Robinson answers the call to arms

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 September, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 September, 2003, 12:00am

Philip Robinson calls from his hotel room, just outside Leeds. It is 10.15am; he needs to be at Chester racecourse, about 110km away, shortly after midday, but he can spare a few minutes. He is apologetic, explaining that he only got his wife's message to make the call late the previous night. During the day he had been riding at Beverley racecourse, more than 250km from his home in Newmarket, so he decided to find a hotel midway between Beverley and Chester, then return home the following night.

After a few minutes on the phone, room service arrives. Robinson says he'll call back after he's had some toast and coffee. This is the reality of life on the move for jockeys in Britain - two days, two race meetings, about 765km and nine hours on the road, time away from the family, snatched meals, and phone calls in between.

Plenty of phone calls. The mobile phone is a lifeline for British jockeys, who often ride seven days a week during the summer, sometimes even at an afternoon and an evening meeting on the same day. Britain's 59 racecourses are spread across the country and most jockeys will see at least half of them during the year. It is a hectic schedule and one which relies on a constant stream of calls to agents and trainers, deciding which courses and which horses to ride the next day, and the next, and the next.

If the Jockey Club has its way, however, all riders will be cut off thanks to a new edict which bans the use of mobile phones in the changing rooms during race meetings. Jockeys are only allowed to make calls from a designated 'phone zone' within the weighing room; they are not allowed to receive calls, no text messages can be sent and all calls must be logged, with the Jockey Club reserving the right to check phone records to corroborate the logbook.

The Jockey Club says the move, which mirrors restrictions in force in Hong Kong, Australia and South Africa among others, is necessary to protect the integrity of racing.

The jockeys, led by Robinson, say the ban is unworkable, a restraint on their business and a slur on their collective character.

They have already caused the abandonment of one race meeting after staging a protest boycott and litigation is threatened to resolve the issue.

Robinson's return call is delayed - he has had more things to sort out. The mobile-phone issue has added to his workload. 'We're still in negotiations and we're hoping to find some common ground with the Jockey Club - we don't think we're too far apart,' he says. 'Basically the stumbling block is that they just don't want us to have our phones switched on during race meetings, but that's unrealistic.'

As the only Englishman to win the Hong Kong jockeys' championship in the professional era, with back-to-back wins in the 1988-89 and 1989-90 seasons, Robinson is aware that things are viewed differently in his former home. 'In Hong Kong basically everything is sorted out at trackwork and all the jockeys and trainers are at the races together, so there's no need to make a phone call on a raceday,' he says.

'I know there are phone bans in other countries, but they haven't got anywhere near the travelling that British jockeys have. Here it's much busier, more hectic, and we constantly need to be in touch with our managers and trainers. It's a Europe-wide business - if I'm offered a ride in France, I need to be able to say yes straight away, or I'll lose that chance.'

Robinson has become the public face of the jockeys' protests, which have made front-page news in Britain, but he stresses that the riders are united. 'It is not just down to me,' he says. 'All the jockeys talked about it and we felt that we needed to take legal advice and somebody had to put their name to it, and that somebody was me. It is absolutely ridiculous - at the moment a lot of the jockeys feel like naughty schoolboys, hiding round corners to make calls. They can't police it, so people will still make calls - it's unworkable.'

The mobile-phone row is a distraction from another successful season for Robinson, who is 18th in the British jockeys' table with a career-high 60 winners but has the sixth-highest strike-rate at 16 per cent. The strike-rate is a better reflection of his enduring talent, which he has been careful to guard against burnout. After his last stint in Hong Kong, during the 1996-97 season, when his tally of winners advanced to 171, he took a year off from riding - a career break many would envy, but few try, even rich sportsmen.

Robinson, 42, says he wanted to spend time with wife Gill and his children Lisa, now 18, Amy, 16, and Daniel, 13. 'It was just something I wanted to do and it was the right time in my life to do it. I travelled round America and Canada on my own for about nine weeks and then I spent a whole year with the family. I could do whatever I wanted - play tennis or golf, go fishing or skiing. It was the best year of my life. I didn't sit on a racehorse for a whole year, not even riding work, and I don't think I watched a single race on TV.'

There was never any doubt that he would return to the racecourse but Robinson still tries to strike the right balance between work and relaxation. 'The schedule can be absolutely killing so I don't rush around riding every horse I could. I'm very selective and I try to take days off when I can.'

Robinson, whose most important wins in Hong Kong came in the Champions & Chater Cup and the Hong Kong Gold Cup (twice), remains a man for the big occasion. In 1999 he won the French Derby on Holding Court, two more European Classics on the filly Crimplene, and ended the year with nine Group One victories. In 2001 he rode Ameerat to an emotional success in the 1,000 Guineas at Newmarket, giving trainer Michael Jarvis (Robinson's main supporter and also the trainer of Holding Court) his first English Classic winner after 34 years in the game, and taking Robinson's tally to three.

This year, Robinson's biggest success came in the Group One Coronation Cup at Epsom aboard Warrsan but he has high hopes for the Jarvis-trained Italian Group One winner Rakti, a possible for the International Races at Sha Tin.

'Every year I think I might get the chance to ride in Hong Kong in December but it's the end of a long season in England and I've had my hopes dashed before. Rakti is a marvellous horse and I think he would be perfect for Hong Kong, so I hope he makes it there. Of course, he has to be selected first.

'I love Hong Kong. I made some wonderful friends while I was there and learnt an awful lot about racing, more than I would have learnt if I'd just stayed in England. Every meeting in Hong Kong had an atmosphere like Royal Ascot - it was electric and I've never experienced anything like it anywhere else in the world. It would be great to ride there again and even better to have a winner.'




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