Cork jockey chases apprentices title in England as he enters fast Lane
Tuesday was a dark, wet miserable afternoon in south Wales. The rain pelted down at Ffos Las, with each passing race more and more waterlogged on the track. Before the programme ended, the official going was twice updated to record the deterioration in conditions. It was a gruelling day at the office for both horse and jockey.
Although it wasn't all that easy to see from the murky TV pictures, Martin Lane excelled. The 24-year-old native of Kilworth in north Cork splashed to victory in three of the six races, bringing him to within one of fellow ex-pat James Sullivan in the race for the 2010 British apprentices' championship. Lane rode an across-the-card treble on the all-weather in February, but this was his first on grass.
"People don't really take much notice of the all-weather," he says now, "so I was thrilled to do it again. I only had four rides, and a furlong out on the last one, I thought it was going to be the perfect day. I was in front then, but it just got beat in the end."
Lane was undone by the reigning Irish champion apprentice Gary Carroll, who had crossed the water for a second time this month to win on Signore Momento. That he should rue the one that got away in such circumstances is hardly surprising, but that he is talking in such terms at all is incredible.
Two years ago, Lane rode only three winners over an entire season in Ireland. His boss, Frances Crowley, handed in her licence at the end of the Flat campaign in 2008, and her promising apprentice's career arrived at a crossroads. In all, he had ridden 21 winners up to that point, but momentum had stalled as Crowley wound down.
Lane found himself with a big decision to make. He was 23, without any of the inherent repute and resources that come with a family background in the game, and willing to try something else. He didn't want to just quit on a whim either though.
"I was thinking about packing it all in at that stage," Lane confirms. "I was going to go to college, but Ger Lyons and my agent Kevin O'Ryan pulled me aside and said, 'look, just give it one try in England -- you can always go to college next year'. They told me I was good enough to do the job, and Frances packing up was probably the kick up the a*** that I needed to leave the country and go and do something about it."
What a year 2009 would turn out to be. With the help of Lyons and O'Ryan, Lane signed up as Karl Burke's apprentice in Yorkshire. The two gelled straight away.
By season's end, Lane accumulated an impressive 28 winners in Britain, seven more than his career haul over the previous four years. His star had shot off on a sharp upward trajectory, and Burke even supplied him with the winner of the big handicap at The Curragh on 2,000 Guineas day, his sole ride in Ireland since he left.
Revealing the full extent of his ambition, Lane states: "In one respect, I was tipping away doing grand at home, but I didn't want to be doing just grand -- you want to be the best you can be. I couldn't do that in Ireland, though. It's a closed shop and there isn't enough racing, and I needed to ride to improve. Karl took to me. He was good enough to give me the rides and the winners, so in turn my riding kept improving."
If his and Burke's seemed a marriage made in heaven, sadly it was doomed to failure. From August, the trainer was banned for five years for passing inside information. The honeymoon was over and, for the second time in less than 12 months, Lane was looking for a new guv'nor. This time, however, he was doing so from a position of strength. Unbowed, he relocated to Newmarket, where he joined a fellow up-and-comer in David Simcock.
The new partnership has bedded in well, the second and third legs of Lane's near 365/1 treble at Ffos Las were both for the boss. Already, he has 25 winners up, and his sights are on the apprentices' title. Again, he is being advised by a shrewd agent, Simon Dodds, who adopted a strategic less-is-more policy as momentum gathered in 2009.
"Simon wasn't going all out for me last year because we knew we weren't going to win the championship," he says. "There was no point going crazy, flying through my claim, when no one was going to know me by the end of the year. Knowing that, though, it was great to have nearly 400 rides and 28 winners. We hoped we'd be able to give it a good go this time on the back of that, and we're thereabouts, so you never know."
At York a fortnight ago, that maturity stood to Lane as he displayed the full array of skills on Wigmore Hall to defy Jamie Spencer in a driving finish to the John Smith's Cup, one of the premier English handicaps. Strong, determined, decisive and stylish, he was catapulted headlong into the Saturday limelight for a first time.
The consequences of such a high-profile success can be far-reaching, evidenced by the fact that he has since been entrusted with a first ride for Michael Stoute. On a personal level, it was a memorable occasion for another reason.
"To win a race like that was incredible, and it couldn't have come on a better day," he declares. "It was my mother's birthday. She was the one who, when I was a kid, brought me to riding lessons every day and brought me to work every morning. She passed away six years ago, so to have such a big win on her birthday was special."
Those early days in work were spent at Sean O'Brien's nearby National Hunt yard in Kilworth. Lane, whose father works at Pepsi's Cork plant at Little Island, had become friends with O'Brien's brother while attending school at St Colman's in Fermoy.
He proceeded to cut his teeth on the local pony racing circuit, before joining Crowley on completion of his Leaving Certificate in 2004. Having grown up in the very heartland of the point-to-point community, jumpers were all he really cared for.
"The reason I went to work for Frances," he says, "was because she had a dual-purpose yard. Jumpers were all I knew until I was 18, sure. I thought I'd make the transition as soon as I got heavy, but that just never happened."
An accidental Flat jockey, then. It's no wonder he's so good in the mud.