The life of a jockey remains as attractive as ever for young boys and girls but only a small fraction of prospective jockeys ever really make the grade.
Whilst injury is a constant risk both on the Flat and in National Hunt contests, lack of natural ability, fitness or an unwillingness to refine technique all too often hinder development.
This month we are delighted to speak with Steve Smith Eccles, the former jockey who perhaps is best remembered for his three Champion Hurdle victories aboard See You Then, but who rode over 900 winners and rode for Harry Thomson-Jones and Nicky Henderson in a glittering career that stretched from 1970 to 1994.
“First and foremost I should say, that as history relates, Steve Smith Eccles was a good jockey but with coaching I would have been a lot better. Most of what I learnt was through trial and error and I improved only over a period of years. Young jockeys today have a lot more opportunity to learn their craft early and avoid the pitfalls,” he relates.
“I had worked for the British Racing School since 2007 overseeing the ‘Hands and Heels Series’ and later the ‘Training Race Series’ which had 12 races per category over a season and took place across the length and breadth of the country,” he recalls.
“This would entail driving to the racecourse and walking the track with the riders ahead of the race. There is so much to learn by walking the track and it is important to instil such good practice into young jockeys. You learn about the track’s idiosyncrasies and I could talk them through where to make ground in a race, where to give a horse a breather and where the best ground is.
“John Francome as a jockey would always look for an edge in a race – a place where he could maybe make up a length or two, just by walking the track and looking at the ground. It doesn’t matter how often you ride a track it will change from meeting to meeting so it is vital to walk it beforehand.
“After the race had taken place we would all review it on film in the Stewards’ Room and I would then take the dvd home, scrutinise it and mark scores because each leg of the series was a competition in its own right.”
The series both worked very successfully and eventually fell under the remit of the British Horseracing Authority (BHA). Shortly afterwards Steve enjoyed a hiatus before returning to the fold.
“I would oversee jumps races and Michael Tebbutt, who rode Group 1 winners and had over 600 winners in his career on the Flat, became involved in overseeing the Flat races in the series – so we worked together at the British Racing School.”
With his business partner, Michael, he formed UK Jockey Coaching, a private venture which caters for a wide range of riding abilities from Point-to-point riders and Pony Club members, through to amateur riders and professional jockeys.
“I currently wear three different coats,” he says, “the blue coat is for UK Jockey Coaching, the private business that Michael and I started about 20 months ago. As a former jump jockey based in Newmarket, we have Flat and jump yards that go hand-in-hand. Thanks to the British Racing School we also have access to a wide range of simulators, schooling grounds, gallops and the hiring of horses.
“The red jacket is for the British School of Racing in Newmarket. As mentioned, we are able to make use their facilities and I am responsible for the Equi-chute which helps jockeys to get used to falling. From time to time I get to stand in for Yogi Breisner for schooling sessions.
“My black coat is for the work I do with the BHA and this coming Friday I will be on course overseeing another race in the ‘Hands and Heels Series’.
Whilst the focus is primarily based in the UK, such experience and skills are much sought-after around the world and Steve had a trip to Australia towards the beginning of last year, working with local jumps jockeys. As we speak, Michael has been working with a group of Korean riders.
“Additionally we work with other riders from different walks of life and a couple of weeks ago Michael and I went down to Woolwich Barracks, home of the King’s Troop and put their riders through their paces – that was great fun!” Steve states.
“We work with quite a few point-to-point riders and I am also working with John Ferguson’s son James at the moment, who has been riding in point-to-points and hunter chases.”
Steve says that one of the most important attributes a successful jockey needs is fitness and that only comes through sheer hard work. The British Racing School has been hugely helpful in providing access to fitness equipment and Steve also indicates that riders can also purchase home training items like wobble boards and elastics – which stretch like reins while the rider is crouched in jockey position – all of which help to build the exceptional fitness levels required to be a top level jockey.
Over the years he says that he has worked with countless jockeys that have passed through the British Racing School and BHA series, while privately he has worked with amateur jockeys and Michael assists with apprentices.
Some of the highest profile alumni to come through the ‘Hands and Heels’ and ‘Training Race’ series have been Ian Popham, Aidan Coleman, David Bass and Jerry McGrath.
Steve is excited about the future and with the British Racing School taking on a more prominent role this year he foresees some big changes ahead which will further benefit training opportunities.
“At present I think we are fairly unique and that this form of coaching is largely a British invention but they are starting to do it elsewhere in the world now. Certainly the Australian jockeys we worked with were very keen and took notes and listened intently when we were there. I know that Richard Perham from the British School of Racing is over in China as we speak.”
At present Steve says there are maybe 14 or 15 former jockeys who are involved in training riders and with such a rich vein of knowledge and experience to tap into, he is confident that already improving standards of jockeyship will be further enhanced:
“As a jockey I used to get great satisfaction and enjoyed schooling young horses and I now derive the same satisfaction from helping young riders.
“There are a number of other ex-jockeys who work with riders including Carl Llewellyn, Mick FitzGerald, Colin Brown, John Reid and Philip Robinson but Michael and I are blessed to have access to the facilities here in Newmarket.
“We also went back to the classroom and the BHA and British Racing School put us through NVQ coaching qualifications which were hard work but exciting and very beneficial. The courses are run to NVQ level 3 standard at present but I understand that it might be in the pipeline for these to step up to level 4 in the future.”
So much of Steve and Michael’s work is based around imparting experience but the first step is always to assess a rider’s natural ability and fitness.
“First and foremost the fitter you are the better you ride; fitness is paramount,” Steve emphasises. “The technical stuff you can teach but holding the normal body position on the bridle expends energy and a tired body affects the mind which in a race situation is dangerous.
“We start off with an hour lesson and assessment which sets a benchmark for a rider’s fitness and riding capability. We will then strip the rider down to the basics in riding and the coaching is individually tailored to their needs and ability.
“We cater for the individual and work on deficiencies to build them up to a certain level but the natural ability has to be there in the first place for it to be brought out.”
That requires a shrewd eye to accurately assess an individual from the get up and Steve and Michael are able to pretty quickly establish a rider’s existing level – and importantly perhaps, the ceiling of what they might achieve through coaching. In some eyes that could prove a frustration but Steve is pretty comfortable coaching at all levels:
“I can know their ability and also when they are full (in terms of riding skills) and won’t improve any further. I can accept that.”
When dealing with jockeys, particularly those that have perhaps recently ridden out their claim, there is the challenge of teaching skills that riders sometimes don’t readily accept they need. However, a willingness to learn and adapt goes a long way.
“What is fascinating is that the younger jockeys are like sponges and can’t get enough information out of us! The present generation of jockeys are fantastic with the likes of Richard Johnson and Tony McCoy, but I believe that the next generation of jockeys is going to be an awful lot better because they are better prepared and the whole sport nowadays is much more professional,” Steve asserts.
“The main guy that started the change was my old friend John Francome who was the consummate professional; he didn’t drink and worked hard at his job. Of course kids watch their heroes and then try to emulate them, so they have some great current role models to learn from.”
Another area that UK Jockey Coaching provides assistance is working with rehabilitating jockeys who have been injured and need to gradually work their way back into a riding routine. Steve recently worked with Jo Akehurst who is attached to John Ferguson’s yard, but of course there are fewer jumps jockeys in the Newmarket area which means that Michael tends to work with more jockeys on the comeback trail from the Flat.
The whip rule changes over the past couple of years have made the headlines and divided opinions within the sport. Steve’s viewpoint comes from an interesting position as an ex-jockey and existing component of the ‘Hands and Heels Series’:
“Certainly when the bans started to happen people were getting referred to the Racing School,” he recalls. “The whip changes have been significant and I think it is a good thing – people might be surprised to hear that coming from me but I realise that once a horse has given its all – that is it.
“Having overseen the ‘Hands and Heels’ and ‘Training Race’ series I can see horses doing their very best without being whipped so perhaps my opinion has changed.”
Steve Smith Eccles has travelled an almighty journey since July 1970, riding horses over thousands of miles, driving thousands of miles and drinking the elixir of success along the way. He is one of a terrific collection of ex-jockeys who want to put something back into the sport and hopefully improve riding skills and reduce accidents.
UK Jockey Coaching remains a relatively new business but Steve has high hopes not only for this venture but jockey training across his various roles:
“Michael and I have to be careful not to run before we walk so we want to grow our venture nice and slowly.
“Eventually I would like to see qualified jockey coaches available for all conditional jockey races and similarly for apprentice races, so that the riders can walk the course beforehand, review the race and speak with coaches. I have made the BHA aware of my hopes but I am conscious that it will cost money and take time.
“In the year ahead I would like to see UK Jockey Coaching get bigger and eventually become a limited company with levels of investment that will enable us to purchase our own equipment. In addition I would like to see jockey coaches available for all races,” he concludes.
Anyone who would like to learn more about UK Jockey Coaching can contact Steve or Michael through the website: www.jockeycoaching.co.uk