With the Cheltenham Festival taking place this week the Sports Gazette spoke to amateur jump jockey Zac Baker about his career in the saddle.
SG: What’s your earliest racing memory?
ZB: I’d say when Dad used to shoe a lot of horses at Bath Racecourse [Zac’s father was a blacksmith] that was the first racecourse I ever went to, and I always have memories of standing in the number box by the pre-parade ring and handing out numbers when I was about seven or eight, if that. I wasn’t really that interested up to that point but when I started riding later on I really got into it.
SG: Was there anything in particular that led to your love of racing?
ZB: Obviously following my brother George a lot [Zac’s elder brother George was a successful flat jockey, riding 1,364 winners before a serious fall curtailed his career] I used to watch a lot of racing on the telly, and I used to enjoy going to a lot of the big meetings if George was riding at Ascot, or Epsom on Derby day, that was great fun. When I started actually getting into it myself and jumping a few poles and watching McCoy, that really got me going.
AP McCoy, Zac Baker’s racing hero
SG: Who was your racing hero when you were growing up?
ZB: I think it would have to be AP McCoy. It’s a very generic answer but he was brilliant to watch and the way he conducted himself and the way he went about things was brilliant.
SG: Did you try to base your style on him at all?
ZB: I think you can mix a few peoples’ styles. McCoy, the way he went about things in general was brilliant, I try to be a bit more stylish and mix a few of those top jockeys, they’ve all got their positives and negatives. McCoy was always very strong but he wouldn’t be the most stylish. People always think of Richard Dunwoody as being the first style icon, the way he rode with the toe in the iron and a flat back, I try and base myself on a couple of jockeys and pick out the good points.
SG: What has been the highlight of your racing career so far?
ZB: Everyone’s going to remember me winning on The New One [in the Welsh Champion Hurdle in 2017], it was a brilliant win and I didn’t really feel the pressure until after I’d won on him, I thought ‘crikey I’ve just won’ and it all sunk in.
But I think BenBens in the same colours was a bit more of a thrill, he wasn’t fancied and he’d always been a bit of a bridesmaid finishing second and third, and I got on really well with him. Sandown would be one of my favourite jumps tracks, and the way he went round there and jumped the fences it was fantastic, he never missed a beat and it was just the best thrill ever coming up that hill and winning on the line, especially on the oldest horse in the race.
Zac Baker won the Amateur Riders’ Handicap Chase at Ascot in January, aboard Blue Flight
SG: What is your ultimate ambition in racing?
ZB: I’ve always wanted to get to 100 winners, by the end of this season I think I’m going to do that [he is currently on 92 winners combined, between 60 in Point-to Points and 32 in National Hunt races]. I’m not quite sure after that, a lot of professional jockeys want to ride their claim out [75 National Hunt wins] that would be amazing if I could do that, but it’s not a million miles off. I think something ridiculous like only 3% of jockeys ride out their claim.
I’d love to ride 100 winners Pointing, that would be the next one. I hate setting overall goals, I like to pick little ones along the way. If you set one massive one it might take you your whole career to reach it. I’m enjoying it at the moment, that’s the main thing.
SG: Why does the racing lifestyle appeal to you?
ZB: As much as I might complain about having to work all day I actually enjoy having a busy lifestyle. I can never sit still for too long, it’s very boring. I really like living life at a million miles an hour. Going and schooling horses over fences, riding out every day, I ride as many lots as I can and work all day and then when you finish that’s it, I’d fall asleep on a barbed wire fence if I needed to, I’d be that tired. I’d rather it be that way round than sitting in an office all day, whittling away and having a really boring time of it. Working with horses is brilliant, I’ve always got on quite well with them, and they don’t talk back to you, which is fantastic.
SG: We all know about jockeys and their struggles with weight, what struggles have you had? [Zac is unusually tall for a jockey, at 6’2’’]
ZB: Over my career, the first couple of seasons I was always very light, because I hadn’t really filled out. The more I’ve gone on I go through stages; when I got to 18 I got a bit heavier and then when I got to 21 I got heavier again, and now I’m probably heavier than I’ve ever been. It’s a massive struggle, especially when you’re so busy, to try and concentrate on your weight every day, it can make you depressed and you see a lot of jockeys getting depressed over it.
I’m quite lucky in that I’ve stuck to the amateur route and so I haven’t had to kill myself to make the weight, there’s the occasional ride I’ll have to get it down for, but I think I’m a lot better off, keeping it at a level weight. And being so busy it helps a lot because you don’t have time to eat loads, and when you do stop you fall asleep most of the time, and you forget to eat so that’s a bonus! I could improve my diet but it’s a hard one to think about it all day every day.
SG: As a jump jockey there’s the ever-present dangers that go with racing, what’s your philosophy in terms of the dangers and how do you approach it?
ZB: Everyone knows they’re there, and there’s no bravery without fear and we all buzz off the high, and if you weren’t scared of it you wouldn’t get the same buzz. But I think the high is better than the injury at the end of the day and like McCoy said, ‘pain is temporary, glory is forever’, I think if it was more safe and there was no risk of injury it would be quite boring and everyone would do it. It’s a shame when you do get injured because you’re missing out on rides and you’re pulling your hair out, and obviously there’s the pain and all the rest of it. But you enjoy it so much that you push yourself through it. I think I’ve always taken it as the risk is worth the reward at the end of the day.
A bit like F1 drivers, they’re going at 200 mph all day and if they crash it’s pretty likely they’re going to hurt themselves. But the health and safety in racing’s got a lot better with helmets and body protectors, touch wood it’s not as bad as when they were going round with cork hats and jumping solid fences.
All jump jockeys know that a serious injury could be only one race away
SG: In terms of animal welfare, the various animal rights groups are quite vocal about racing these days, what would you say to them?
ZB: The health and safety and well-being of horses has come on loads since I’ve been in racing. The vets are so good now looking after the horses, literally every precaution is taken to minimise injury, the sticks are changing and everyone’s on about whip bans, it’s come on in leaps and bounds.
With the Grand National if they made the fences any smaller and plainer, it wouldn’t be the Grand National it’d just be another handicap. If you watch back when the drop on Becher’s Brook was massive, they went a lot slower, but now everyone’s trying to go faster and get fitter and the speed does the damage. If the obstacles are smaller you’re probably more likely to have a fall because you’re going that much quicker and the margin for error is narrower.
Also it’s a case of educating the public, it’s such an open sport, a lot of trainers do tours and it’s brilliant because it gives the background to what goes on before and after races. When you work in racing you end up in a bubble, but I’ve got a lot of friends that love to come and watch racing and the things they say sound stupid to me. They wouldn’t know that the horse gets taken off the lorry here and put in a stable, and then brushed, and then saddled here and led round here and washed off there. It’s so simple to us but to them it’s quite interesting.
SG: Do you think you’ll stay involved with racing when you finish riding?
ZB: Definitely. It’s a tough one because Dad always wanted me to be a farrier, which is a very good job, but it takes a couple of years to learn. I always thought I was a bit too tall for that and all the bending over wouldn‘t do my back any good. I don’t think I’d ever train in my own right, having to deal with all the owners I’d be losing sleep over that trying to please everyone. It’s quite tough being the main centre of attention, you’re on the phone 24/7 answering calls. Maybe travelling head lad or something, I’m quite good at doing the hands-on side of things. I think I’ll jump that hurdle when I get to it but at the moment I’m enjoying the riding and everything else in the yard.
Featured image courtesy of Sarah Oliver.