Hyatt Hotel, he’d been much more relaxed. One-to-ones don’t faze him at all. The question “How does it feel to be the told you’re the world’s best jockey?” was met with his usual wry, almost self-mocking expression and: “Well, you’ve got to have the horses haven’t you?”
No need to dwell on the self evident truth that people get the best horses only if other people think that’s going to give them the best chance. “To him that hath shall be given” is racing’s ruthless rule.
No, he said, he doesn’t get much stick from the others in the jockeys’ room. There’s no “Here he comes – the world’s best!”
“Except for one,” he corrected himself, with a full-size grin this time. “And I’m not going to [expletive deleted] name him.”
Moore, the product of a racing family that goes back generations, will have got his work ethic from his father, trainer Gary, and no doubt shares the courage equally with his brother Jamie, a fearless jump jockey who won this year’s Queen Mother Champion Chase at the Cheltenham Festival. The family will have been major contributors to the extraordinary level headedness he’s applied to his arrival as a global racing celebrity. Everywhere, it seems, he is the “go-to” jockey for the biggest races, the man almost every fan or professional would most like to see on the horse they fancy.
Not quite global though. One continent still eludes him, and that’s North America.
Unsurprisingly – since no-one ever attains sporting eminence without a competitive streak that makes the rest of us look like feeble dilettantes – it’s the continent in which Moore now feels most strongly the need to succeed.
He was a bit hurt by the suggestion that he’s still not exactly well known on the western side of the Atlantic despite riding 11 G1 winners to date in the U.S. and Canada. But he accepts that, if he’s going to achieve his next ambition of winning the very biggest races on U.S. dirt, he’s probably going to have to wait for a Europe-based horse with the requisite combination of talents for that surface.
He doesn’t accept that he’s the “go-to” big race jockey almost everywhere else in the world anyway. “Mostly, I’m just riding English horses overseas,” he said. (Really? Except for the Melbourne Cup winner Protectionist or Japan’s great mare Gentildonna, or more than a few for Aidan O’Brien). “I don’t get trainers in Australia or somewhere ringing me up and asking me to ride for them.”
He’s sampled the excitement of the Breeders’ Cup and the Kentucky Derby, of course, but no American has so far asked him to ride one of the favourites in either the Derby or the Breeders’ Cup Classic, the two U.S. races he covets most, and he certainly didn’t imagine this award was going to persuade them that they should.
“I don’t expect to be put up on the best U.S. horses. Why should I?” he said. “They’ve got their own jockeys who ride on dirt all the time. Why should they give them to someone who just comes in from time to time? I don’t really think American horsemen or trainers have much interest in what goes on outside the U.S. anyway. They concentrate on their own, don’t they? There are no American horses here [in Hong Kong], are there? And there were no American horses in what used to be called the Japan Cup Dirt, which is quite unusual.”
He is a genuine internationalist at heart, though, and a big fan of American racing. “I’ve always loved those big dirt races,” he said. “I enjoyed watching them when I was younger and enjoyed riding in them when I got the chance. American racing’s having a bit of a difficult time at the moment, but I’d love to see it get itself back on track again.”
He’d love to see uniformity of rules – whip rules in particular. “Counting the number of hits really isn’t good enough. You’ve got to judge whip use by how much response the horse is giving and how its use looks to the public too. I see California’s trying to get that right, but it shouldn’t be the number that matters, just what looks bad.”
In November and December, Moore rode a short-term stint in Japan, where he is a celebrity already, and the experience had him pondering the issue of medication.
“Look at Japan with its policy of no drugs whatsoever and the way its racing’s improved,” he said. “At the top level, Japanese racing’s already about on a par with England.”
Riding the best wherever possible is his job and his pleasure. Although his modesty won’t let him admit it, he has more or less got that now and the Longines award certainly won’t make it more difficult for him to hold onto it as he enters what in the case of most jockeys are the peak years of his 30s. But it’s America that concerns him and the big American racing events he wants.
“I’m not going to get the Americans phoning, so it will be up to us [the British or the Irish] to find something that’s suited to dirt racing. Clive [Brittain] nearly did it long ago in the Kentucky Derby, didn’t he [with Bold Arrangement, second to Ferdinand in 1986]? Declaration of War nearly won a Breeders’ Cup Classic . Giant [Giant’s Causeway] nearly did it . And Swain should really have won the Classic . Now there’s Jamie Osborne’s horse, [Toast of New York]. It’s just a matter of finding right ones. It’s a bit like the Japanese and the Arc. It’ll come one day. It’s just a matter of when.”
What does he think are the qualities in a horse needed for the American dirt then?
First, he agreed that some of those who possess them may already have been and gone because the best Europeans go for the European classics, and the British classics in particular.
“It’s difficult to find horses in Britain that would enjoy the experience of racing on dirt because of the difference in training methods for turf racing,” he said. “Dirt racing is all about momentum, and that doesn’t apply so much on turf so the preparation’s different. Different training methods means they develop different muscles, too. But there’s no reason why a British or other European horse shouldn’t be right for dirt if that’s how he’s prepared.
“They’ve got to be horses who get out of the gate fast for a start, then be able to handle the pace and the kickback and to have the guts to grind it out in the finish. A lot of it is how the horse handles the pace, which is faster on dirt than it is on turf. I’ve ridden on dirt quite a lot in Japan and it’s the high-pace horses who usually do well because on dirt it’s much easier to win races from a prominent position.”
And what demands does dirt racing make on a jockey? Are there differences in technique needed for a rider who’s used to turf?
“I wouldn’t say there’s a technical difference. And I wouldn’t say riding on dirt is any more difficult than riding on turf – the opposite perhaps, because on dirt you don’t have to find a place to hide a horse in the pack or anything. Dirt racing is more straightforward. More one-dimensional really. It’s all about momentum, as I said. You don’t get checked in dirt races, or nowhere near as often. They’re much less complicated, to be honest.
“But I loved riding in those big dirt races. I’ve always loved watching them and the atmosphere around them is terrific. The Kentucky Derby and the Breeders’ Cup Classic are special races and there’s a real buzz about riding in them. The Breeders’ Cup Classic is a fantastic race, different from all the others on the day because the whole meeting builds up to it. It would be great someday to be on a horse good enough to compete in it.”
So does he feel any extra pressure now that he is “officially” the world’s best?
“Well how can you tell who’s the world’s best? I suppose that’s one way of looking at it but you’ve got to have the horse,” he said with another wry half-grin. “No, I don’t feel any extra pressure. I don’t ask for any limelight and I don’t really want any. I’m quite happy to go racing and then go home at the end of the day. I don’t crave attention. Of course I feel good about getting this award, but I don’t feel any pressure because of it. I’m pleased to have it and hopefully it will be good for racing.
“I don’t think I do anything to damage racing,” he added thoughtfully. “But I like to go about things quietly.”
That may fly in the face of all current marketing theory, but the whip-like athlete who’s already reached the top of his profession without resort to ostentation of any sort may already have started a new trend: a sporting hero who doesn’t spill out words, who does take thought before he speaks, and who really likes to make his way through life with a very minimum of “look at me.”
Victory at Churchill Downs or at Keeneland next year might test even his equanimity, but neither Longines nor racing in general would much mind that.