Jockey Royston Ffrench has never been one to shy away from a challenge, whether that is standing up to racism, issues in the weighing room or moving to a new country in search of winning rides.
His journey from working “dead-end jobs” to landing a $5m Group One in Dubai is a story of pioneering and perseverance.
Ffrench has worked his way to the top after being first introduced to horses by his uncle Errol while still at school in Donnington, Telford, where he first learned to stand up for himself.
“Being a little black lad down in Donnington they thought I was easy pickings and I’d be lying to say that there wasn’t any racism along the way,” Ffrench told Sky Sports Racing.
“Thankfully my father paid for karate lessons so when confronted I was able to sort it out myself.”
Despite a few early falls and getting “run away with” on one occasion during pony lessons, Ffrench stuck to his guns and eventually landed a place at the British Racing School in Newmarket.
It was here, in one of Ffrench’s first classes, he would boldly introduce himself: “I’m Royston Ffrench and I have no experience in racing at all.”
Despite his humble beginnings, Ffrench raced through to graduation in 1995 and soon found himself a job with top trainer Luca Cumani, home then to rising star Frankie Dettori.
“I was one of just a few black kids down at Newmarket,” Ffrench recalls. “It was a little daunting at first but I was always up for a challenge.
“Myself, my uncle Errol and my uncle Conrad turned up at Luca’s stable – two big black fellas and a little black lad. You’d never really seen that and everyone acknowledged it. I don’t think they really knew what to make of it!
“There were a few laughs and giggles about it along the way.”
Ffrench settled in fast at racing’s headquarters, with help from the likes of Dettori, but the weighing room was not without the odd issue.
“Coming from Luca’s, Frankie [Dettori] was always very helpful, as was Ray Cochrane, Kevin Darley and Michael Tebbutt – they looked after me very well,” Ffrench explains.
“There were a couple of senior lads that got a little bit naughty, but I was able to confront them and sort it out.”
By 1997, Ffrench – now dubbed the ‘Tiger Woods of the track’ – was flying, winning the valuable Cesarewitch Handicap at Newmarket, becoming champion apprentice and earning a top job with another powerful trainer, Mark Johnston.
“I had a fantastic time [with Luca Cumani]. They had High Rise [1998 Derby winner], Zomaradah [1998 Italian Oak winner] and Kalanisi [1999 Heron Stakes winner]. I was very fortunate to be a Luca’s at that time.
“Whether you’re a jockey, owner or trainer, that’s what we all strive to work with.
“As I was becoming a fully-fledged jockey, I was riding for Mark [Johnston] and he offered me a job up north.
“It was very different to Newmarket – a lot colder!”
Ffrench’s $5m day in the sun
Disappointed by a lack of winter rides, Ffrench would soon seek warmer climates as he uprooted to Dubai for a job as work rider at Godolphin.
It was at Meydan that Ffrench would enjoy his moment in the sun, landing the Dubai Duty Free on 40/1 outsider Al Shemali at the 2010 Dubai World Cup.
“It was quite amazing to get a ride on World Cup night, it’s something special,” Ffrench recalls.
“I’m always quite confident and try my best but realistically he was about a 40/1 outsider.
“I can remember it like it was yesterday. I was meant to sit in a handy position but that didn’t go to plan and I was mid-division.
“As the race progressed, Al Shemali was just progressing himself and I thought I might have a bit of a chance.
“I turned in and still had a lot to do but he was still going forward for me. I gave it my best and he picked up on the outside and ran on strongly.
“I don’t do celebrations after the line and I just put my head down shaking, thinking: ‘Has this really happened?'”
Eleven years on, Ffrench, now 46, is as motivated as ever as he continues to search for winners at home and abroad.
There are no plans yet for retirement, but when that day does come, Ffrench wants to give back to the sport he loves.
“I’d like to put something back into racing, whether that’s jockey coaching or teaching kids how to ride,” Ffrench explains.
“Another option is going into the inner cities and educating the younger generation, making racing for everybody. Racing isn’t all about being a jockey.”
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