A unique scenario will unfold in New York later this month when a British champion jockey is to ply his trade on the winter circuit for the first time.
Appropriately, Silvestre de Sousa will receive his accolade at Ascot’s Champions Day on Saturday, when the curtain closes on the official turf season in Britain. Yet, rather than rest on his laurels, the Brazilian native boards a flight seven days later in the quest to make an impact in the Big Apple.
“I’m really looking forward to it,” de Sousa said of his imminent departure. “It feels exciting to be taking on a new challenge. I know it’s going to be tough, but I didn’t want to go back to Dubai this winter. I felt it was time to try something new.”
Taking on new challenges has become a way of life for de Sousa. One of 10 children born to a farming family on a small island off the coast of Bahia, in the north-west of Brazil, he has fought hard for everything he has.
That he is ready to fight once more may seem curious for a jockey at the top of his game. Frozen New York will contrast sharply with the sun-kissed childhood he savoured in South America, yet scratch below the surface and the impetus for change becomes manifest.
De Sousa seemed blessed when he returned from Dubai in April last year, having won the $10 million G1 Emirates Dubai World Cup aboard African Story for trainer Saeed bin Suroor. At that time, he was 18 months into a two-year contract with Godolphin. It seemed a formality his contract would be renewed.
Despite winning the title, the big winners have all but dried up
Yet he quickly found himself out of favour. He rode only sporadically for bin Suroor last season, which forced him to re-establish himself in the freelance ranks. He made a decent fist of it, too, riding 102 winners. Yet the big-race winners all but dried up.
He has posted better numbers this season. His 152 seasonal winners to date saw him effectively wrap up the riding title some time ago, yet the big winners he craves have again proved elusive. For that reason, winning the riding title for the first time leaves him feeling a little hollow inside.
“Last year was a hard situation,” de Sousa reflected. “After what happened, all I could do was get going again. I thought I did well, and this season has been another step forward. I can’t complain, but it’s hard to get on good horses. Big races are the ones that count but all the good stables have their own jockeys.”
In returning to prominence, de Sousa, 34, returned to the man who brought him to prominence in the first place. He rode in Europe for 10 years before trainer Mark Johnston gave him the breakthrough he always craved – which in turn, endeared him to Godolphin, for whom Johnston trains a large string of 2-year-olds.
Johnston has been de Sousa’s mainstay this season, yet with most of his good horses owned by Sheikh Mohammed’s son, Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed Al Maktoum, Godolphin’s retained riders are invariably parachuted in for the big occasions.
‘I don’t know anyone in New York … I’m going in a bit green’
Hence de Sousa’s decision to forsake Dubai in favour of New York. Although he rode 47 winners in the emirate last winter, many came in races for Arabian-bred horses. And, with the two Godolphin stables monopolising races at the Winter Carnival, the time has come for de Sousa to build new bridges in a country he has never previously visited.
“It has always been an ambition of mine to ride there in winter,” he said. “I have no ties to any stable, so this is now the right time. I don’t know anyone in New York, not even among the jockeys. I’m going in a bit green but let’s see what I can do.”
He is under no illusions about what to expect. “They tell me it’s very cold in New York, but that doesn’t bother me – in can be cold in Britain, too,” he said. “If I get busy, I can ride comfortable at 8st 2lbs. I’ll stay in New York as long as I’m doing well, but if not, I might try to ride at different tracks.”
He starts out later this month with former trainer Seth Benzel as his agent. The two first met in Dubai four winters ago, when Benzel took a small string of horses over from the U.S. to run at the carnival. Benzel has been based around New York for the last 15 years.
Although big-race winners have been hard to come by this season, de Sousa took the biggest scalp of all when, partnering Arabian Queen, the combination outran Golden Horn to win the G1 Juddmonte International Stakes at York in August.
‘No-one like him for getting behind a horse and driving it forward’
That remains the only defeat yet sustained by Golden Horn, the Derby and Eclipse Stakes winner who went on to land the Arc earlier this month. What’s more, many believe de Sousa was responsible for orchestrating it by outwitting Frankie Dettori aboard Golden Horn.
“That was the best day for me,” de Sousa recalled of his victory aboard the 50-1 shot. “I thought Arabian Queen might get placed because sometimes she can be a bit tricky. She can pull hard, but everything went well for me in the race. Everyone seemed to enjoy it except for (Golden Horn’s trainer) John Gosden.”
Indeed, it was another South American jockey, the Panamanian Braulio Baeza, who engineered a shock every bit as seismic when he partnered Roberto to defeat Brigadier Gerard in the same York race 43 years ago. It was Brigadier Gerard’s only defeat in 18 career starts.
David Elsworth, who trains Arabian Queen, had chosen de Sousa to ride his filly for a specific reason. “It always helps her to have a strong jockey on board,” Elsworth said, “but there’s no-one like Silvestre when it comes to a jockey getting right behind a horse and driving it forward.”
“You rarely see horses change legs when he gets into the drive position,” Elsworth continued. “It’s also my opinion that he has become a lot tidier this year. You could see lots of moving parts before, but hardly at all now.”
A modest and grounded man, de Sousa plainly feels that what he has is not enough. He may be Britain’s champion jockey, but the diet on which he swept to the title has not sated his hunger. He wants more than a constant stream of winners at lesser tracks.