Seven championships in 13 seasons is not a bad success rate in anybody's book. Yet Ted Durcan keeps things low-key when he talks about his achievements and admits luck has played a big part. He may be being modest, but his record speaks for itself. In addition to the seven UAE champion jockey wins, he also recorded two triumphs on Dubai World Cup night in 2000 and has two English Classics victories - the 2007 Oaks for Henry Cecil and the St Leger for Godolphin this summer.
"I was lucky enough to be leading rider seven times," he says. "I won it six years outright and shared it with Richie Mullen one year. It is always a huge thrill." Is an eighth title on the cards? Durcan is not sure. He won his seventh title in the 2007-8 season, but was 11th last year after arriving much later to the UAE. The reason for this is that, as the Irishman's star has risen in the Emirates, so have his commitments in England. He missed a month of racing before his return to the country this season. Ahead of meetings today and on Sunday and six weekends into the calendar, Durcan has two winners while his friend and current leading rider, Tadhg O'Shea, boasts 13.
"I've got commitments in England so I have to stay there for the end of the season," he says. "I love riding out here, but I have to miss the opening month and it means I don't ride the whole season, so my focus has to be on the Carnival." Jockeys like O'Shea, who is in his first winter as a retained rider for Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid, Royston Ffrench, from the in-form yard of Ali Rashid al Raihe, and Wayne Smith, from Musabah al Muhairi's stables, have a huge head-start.
As the Dubai Racing Carnival heats up, however, Durcan is likely to fight his way up the table. "It's great to win it because it means you've ridden loads of winners and every jockey wants to ride as many as possible. If you are in the running, it means you are having an excellent season," says Durcan. "But you can't be everywhere and I have to keep my commitments in England happy. But we'll see how it goes."
Unlike many jockeys in Ireland who quit school to begin their riding career, the 36-year-old finished his education and secured a place at college to study hotel management before taking to the saddle. And his introduction to horse racing was not through his family, who are in the legal profession, but via the Irish showjumping circuit. "I came to it late," he says. "I secured a place in college, but only to keep my parents happy. I knew in my heart of hearts it was never an option. I always had a huge interest in racing."
He put education on the back burner and instead started down a hard road that begins with simply exercising horses and ends, for a few, with race riding. The word luck often pops up in Durcan's conversation, but it is also hard work that has got him where he is. For two seasons he excercised leading trainer Paddy Rudkin's horses before making it on to a UAE track on race day. But when he did it was in style in the colours of Sheikh Rashid bin Mohammed on horses out of Satish Seemar's Zabeel Stables.
"Sheikh Rashid's horses gave me a lot of firepower and while I was riding for him I was lucky enough to spend the summers in England working for Godolphin," Durcan says. "I was still riding in England as a kind of freelance and I always had a flexible link with Godolphin who have been really good to me." That arrangement continues and while Frankie Dettori is Godolphin's jockey, an operation as huge as the one that runs in royal blue, always needs extra race riders.
"It's great to be on the list and I know I have been spoiled," says Durcan, who rates his St Leger win aboard Mastery as one of his best days in racing. "That's why it was so great to give something back with Mastery." It was great for Godolphin too as, despite a barnstorming finish to the European season, the St Leger represents their only English Classic of 2009. The fact that Durcan and Mastery battled it out with Godolphin's Kite Wood ridden by Dettori for a one-two finish made the race even greater.
"It was one of those afternoons," says Durcan. "Mastery was obviously second string, but everyone in the camp was very sweet on him, and with reason because the horse was blooming. We were having a rare hot spell and this horse loves hearing his hooves rattle. "Kite Wood is an exceptional horse in the making and the ground was probably just a bit lively for him. Most of the other runners were not sure to stay, but everyone knew my horse wanted every yard. In the dressing room jockeys wait their whole lives to win a Classic. For me to win two, I know how spoiled I am. To win one for Godolphin was the best way to say thank you."