Thursday 22 March 2018

Situation vacant at brand leader

The Ballydoyle team needs to hire a senior jockey and, for John O'Brien, one man ticks the right boxes

When reports circulated last week that Ryan Moore was about to be installed as first jockey at Ballydoyle, it was immediately striking how quickly the jockey's connections moved to shoot them down. Not only did Johnno Spence, Moore's agent, deny the claims but, through a spokeswoman, went as far as suggesting that Moore would be remaining in Newmarket "for the foreseeable future." The idea of relocation seemed to hold little appeal.

While Aidan O'Brien and his Coolmore bosses invariably hold their cards tightly to their chests, it seems reasonable to assume they courted Moore and, upon consideration, the jockey decided it wasn't for him, now or in the immediate future. Perhaps he reasoned that he could ride many of O'Brien's best horses next year anyway while retaining his job with Michael Stoute, enjoying the best of both worlds in the process.

That would hardly leave Ballydoyle in the best place, however. The suggestion that Moore could serve two masters, as Ruby Walsh does over jumps, is naive and mistaken. Walsh's dual relationship with Willie Mullins and Paul Nicholls works because of the jockey's talent and work-rate, but it helps that, in Britain, the biggest meetings tend more towards Saturdays while Ireland favours mostly Sundays. The Flat wouldn't be nearly as accommodating in that regard.

In a sense too, Moore, as brilliant as he is, doesn't fit the profile of the jockey most likely to fetch up at Ballydoyle. He just recently turned 28 and, with the exception of Jamie Spencer who lasted a single season, the ideal fit for the stable has invariably been the hardened veteran still riding at the peak of his powers, experienced and confident enough to cope with the demands of the most scrutinised job in world racing.

The problem for Ballydoyle is that there is a chronic shortage of that seasoned breed of jockey across Europe right now. And those whom they would regard as meeting the right criteria, Moore and Christophe Soumillon among them, seem happy where they are thank you very much. In a year when Ballydoyle landed 14 Group Ones across the continent and unleashed a string of hugely exciting juveniles, it seems odd that there isn't a ruthless, ambitious jockey desperate to hitch himself exclusively to Ballydoyle's rolling wagon.

We've been here before, of course. This time last year to be precise. Johnny Murtagh had just departed and we waited for the stampede of those eager to fill his boots. Except there was no stampede. And no detectable buzz among potential candidates either. Pat Smullen even went as far as publicly renouncing his interest in a job that, as far as anybody knew, hadn't even been offered.

Why this situation should prevail isn't easy to understand. It was widely understood that Murtagh and Mick Kinane had some issues with their working arrangements at Ballydoyle and it was, perhaps, no coincidence that both ultimately left to return to the more homely environment of John Oxx. The downside of working for such a huge operation, of course, is that you feel a lesser part in the day-to-day whole. Kinane, by his own admission, found this harder to deal with as the years went by.

Yet you wouldn't imagine for a minute that either man harbours regrets about his time there. Long before he replaced Kieren Fallon in 2008, it was an open secret that Murtagh coveted the job. By then he had won three Derbys and enjoyed a long, fruitful relationship with Oxx but, to fulfill his talent and burning ambition, Murtagh knew he had to ride for Coolmore and felt passionately that it was a chance he deserved.

And maybe over the years Ballydoyle has been lucky that way. From Christy Roche to Kinane, Fallon and Murtagh and, before that, from Lester Piggott to Pat Eddery and John Reid, the right man always seemed to be available at exactly the right time. It wasn't something they needed to worry about. When a vacancy arose, they sought the best man available and simply made an offer that couldn't be refused.

Now they cannot be so certain and it must surely perplex them. When the search for Murtagh's replacement ran aground last year, O'Brien merely shrugged and said they would "use the best available." It was typical O'Brien insouciance, making it sound like a policy they had decided on, rather than a consequence of their inability to fill the vacancy. But it is hard to imagine such a famously meticulous trainer being happy with a situation where he has no senior jockey to call on.

It isn't that it has visibly cost them dearly on the racecourse. Seamie Heffernan didn't enjoy his finest hour when finishing fourth on So You Think in the Prix de l'Arc, but even with a better-judged ride it is highly unlikely the horse would have won. For all the hype and expectation that followed his arrival from Australia, So You Think patently lacks the gears needed to be the superstar they wanted him to be.

But that isn't the point anyway. The symbiotic relationship between a trainer and his retained jockey is such an ingrained feature of the sport that a top stable without one seems hopelessly incomplete. O'Brien has tried to work around the situation by pairing certain jockeys with certain horses: Spencer with Fame And Glory and Cape Blanco, his son Joseph with Maybe, Colm O'Donoghue with Treasure Beach and so on.

Moore would probably have ridden So You Think in the Arc if he hadn't been claimed by Stoute for Workforce and there is a lot to be said for having an English-based jockey. Vincent O'Brien understood this when he had the services of Lester Piggott. "He could figure out how best to beat them," he once explained. "He knew the strengths of the jockeys riding against him, every move they'd make."

Yet although their relationship was only bound by a gentleman's agreement, O'Brien would not have countenanced a scenario where his jockey wasn't regularly riding work or in which he had to share him with rival trainers on big days. He sometimes blanched at how hard Piggott could be on young horses on the gallops but the knowledge gained there was indispensable when it came to the racetrack.

Of course, that partnership was such a once-off that it would be fanciful to think it could ever be repeated. Yet how the current Ballydoyle incumbent must yearn for the input and stability a retained jockey would bring. Moore may yet ride plenty of big winners for O'Brien next season, but it won't obscure the fact that the stable's best years came when it had the services of a Murtagh or Kinane riding out of his skin.

For all the shortage of top-class contenders, though, there is one who sticks out and, as things stand, may even be available. It is a week since Richard Hughes relinquished his licence in protest at picking up two bans under British racing's new whip regulations and, although a compromise was reached with the jockeys on Friday, it may still be that the episode has soured his appetite for racing there.

Normally, it would be hard to imagine Hughes having any interest in riding for Ballydoyle. He is settled in England, married into the Hannon family, hitched to a stable that is very much on the upgrade. But the past two weeks haven't been normal times in British racing. If there was ever a time that Hughes might contemplate a move, maybe this is it.

Think about it: he is 38 now, an articulate and intelligent rider, in the form of his life and, unquestionably, a man you want on your side on the biggest days. In other words, the ideal prototype of the Ballydoyle jockey. Time, perhaps, for another of those offers that simply cannot be refused?

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