The progress made by star apprentice jockey Nicola Currie this year will carry her all the way to QIPCO British Champions Day as she will retain the ride on Raising Sand, one of the leading players in the Balmoral Handicap (sponsored by QIPCO) that closes the glittering card at Ascot on Saturday.
The contest boasts prize-money of £250,000, making it the richest mile handicap in Europe.
Lambourn trainer Jamie Osborne believes Currie’s 3lb apprentices’ allowance, which she is close to losing by virtue of her success this season, could be invaluable after the combination tasted victory in the Bet With Ascot Challenge Cup at the same course this month.
[(full)Watch Replay] () Currie and Raising Sand click at Ascot this month
“If that looks like happening, I’ll be putting the blockers on her because we might need that 3lb!” Osborne said.
“She’s ridden the horse twice and ridden him very well both times. She’s a tiny little bod on a great big giraffe but she handles him very well.
“He missed the cut last year and it was soft ground, so I was absolutely sick. Looking at that pot going away from us on soft ground was galling. I just hope this year we get the gods on our side.
“We were well aware that we probably needed to win last time in order to get the weight penalty in order to get into the Balmoral, but that race was also a great pot in itself. It would be a lovely end to his season if we could get our hands on the Balmoral.”
Currie very much shares the trainer’s enthusiasm.
“To be riding big winners at Ascot is what it’s all about,” the 24-year-old said. “It’s exciting to be going back there with a ride on QIPCO British Champions Day.
“Last time he bolted with me for about a furlong going to the start so I knew he was full of himself. Apart from that, it was straightforward enough. He’s not a hold-up horse but he also needs some cover as he can be keen. We almost hit the front too soon but it pretty much went to plan. I thought he’d be there or thereabouts and hopefully he will be again.”
It is a case of friends reunited with Osborne and Currie, with the Scottish-born rider having made such remarkable strides since moving to the yard of Richard Hughes in 2015.
“Nicola started with me many years ago and I gave her the first few rides of her career,” Osborne said. “She could always ride. We parted company, I questioned her dedication.
“Clearly she took that on board, she went to Richard Hughes and has grown up. She’s ultimately dedicated now, I think she’s a fantastic rider and I’m really happy it’s gone well for her. There was never any animosity when she left. She needed a change.”
Currie takes over the story. “I was thinking of just going back to being a work-rider and hopefully earning some money so I could get into buying and selling horses,” she recalled.
“By chance, a guy I was renting a room off in the village heard that Richard Hughes was looking for riders as he had just moved to Lambourn.
“He said that he would give me a chance for three months and it’s just gone from there. I owe him a lot, and I’ve had help from a lot of good people.”
She adds: “I’m not young anymore and maybe I appreciate what it means a little more. Some young lads you see trying to be an apprentice, they maybe take advantage of it a bit.”
With the help of agent Phil Shea, ambitious targets have been formulated.
“This year we wanted to be champion apprentice but perhaps we went the wrong way about it starting off,” she reveals. “We were looking for the bigger, outside rides with the bigger trainers and maybe we would have been better off going to the smaller meetings for five or six rides and picking up a lot more winners. But Jason Watson has been absolutely amazing in any case and it would have been very hard to beat him.”
In the ladies’ changing room, Currie usually has Josephine Gordon for company. The 2016 Stobart Champion Apprentice has made a smooth transition to the big league and has become a role model and confidant combined.
“Josie and I are close,” she says. “We’ll talk through races, or help each other if we’ve ridden a horse before. It’s nice having someone to vent off to in the weighing room and it makes the time pass much quicker during those cold winters.
“She rode 100 winners in a year and I think that’s something I’d like to aim for next. Losing my claim is daunting but I suppose I’m also looking forward to it. It makes it more difficult, but at the same time losing your claim when you’re an apprentice is the goal you’re aiming for. I can do light weights, I can hopefully get a few outside rides for bigger trainers and take it from there.”
Currie is now perhaps one of the most famous exports of Arran, the picturesque island off the west coast of Scotland which is said to have once given shelter to Robert The Bruce.
“I certainly don’t think any other jockeys have come from there,” she says with a chuckle. “I was usually off the island in competitions when I was getting into horses. It’s great going back home - my parents aren’t into racing at all and my mum doesn’t understand it when I’m venting about having given a horse a bad ride. She usually thinks I’ve given it a great ride.
“They are getting into it a bit more, they watch all my races, and my gran often goes down to the local pub where they always have it on now. They usually give me a bit of stick when I’m back, but it’s all good fun.”