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Diary of a racing journalist #3 Newbury

What else was I going to do on a sweltering afternoon in late June? After my day job had finished, and I’d sprinted to my car like a driver at the start of the Le Mans 24-hour race, I hurried home. There, I collected my eldest daughter before heading up to Newbury racecourse for an interview with an apprentice jockey that I used to teach in secondary school.

It’s Thursday afternoon and I’m busy marking some Year 12 media work. It’s good stuff but there’s only so many times you can read virtually the same thing about movie posters.

My mind wonders and I find myself flicking through my dog-eared sports fixtures diary in search of inspiration. I notice that there is an evening race meeting at Newbury next week and I fire off an email to request a media pass.

Within an hour, the Marketing Manager has got back to me and my mood improves as I contemplate another trip to the stunning racecourse in West Berkshire. With renewed enthusiasm, I mark another five scripts.

At home I open up the Racing Post App and have an early look at next Tuesday’s race card. I don’t get past the first race before I’m shouting upstairs to my wife from the lounge. That never works out does it? Like always, nothing is communicated and the resulting impasse is irritating us both. So I reluctantly move, sloth-like from my chair.

As far back as I can remember, Tyler Saunders always wanted to be a jockey. 

Paul Blake

I tell her that one of my former students, Tyler Saunders, is riding in the first race at Newbury and I invite her to join me if I can get an interview set up. She’s excited about it but can’t come due to a late afternoon work meeting. Instead she suggests that I take my eldest daughter with me. She is lukewarm about the idea but agrees to join me nevertheless.

Ever since I can remember, Tyler Saunders always wanted to be a jockey. When he was a fourteen-year old, I remember asking him what he wanted to do when he left school. The response was unequivocal. “I’m going to be a jockey.” That was it. No doubt. I think that it’s fair to say that from the very first time I met Tyler, even at that age, I was impressed.

I spend the next couple of hours researching Tyler’s riding career and I discover that he is currently working as an apprentice for Jonathan Portman at his stables in Lambourn, Hungerford. For Tyler, riding winners has not come easily this season. His strike rate has dropped a little and hovers at a respectable 10%. At Bath racecourse, he is in the top ten performing jockeys which is impressive for an apprentice.

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I have nothing to lose in requesting an interview and Jonathan Portman is happy to set one up for me. We agree via e-mail to a post-race interview at the foot of the steps outside the weighing room.

Before Tuesday, I have two evenings at the cricket to report on and it’s my mother-in-law’s birthday on Saturday. Both of my daughters are sitting exams and I must find time to help them with some revision. It will be a busy weekend.

Tuesday afternoon has finally arrived. I leave on the bell and sprint to my car like a racing driver at the start of Le Mans 24-hour race. When I get home, my daughter is ready to leave and we race up to Newbury, arriving an hour before the first race. We enter through the owners and trainers reception and collect our media passes before heading in. I give her a tour of the racecourse and we take an early look at the beautifully maintained parade ring before heading up to the press box which is surprisingly busy for an evening meeting.

Some of the Racing TV presenters are checking the form and having a snack before going on air. There is a palpable buzz in the room and this is something I love about coming to Newbury. I grab a couple of lunch bags and a mug of tea. The chicken sandwich gives me a much needed energy boost and I am ready to work. I take my daughter through the racecard and point out a few things which she ‘claims’ to know already. I want to teach her a bit more but I am conscious that we need to get down to the parade ring. Tyler is riding in the first race and I want to take a good look at his mount.

Broad Appeal is out in the pre-parade ring early. For an eight-year-old he looks well and is pretty comfortable as he is taken round. Chestnut, with a white stripe on his head, he is a handsome chap. My daughter gets a couple of photographs. She is a very talented artist and later she will create a digital sketch of Broad Appeal.

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I’m a little nervous. I’d been to see Tyler ride before and things didn’t go well for him at Salisbury that day. His mount was all over the place in the parade ring and it was no great surprise when it reared up and unseated Tyler when he attempted to mount it. That must have been six of seven years ago; I hoped today would be different.

Broad Appeal hardly notices as Tyler jumps into the saddle and as they head out to the track from the parade ring I breathe a sigh of relief. Then, we hastily make our way back up to the balcony attached to the press box, to watch the race.

Tyler takes Broad Appeal forward at the start of the race where he settles in on the rail behind the leader. Two furlongs out, a combination of the horse’s age and the better class of opposition he is up against tonight, takes its toll. Tyler has given him every chance but he fades badly finishing eighth of eleven in the final half-furlong. At 12-1 the result is not a great surprise. I make a pact with myself to make sure that I see Tyler ride a winner. Perhaps I’ll look into when he is riding at Bath next.

The evening is getting toasty as we wait under shelter for Tyler to come and chat to us outside the weighing room. When he emerges, I am taken aback by how much older he looks now. As a teacher, you remember students how they once were, when they were teenagers: sweaty and spotty and horrible – forever young. And that’s the image you have of them for the rest of your life, unless your paths cross again – which it sometimes does. Meeting my former students is always lovely, but it ages me. I’ll soon be fifty and seeing Tyler today aged twenty-six gives me a harsh reminder of that.

In a black riding vest, I can see that the tattooist has been busy. Tyler is from urban Southampton and his body art is an extension of that. His hair is gone and I’m not sure if it’s shaved or he has gone bald prematurely. It’s not a question that I am going to ask him. Like Broad Appeal earlier, he looks strong and fit. He smiles as he notices us and I shake his hand, smiling back and glowing inside.

Tyler is surprisingly upbeat as we discuss the race. He suggests that Broad Appeal is “getting on a bit now” and that “he probably needs to drop down a class to have a better chance.” He is confident and relaxed talking about the race and I can sense the enjoyment that he has for his work. “I don’t really get to sit on him at home any more,” he tells me “but it’s just nice to ride him,” he beams.

I ask him what his goals are and his answer is simple and pragmatic. “I just want to keep getting as many rides as I can and ride more winners” he explains. More winners, for Tyler would result in more rides and this is the harsh reality of his job. Currently, he is getting a few rides a week and his main income is from working as an apprentice at the stables. He is “ticking over,” he maintains – but it is clear that he wants more from the sport.

In 2019, Tyler had his best year and I am eager to find out what impact the pandemic had on his progress. “It’s definitely reduced the fields,” he reflects and “there are less opportunities to get a ride now than there were before the pandemic.” I sense that beneath the pragmatic exterior there is a jockey determined to lose the apprentice tag. I get the feeling this won’t take him long.

He relishes telling me what it is like to ride in a race. It’s not something that I have experienced and I am interested to find out more. I ask Tyler to tell me exactly how and when he knows that a horse has lost its chance in a race. He becomes animated. He uses the analogy of a car. “It’s like when you put your foot on the accelerator, you know and it just goes. Or like when you ride a bike and you pull the throttle (he revs up an imaginary Harley). Most of the time they just go. But sometimes they don’t and that’s when you know.”

We go off topic for a beat and I learn that he has a small apartment at Jonathan Portman’s stables where he stays most of the week. The rest of the time he spends with his mum back at home in Southampton. I ask if he still sees friends from school and he tells me that he does. He always ‘hung about’ with slightly older lads when he was at school and he still sees some of them. Politely, he asks what I’m doing now and it feels like he is interviewing me. He asks me where I am living and he shares a story about a restaurant that he has eaten at which is close to where I live. Bluntly, I ask how he maintains his riding weight.

With a cheeky grin that I recognise, Tyler shares that he sometimes eats a little too much in the off-season and how he has to work quite hard to lose it each year. I empathise and I am inspired to shed a few pounds myself. He is keen to tell me how much he loves a place called Relentless: a steak and lobster restaurant in Port Solent and I promise not to write about it in this article ;-).

We chat for a while longer and he mentions us visiting the yard sometime to watch the horses working. I would love that, and once the article is written, I vow to make contact with Jonathan again to see if that can be arranged.

I could stay and chat all evening but I am conscious not to keep Tyler for too long. I get a photo with him and we say our goodbyes.

Tyler Saunders (jockey) and Paul Blake (obviously not a jockey), Newbury Racecourse, 21st June, 2022

We make our way back up to the press room to reflect on the interview and my daughter makes a start on her artwork. I get distracted far too easily to be productive, so we watch the next two races from the balcony before heading down for a closer look at some of the runners in the fourth.

I am delighted when Newbury Racecourse’s Social Editor and Communications Executive, introduces himself to us in the press box and asks about my work. We chat for a while and realise that we have a lot in common. I notice a Welsh lilt and we are quickly on to rugby – a sport that we both played to a decent level in our relative prime. He’s only just started his role here at Newbury and I thank him for getting our media passes arranged. He’s a genuinely nice guy and very welcoming. I promise to send him a link to my work.

My daughter is surprised when our complimentary dinner is served in the press box and I am pleased that she is enjoying herself so much. We tuck into our chicken salad with a side of Cornish Pasty with vigour.

Before we head trackside for the last race I introduce myself to a sports journalist, who has recently joined The Newbury News. I ask how he is finding the role and we talk a little about sport in and around the town. I wish him well and he heads off as we begin to pack away our things.

Being trackside is a very different experience to being up in the box. The atmosphere is light-hearted and festive. It has a sort of Glastonbury vibe, without the music and the mud. I honestly can’t think of a place that I would rather be than right here on a summer evening. As Silent Flame passes the post to win the last, we leave the rail and head home. We leave behind these Elysian Fields – these promised lands – this utopia.

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