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  • Writer's pictureAlan Aitken

Why the International Jockeys' Championship is a minefield

It might seem an odd thing to write about after the event is over, but the IJC every year is a remarkable contest and a remarkable contrast, that shows just how idiosyncratic racing uually is at Happy Valley and how it magically changes on one night every season.

Even trainer John Moore, who trained the winner that sealed Silvestre de Sousa's win on Wednesday, Experto Crede, had a chuckle that the same victory probably would have been impossible for the horse in th same field at a run of the mill midweek meeting.

"You know, the races on this night are just so different tactically to every other meeting here. The way that Silvestre and those others were able to come across without any trouble from wide draws in that race just wouldn't happen," Moore explained. "There'd be somebody hunting up under them trying to keep them wide and then there'd be somebody coming around and making life difficult at some other stage of the race or holding them in a pocket, something. I wouldn't say it's less competitive racing as such but it's certainly more gentlemanly in the IJC races."

A part of that is the new personnel - riders like Colin Keane (below) on Wednesday night, looking at Happy Valley with a clean slate and finding the quirky track no issue.

A partial list of jockeys who have ridden their first Happy Valley winner in a leg of the IJC during their first night there is Brett Prebble (second ride), Christophe Lemaire (third), Gavin Lerena (fourth), Andrasch Starke (first), Olivier Peslier (first), Nash Rawiller (second), Cornelio Velasquez (first), Victor Espinoza (fifth), James McDonald (second), Keita Tosaki (second), Christophe Soumillon (second) and Silvestre de Sousa (first). In the 2015 IJC, de Sousa, Tosaki (dead-heat with Ryan Moore) and Lerena (two wins) won or shared all four legs of the series on their first night at the track. Maybe Happy Valley is like golf or learning Japanese as a second language - the more you know, the more it sucks you into a vortex of frustration and over thinking that can just make it harder.

The new jockeys also approach their mounts without too many preconceived ideas. Many is the time an IJC leader is a horse which is normally a backmarker who just happened to begin well and the unfamiliar rider elected to go with the flow. Some work out with the new tactics, many don't.

But the night is a minefield for punters looking at the card with the usual expectations of tactics, of mad, rushing charges for the lead and no quarter given that are often replaced with steady, you-go-first tactics that see frontrunners punch well above their weight in the series over time, at all kinds of odds.

Winning leaders or on-pace winners at 20-1 are frequent as they are politiely left alone to stay balanced and breathing, instead of niggled and attacked from all sides, as often can happen the normal midweeks.

All the way winners like de Sousa's Glory Star on Wednesday night can happen any time, of course, but it was hard not to watch him go around to and then down the back straight unmolested in modest first half sectionals and not think: this would not happen normally.

Somebody would loop the field - these days some riders seem to be labouring under the view that it is compulsory - and maybe he wouldn't have got across so easily in the first place from gate twelve.

Those regular aspects of Happy Valley are more a feature than a bug - they're what keeps everyone on their toes in races there under normal circumstances and let the devil take the one who loses concentration for a second. But it also adds a good dollop of luck, also a built-in feature of the Valley, as a factor.

On Wednesday night, in most IJC races, luck remains as much a factor as it always is in horse racing but not nearly the factor that it is in Happy Valley horseracing under normal rules.

The luck you need at the IJC is guessing who is going get the benefits of the politeness then come up pleasantly surprised, like John Moore on Wednesday night, when it happens to be you.

And then it's midnight, we all turn back into pumpkins and get ready for the rough and tumble next week.

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