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News from Europe

Jockey Silvestre de Sousa aims to be leading rider

By Tom Krish

Silvestre de Sousa and son Ryan
Silvestre de Sousa and son Ryan
We are reaching mid-October and the battle for the 2011 British riding champion has just begun. As the dust settled on Tuesday, Paul Hanaghan, the champion jockey in 2010, is in first place with 148 winners. Kieren Fallon, approaching 50 years of age and a six-time leading rider in England, is in second with 138 winners. In third with 136 winners, is the Brazilian, Silvestre de Sousa. With 100 winners under his belt last year, this is the second consecutive year that the 30-year-old Silvestre de Sousa has been to the winner’s circle over 100 times.

Kieren Fallon serves out a suspension on Wednesday and Thursday. Silvestre de Sousa, for an infringement last Wednesday at Nottingham, will serve a four-day ban. These bans come at a critical time and at a time when winners are hard to come by. In England, the racing quality becomes lower as the season gets to its waning days. One overriding concern has been the ‘whip regulation’ that is causing a raging debate and there have been two casualties already.

Vicky Behan and Silvestre de Sousa live with Ryan, their four-year-old son, in a great neighborhood in Thirsk, a delightful town. Thirsk, two hours by train from London, has a racecourse. There are a lot of courses within reasonable driving distance. York is less than 30 minutes away. Ripon is another. In England, jockeys, based on what trainers they are working for, choose residences to optimize their driving distances.

I arrived at Thirsk on Tuesday, October 4. On Monday, Silvestre had ridden a four bagger at Pontefract. He rode the winners of the last four races. On Tuesday, he won the opener in a rain-soaked Southwell, an all weather course. He took me to Nottingham, a four-hour return trip on Wednesday. He drew a blank. We went to Ayr on Thursday. Daniel Tudhope, a promising jockey, rode with us. It was 410 miles going and coming. There were blustery conditions and racing was abandoned after the first three races. It was pouring and the winds were ferocious. It was not a productive day.

York was on the agenda on Friday and I did not go. After the commitments at York, Silvestre was driven to an airfield where he boarded a plane to go to Wolverhampton for a twilight card. One winner there was partial recompense and the day ended well past midnight. All the driving is done by Malcolm Bates, Silvestre’s fulltime driver since March. This gives Silvestre the chance to talk on the phone, take a nap and catch up on reading the Racing Post. Silvestre and his agent are always on the phone. They talk about what tracks to go to and where the rides are coming from. The agent, for the most part, picks what he considers the most viable mounts.

de Sousa family
de Sousa family
Then came Saturday, October 8. Silvestre did the driving and it was a short trip to York. Malcolm Bates gets a day off whenever a short trip that does not put pressure on Silvestre comes up. We talked about racing in India and Silvestre’s future in Britain. As we parked at the jockeys’ lot and walked to the course, the rain started coming down. It would not go away the rest of the afternoon though it was not heavy by any means.

It was a seven-race card. It is an afternoon that I shall not forget. Silvestre won the third with Ocean Way, a 7/2 chance. He won the fourth with Bannock, a 11-4 chance, who relished the soft ground. That was two winners for trainer Mark Johnston, Silvestre’s primary employer. The sixth race was taken by Orsippus, a 20-1 chance, ridden by Silvestre and trained by Michael Smith. In a three-way photo in the seventh, Silvestre got home the 13-2 Licence To Till, another Mark Johnston trainee.

On a personal note, as he got out of the weighing room, Silvestre gave me a box. It contained an exquisitely beautiful glass vase presented to him for winning a ‘listed’ race that day. A listed race is a race for higher class horses. It was a delicate moment. “Tom, this is for you. Take it with you to Chicago,” he said with a touch of emotion.

Four winners and Silvestre was on cloud nine. Wolverhampton was racing Saturday with a 6 pm start but Silvestre did not have any mounts. Goodwood raced on Sunday but it was another well-deserved day off.

It is a minimum of 1,000 miles a week of traveling. It takes a heavy physical toll. Life is anything but easy for a busy English rider. Jockeys like Ryan Moore, Richard Hughes, Frankie Dettori and Jamie Spencer pick smaller number of rides and therefore, travel less. Whenever circumstances permit, Dettori takes a small plane. After all, Dettori rides for Sheikh Mohammed.

Silvestre rides a large number of horses owned by Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed Al Maktoum, another member of the Dubai Royal family. On Tuesday, October 11, de Sousa was aboard a Godolphin runner at Leicester.

A trip to Australia to ride Fox Hunt in the Melbourne Cup is off the table. The British racing season lasts until early November. A four-day ban (coming up next week) will hurt Silvestre de Sousa. However slim his chances are to land the riding crown, Silvestre believes that he has to give himself every opportunity. “I want to give the title my best shot. To be British champion, it is a big deal,” he told me.

A winter visit to India for the past four years has been on Silvestre’s agenda. He is not going this year. “I have told Mr Mahindra (his main owner) my decision and he has accepted it. I will miss India. Mumbai is a great course. Breeding in India has taken off. India will be a big player in international racing,” Silvestre said.

Silvestre and Vicky
Silvestre and Vicky
Vicky is the backbone of the establishment. She was an accomplished rider at one time. She has a winner to her credit at Glorious Goodwood. She worked for Dandy Nicholls and that is how she met Silvestre. Vicky takes care of the paperwork relating to visas and work permits. She is deeply involved in horse racing.

There is a collection of ‘Antonios’ pictures in the living room. Antonios is the four year-old that Slvestre rode to victory in the Indian Derby in 2009.

I was treated with the utmost courtesy and kindness. Vicky took care of my food needs. Ryan is sweet beyond words. He is the apple of their eye as it should be. I left Thirsk on Sunday, October 9. Vicky, Silvestre and Ryan traveled with me to York, a 15-minute trip. They alighted at York to ride back to Thirsk. Ryan loves train trips.

Malcolm Bates deserves a pat on the back. He tends to Silvestre. He is very professional, always attired in a tie. Malcolm lets Silvestre relax. There is no unnecessary conversation. You need a jockey free of fatigue when he gets on a horse and that is what Malcolm Bates does for Silvestre de Sousa.

Dubai is on Silvestre’s agenda. Given the success he has enjoyed with Mark Johnston, there is every reason to believe that Silvestre will continue the partnership. The road is taking him to Dubai. I hope to see him ride many winners in Dubai in 2012.

Silvestre, Vicky and Ryan are going to Brazil in the second week of December. Silvestre has not seen his family in five years. “I am looking forward to this trip. It is overdue,” Silvestre exulted.

I asked Silvestre to consider a stint in America. “It is in my mind. Next year, I will begin to think about it seriously,” he answered.


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