Ahern's enduring tenacity fuelled by rejection
The smile on Eddie Ahern's face said just enough.
As the Tipperary native crossed the line three-quarters of a length to the good on Approve in Wednesday's Gimcrack Stakes at York, he bit his bottom lip so that it wouldn't stray beyond its remit.
Exuberant post-race antics have never been Ahern's style. The ride, and the win, was a statement in itself, but he allowed himself that brief expression of inner satisfaction. Minutes later, Mike Cattermole interviewed Ahern on the way back to the winner's enclosure. 'Cat', as he is referred to, is a known sympathiser of wronged jockeys, so his parting question came fully loaded.
Having ascertained that Approve had won the Norfolk at Royal Ascot for the jockey before being intimidated out of it when drawn on the rail in a hot July Stakes at Newmarket, the interviewer asked: "And why didn't you ride him last time out?"
Ahern flashed that knowing smile once more, and coolly replied: "You'll have to ask Harry Herbert that!"
On cue, Herbert, who runs the Highclere Racing Syndicate that owns Approve, strode into the picture, congratulatory arm outstretched. The rider accepted the gesture, before turning to Cattermole to nod in acknowledgment. It hadn't been an easy couple of days for Ahern, so the Channel 4 presenter's subtle fellowship was appreciated.
On Tuesday morning, Ahern had learned that he wouldn't be reunited with the dual Oaks winner Snow Fairy in Thursday's Yorkshire Oaks. In recent years, he has ridden the lion's share of the Cristina Patino-owned horses for John and Ed Dunlop, and steered Snow Fairy to success on her seasonal debut at Goodwood in May.
A gentleman's agreement with Henry Cecil, however, meant that he was on Timepiece in the Oaks at Epsom. While Ryan Moore made the most of the opportunity on Ed Dunlop's filly, Ahern rued the vagaries of fortune.
With the champion jockey ruled out of York, where the filly would eventually finish second, Ahern's hope was, naturally, renewed. The door opened to reveal a chink of light, and then slammed shut in his face.
Richard Hughes got the gig -- as he had done on Approve last time. Speaking before he went out to win on Approve three days ago, Ahern didn't disguise his disappointment at being overlooked for Snow Fairy.
"It's a bit of a kick in the arse," he said. "I was gutted that I had to get off her at Epsom, so I had hoped I would be back on now that Ryan is out. But there's no changing their minds -- I didn't even ring them after I found out. There'd be no point.
"The funny thing is, I ride for Ed Dunlop in a Group Three on Saturday (today). I don't know why I can ride in a Group Three for him but can't ride a filly that I've won on already for him."
He also rides Spanish Duke for John Dunlop today, but the Snow Fairy snub was the latest in a mixed year for the 32-year-old rider. Chief among the frustrations is the ongoing absence of Elusive Pimpernel, Patino's John Dunlop-trained colt that Ahern won the Acomb Stakes on at last year's Ebor meeting.
Having won the Craven Stakes in April -- under Moore, due to Ahern being suspended -- Elusive Pimpernel was an impressive fifth for Ahern behind the season's best three-year-olds in the 2,000 Guineas. He has yet to make it back to the track.
Ahern had hoped that the colt, along with Snow Fairy, would finally secure him a breakthrough at the highest level. Instead, he is left kicking his heels.
"You wait all year for a good horse to come along," he says, "and then something like this happens -- you get jocked off. I don't know what other people think, but I know what I'd think in that situation: 'Oh, the trainers won't use Eddie on the big days, they just use him for the everyday stuff'. I try not to let it get to me too much, though. There's no point in falling out with anyone. You just have to take it on the chin."
Having also steered Ouija Board, Authorised and Proclamation before they went on to Group One glory, Ahern's paranoia is understandable, if ultimately unwarranted.
The fact of the matter is that Cecil and John Dunlop, two of the game's stalwarts, are among his biggest fans, and neither has ever baulked at employing him on the big stage when opportunity has arisen.
Wednesday's triumph was just another reminder of the 1997 Irish Champion Apprentice's capabilities. The current campaign had already seen him land a barnstorming Northumberland Plate success on Overturn, as well as Approve's Ascot win and a Glorious Goodwood touch for Nicky Henderson.
He would add to his York tally with a brilliant last-gasp victory on Monsieur Joe on Thursday. That he could achieve so much yet still not be satisfied, says plenty of his ambition. It also tells you something of what he has promised.
In 1998, Ahern rode his first Royal Ascot winner on San Sebastian. He confirmed his prodigious status with a Group One win on Preseli in the Moyglare Stakes in 1999, but the intervening 11 years have yielded no more.
That was the first of a number of false dawns. After a stint as Pat Smullen's understudy at Dermot Weld's that yielded an American Derby win on Pine Dance, Ahern relocated to England in 2002. Again, he made an instant impression, clocking four consecutive centuries up to 2006. Unfortunately, as had been the case at home, controversy was never far away. When he talks now of there still being time to fulfil all his potential, it is mildly ironic that Kieren Fallon is the man he draws a parallel with.
"I think Fallon was 35 when he came down from the north," he reasons, "so there's a few more years in me yet."
As the table alongside highlights, Ahern has amassed a catalogue of misdemeanours to rival the Clare man's. It's hard to believe that anyone could match Fallon's penchant for self-destruction, but Ahern has given it a good go.
Like Fallon, however, he also possesses an enduring tenacity. Despite his transgressions, he remains one of the most popular guys in the weigh-room. He is easy-going, and his chirpy demeanour is at odds with the poor judgment that he has flaunted in the past. Nonetheless, that volatile streak has undoubtedly been one of the main reasons why his progress has repeatedly stalled.
At York this week, Ahern reminded the watching world of his fantastic skills in the saddle. It comes naturally to him and, as he says in true Fallon fashion, "riding the good horses is easy".
The hard part is getting on them -- not to mention staying on them.