Happy as Harry

Harry Bentley derailed the Dettori juggernaut on Gold Cup day, a notable victory in a career that is taking off

Harry Bentley feels he has improved over the past few years but knows he must continue to move forward – Photo: George Selwyn

Your last two seasons have been your best in terms of both winners and prize-money and you are currently close up in the jockeys’ championship. What has been the key to the best form of your career?

My agent Paul Clarke is representing me day-to-day talking to all the trainers and that is so important, having a good relationship with all the professionals. This is my tenth season riding and so much is about making contacts, riding for lots of stables and striking up good relationships with trainers.

They have to have faith in you and you must respect them for that. I think my riding has probably improved over the years and the key is to try to keep on improving all the time.

Unlike most of your colleagues you ride in Qatar, where you have been champion jockey six times, before the UK turf season begins. How did the Qatar link come about?

The Qatar link itself came as a result of me being in Dubai for the three previous winters. I went to Dubai when I was 18 and the wife of a friend was working in the Qatar Racing Club. My friend got in touch to say he thought there might be an opening for me in Qatar and that he would book my rides. They race there on Wednesdays and Thursdays.

I finished last on my first ride but kept going back and gradually gathered momentum riding for trainers Julian Smart and Jassim Al Ghazali. I ended up champion jockey and won their Derby in my first Qatar campaign and that was after starting when their season had been going for two months. I have returned every year since, live in Dubai and fly over to Qatar for the racing.

Nowadays, because of political differences between Qatar and Dubai, I have to travel via Oman, which involves four flights a week and works out at about 100 a season for what should be a relatively short trip.

Your association with Ralph Beckett goes from strength to strength. Are you stable jockey and does it give you more confidence when attached to a powerful yard?

I am not the retained jockey as such but I do ride regularly for Ralph. Last season we struck up a good relationship and now he is the main trainer I ride for. You have a chance of more rides being attached and riding out regularly for a big yard.

In those circumstances, when you find yourself on a nice two-year-old in the morning, you know it’s quite likely you could be teaming up again at the races. I ride out twice a week for Ralph at Kimpton and also for George Scott in Newmarket, where I am based.

You rode your first Royal Ascot winner on the Ralph Beckett-trained Biometric in the Britannia Stakes last month. What did it mean to you and, on the day, did you feel you’d upset everyone’s party by ending Frankie Dettori’s incredible winning run?

Obviously, it’s a big milestone after having a few rides there over the years and good to get the monkey off my back! A great feeling and I’m so pleased to have done it. Royal Ascot is our World Cup and the most important meeting of the year, possibly in the world and incredibly important to win there.

But I didn’t have any afterthoughts about Frankie’s winning run because we have to go out with the mindset that it’s the same as any other race and you’ve got to beat all the jockeys.

I didn’t feel guilty, even though there must have been a few upset punters! Frankie was absolutely fine and shook my hand in the weighing-room afterwards.

After spending so much time hunting with the Crawley and Horsham why did you choose the Flat over jumping?

My father was involved in the pointing world and also had jumpers. More than anything, my size, or lack of it, had a big say because I have always been very small. My parents aren’t very big either, so I knew I had the right genetics to be a Flat jockey; it would have been silly not to grab the opportunity.

Of course, the prize-money is more attractive than over jumps and, with luck, there should be fewer injuries.

Before leaving school at Eastbourne College, was there pressure on you to pursue a degree or further qualifications instead of your desired route into racing?

When I was doing my GCSEs I didn’t think there was any option other than to carry on to A-Levels and then university. I had been riding out for Richard Rowe since I was 12 and afterwards for Gary Moore, who offered me my apprentice licence.

I broached the subject with my parents, who said if I really wanted to be a jockey I must give it a shot and they would be right behind me. Dad used to drive me into work every morning at 5am for two years until I passed my test.

You spent three years working for Gary Moore. What did you learn in that time with the workaholic Moore dynasty?

The Moore family are workaholics and because I didn’t know any different, I thought their non-stop routine was the norm. All of them are incredible workers and as I was the ‘wannabe’ jockey, I had to show I wanted it and that meant working extremely hard to keep up with them. It was the best grounding possible and a big reality check.

I was mucking out, feeding, riding out three or four lots, grooming and then going back in the afternoon to pick bags of grass or dandelions for the horses in the evening.

If I moaned to one of the lads they’d tell me I was the apprentice and that’s what you have to do, crack on with it. After that, working in Dubai was like a holiday!

Bentley and Biometric (left) get the better of Turgenev and Frankie Dettori in the Britannia Stakes at Royal Ascot – Photo: George Selwyn

Ryan Moore gave you a life-changing tip while riding out one morning. Can you tell us about it?

On one of the rare occasions that I rode out with Ryan, I asked him if he thought it a good idea for me to go and work somewhere in the winter for more experience – America, perhaps. But Ryan reckoned that I would be lonely in America aged 18.

He suggested Dubai to me, where he had worked for Satish Seemar and said that he knew someone in the office there. He mentioned this to his mum, Jayne, who ended up organising for me to go there for the winter, whereas originally I had intended to be away for only a month.

I owe a lot to Gary and Jayne because most bosses would not let their apprentice go away for that length of time. They could not have been more supportive by introducing me to racing in the Middle East and at the same time looking after me when I came home.

Did you find the culture change from the Sussex hunting scene to racing in Dubai and Qatar a big challenge?

It was definitely a big change and something totally new to me, particularly when you are used to the Sussex countryside and you suddenly find yourself surrounded by the amazing high-rise development that is Dubai.

I hadn’t been long out of boarding school and it was a shock to the system, but in all the right ways.

Riding work round the racetrack was new to me, but there were a number of British jockeys out there and they helped me settle in. I embraced the whole new scene and really took it on board. I was the only UK apprentice there at the time.

As the only claimer riding there I found myself getting six rides on a card, whereas in England I’d been getting a couple of rides a week. That was a big change and I felt my riding improved as a result of all that extra racing experience.

In England I had ridden 16 winners, but working for Satish Seemar I had 17 winners, including one at the Dubai Carnival. That did a lot for me, personally and professionally. Now, after going there for nine years, Dubai is like a second home.

What is your long-term riding plan?

My plan is to continue riding in England in the summer and spending winters in the Middle-East. I am only 27, relatively young with no ties at home and want to make hay while the sun shines. Basically, keep travelling until I have commitments. That’s my intention.

In England, the racing is so relentless with so many fixtures and so much driving involved between afternoon and evening meetings. Whereas going away for the winter I am racing three or four days a week and riding out most mornings, but when I am not racing there’s no travelling.

I am keeping busy with 400 rides a winter, but overall the racing is nothing like as intense as it is in the UK. I think that is quite good mentally as we keep racing and working but at a less hectic pace.

Limato is the horse you are most associated with, having enjoyed two Group 1 wins on this talented performer. What sets him apart from the rest?

He has been an important part of my career and gave me my two biggest wins in the July Cup and Prix de la Foret in 2016. In that respect he has been absolutely fantastic.

He won a very, very strong renewal of the July Cup. That first Group 1 will always be very special.

Limato is still a highly talented horse and I’m sure there’ll be another good race in him this year. He’s one I’ll never forget.

It’s not always been plain sailing. Your lucrative retainer with Sheikh Fahad Al Thani’s Qatar Racing ended in 2014, while you lost rides on the aforementioned Limato and top filly Lightning Thunder. How do you handle those situations?

It’s a setback that all jockeys have to deal with at some stage of their career, be it losing a job, a retainer or a ride. At the end of the day, those situations can prove testing and are never nice to cope with. Now I am older I can handle those challenging circumstances a bit better.

When I lost the job with Sheikh Fahad’s Qatar Racing, I knew in the back of my mind it was the right thing for me as well. I found it difficult being in such a position at that early stage of my career.

Qatar Racing had a lot of horses with different trainers, who didn’t necessarily want to use you when they had their own stable jockey.

Being young and inexperienced, a situation like that would inevitably sow seeds of doubt in your mind and get you wondering if you were good enough. Then you’d begin to lose confidence in yourself. In any sport confidence is a massive asset.

As soon as you start to lose that confidence your performance takes a hit. I suppose at the end of the day, rather than being an optimist or pessimist, I am a realist.

A recently published survey revealed that over 86% of jockeys are either experiencing stress, anxiety or depression. Has this happened to you and how could the situation be improved for jockeys?

I have not experienced depression, though I admit we do work in a stressful environment. Being a jockey is a stressful job for different reasons. You can go through a bad patch and think you’re never going to ride another winner, or keep finishing second. Those reverses can chip away at you. Maybe you’re not getting the rides you think you should be.

All the time you are watching your weight – I’m lucky waking up 8st 6lb most mornings – and, on top of that, continually driving thousands of miles can get to you.

But don’t misunderstand me, when the job is going well and you’re banging in the winners you realise what a great job it is to be working in one of the best sports worldwide.

Reducing our fixture list would relieve some of the pressure because there is an awful lot of racing, non-stop through the year. It has become relentless. Do we need Sunday racing? I don’t know.

I am not sure what the answer is, apart from cutting down on the amount of racing, which will probably never happen.

You are known as something of a petrolhead. Have you driven racing/rally cars?

I have never driven racing or rally cars but it’s something I’d love to do. If I had another chosen career it would be as a racing driver.

I have been to the Goodwood Festival of Speed numerous times but I have never driven round the circuit, though I have to say that’s something I really want to do.

All my driving at the moment is to and from the races in my BMW 5 Series.

What is your ultimate ambition as a jockey?

To ride English Classic and Group 1 winners and also do well abroad. I know it’s a bit of a cliché, but I just want to be as successful as I possibly can.

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