It was a perfect day for it. Under a warm bright sky lightly doodled with cloud, a fair smattering of racing's hardcore convened on Newmarket's Rowley Mile to greet the awakening flat season. The mood was relaxed, sleepy perhaps, as the overture to the 2022 Classic campaign played out across the Suffolk sward.
I was among the gathering, there - like most - to welcome back a dear old friend. And, more specifically, to catch up with two dear young friends, David Probert and Marco Ghiani. Between them, in their geegeez-liveried breeches they've amassed 826 wins, and counting, in Britain: David with 679 since May 2016 and Marco with 147 since July 2020.
As well as being sponsored by this website, they have another thing in common: both have been crowned Champion Apprentice. David's title was in 2008, jointly with William Buick, with whom he looks set to contest the jockeys' championship this year; Marco's was last year, and followed on from his All Weather Champion Apprentice title, the first rider, we think, to win both awards.
Remarkably, that's not the last of the silverware these two have aggregated, as David holds a 20 winner edge over his nearest rival in the All Weather Jockeys' Championship, which draws to a close this Good Friday at Newcastle. His lead is unassailable and the championship is due reward for one of the hardest-working and most professional pilots in the peloton. Given that this is a cohort defined by its consistent endeavour and professionalism, to stand apart is a difficult task indeed.
The switch to agent Neil Allan has been a major catalyst in David's ascendant profile over the past five years when, in 2016 after his lowest annual total since 2008 (60 winners), he has since come home in front 94, 102, 112, 98 (Covid), and last year a whopping 170 times. With 55 on the board already in 2022, David is poised to challenge his own high score once more.
Asked if such a hectic riding schedule has allowed time to reflect and enjoy, he conceded, "it's been a bit manic, but with only riding one meeting a day you get a little time to yourself. It has sunk in a little bit, and I'm delighted with the achievement. I've usually been thereabouts through the winter, finishing second a couple of times, and I was lucky enough to get a good lead early on, which I've been able to maintain. I don't have to share this one either!"
With fourteen years having passed since his Apprentice title, Probert's latest accolade is testament to that aforementioned graft mentality and to the support of Allan and a growing rolodex of trainers large and small. For a quietly spoken man based away from the racing heartlands of Newmarket and Middleham, it's a brilliant achievement.
Although it feels almost churlish to move on to the turf flat season without due reflection on the fruits of the winter passed, such is the hemispheric nature of the sport. I ask about aspirations for the turf and the response is immediate and unequivocal. "I want to ride better horses. I've got a few chances this year with the likes of Sandrine [as short as 14/1 for the 1000 Guineas], who looks really well and has filled out since last year. She did a good piece of work over a mile the other day so we're very hopeful she'll stay the Guineas trip. She's going to go straight there. And there's a few nice three-year-olds coming through, too."
As we were speaking, the current champion jockey, Oisin Murphy, was part of a convoy including Dominic Ffrench Davis and Gay Kelleway en route to Poland on a mercy mission. His absence from defending his title has been well publicised but the implications in terms of riding plans at Andrew Balding's Kingsclere stables, provider of a sizeable chunk of the champ's total in recent seasons, less so. "Being a part of that yard has always been good and given me plenty of winners. I think this year I'll ride the majority, with some of the nicer horses shared out between myself, Rob [Hornby] and Jason [Watson]. Obviously, things change so we'll just have to play it by ear."
And what about the Flat Jockeys' Championship? "It's a dream. To do that, it's all about doubles and trebles and getting a good book of rides. As long as I can ride some good ones along the way I'll be happy." As short as 8/1 to win the title, it could be more realistic than the average dream.
Away from the All Weather Championships, I was keen to ask David about a few other issues. Firstly, how the new surface at Southwell is riding. "It's getting better all the time", he relates. "At the beginning, I think they maybe didn't have the right equipment for the new tapeta 10 surface and were relying on the old fibresand harrows. It wasn't binding as well as they'd hoped to begin with, so it was riding very 'dead' and tacky compared to Wolverhampton where they have a more established tapeta surface. But now it seems to be riding really well."
Also, how is the weighing room since Covid? "It's changed. We had individual booths during Covid and now the tracks are redeveloping the facilities to be mindful of safeguarding requirements for younger jockeys, and also to provide better changing rooms for the women riders. I think Covid has actually forced these changes through a little bit where these things might not have got done for a few more years, so that's been really positive."
As we are chatting, a familiar grin emerges from the weighing room. It is the perma-smiling Marco Ghiani in customary happy mode. He exchanges a greeting with David and then sits down to share a few thoughts on his own story so far.
Since joining Stuart Williams as an apprentice in 2019, Marco has finished in front 171 times from 1096 rides at time of writing, a fantastic career win rate of 15.6%. After a winless 2018, albeit from only 11 rides, 2019 saw the Sardinian score 22 times from 131 rides, starting with his first mount of the year, Lunar Deity, at 33/1. 2020 was blighted for everyone by Covid, and apprentice jockeys found opportunities severely restricted. But, thereafter, it's been a relentless tale of success for Marco, capped by that memorable Apprentice Championship double. Now he's riding off level weights with the big boys and relishing the prospect.
This time last year, Marco was about to be crowned Champion All Weather Apprentice. Recalling that period, he says, "It was really good but also very scary, because I only won by four and I was always looking over my shoulder. At that time, I was given 21 days off and Laura [Pearson] took three weeks off, and we still managed to be first and second. If she didn't take the time off maybe she would have been closer still. It felt amazing. I couldn't ride a winner the year before but after Christmas it started really picking up."
As already touched upon, being a jockey offers little time for celebration with the turf season following hard on the heels of its all-weather twin. And, after a quiet enough start, Marco was at it again, racking up 51 winners, 16 clear of the next best. The undisputed highlight was, of course, Real World's incredible near five length win in the Royal Hunt Cup at Royal Ascot.
"I didn't expect it", remarks Ghiani, mirroring the view of most punters given the 18/1 at which he was returned. "He was very well handicapped, because I was carrying only eight stone six. He'd been running in Meydan but not showing that much. I rode him the day before in his work, and he was so laid back; and after, he was blowing that hard, I thought he'd probably need the race. But he showed a really good attitude, and obviously progressed all season. He's the best horse I've sat on, so far."
A certain other Italian, now in the veteran stage of his career but riding as well as ever, took over aboard Real World for a Group 2 triumph at Longchamp before a second G2 score, this time in Meydan under Danny Tudhope. Then followed a couple of relatively lacklustre efforts on the dirt in the Saudi Cup and Dubai World Cup. Marco remains hopeful of getting back on top when Real World reverts to British turf action, but he acknowledges that may not now be so easy.
Ascot was Marco's happy place last term and, a couple of months later, he was back there on British Champions' Day to receive his Champion Apprentice title; and this time - with Covid's spectre diminishing - his family were there to witness it.
Also in 2021, Marco's son, Louis, was born, his dad just 22 at the time. "I think it really helped me, to concentrate more on the job rather than going out or doing other things. And he's made me very happy", says the clearly content young father. Asked about plans for a brother or sister for Louis, the smile broadens still further in spite of a firm rebuttal, for the time being at least.
Now sights are fixed firmly forward: he'll be riding freelance this year, but with a retained jockey position for prominent owner Ahmad al Shaikh, whose Khalifa Sat was second in the 2020 Derby. Ghiani is excited about the ride on Hoo Ya Mal in the Craven as the starting point of that new relationship.
Elsewhere, he has been riding out for George Scott, William Knight, Marco Botti, Ed Dunlop, Owen Burrows, Roger Varian and Charlie Hills, as well as old boss and mentor, Stuart Williams. So, he's keeping busy in good company and hoping the opportunities will follow as the season progresses. "This season is about getting more experience, and more contacts, and hopefully winning some more big races."
Both Marco and David are striding boldly into the new season with every chance of it being a memorable one. All of us at geegeez.co.uk wish them the very best of luck.