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Ben Curtis living the dream with Honor Marie in Kentucky Derby

Ben Curtis living the dream with Honor Marie in Kentucky Derby
Ben Curtis living the dream with Honor Marie in Kentucky Derby

Back in October when Ben Curtis decided to ride in America for the winter he would not have dared to dream how well the future would pan out. And he certainly might not have thought he would be riding in the 150th running of the Kentucky Derby.

So well have things gone for the former all-weather champion jockey that in March he announced he was going to stay Stateside and his continued good form has seen him selected to ride live outsider Honor Marie for Whit Beckman in the ‘Run for the Roses’.

A lot was made of Frankie Dettori’s search for a mount in the Churchill Downs spectacular, and while he eventually picked up the ride on Society Man, the betting suggests Curtis has the better chance.

“It’s going good. Once we get past the Derby and back up to Delaware we can get a bit of normality back and get back to riding four or five days a week and hopefully start banging in winners again,” said Curtis, who was champion apprentice in Ireland back in 2010.

Kentucky Derby hopeful Honor Marie works out at Churchill Downs
Kentucky Derby hopeful Honor Marie works out at Churchill Downs (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

“Some jockeys will have different agents for different tracks, but I’m lucky that since I got here I’ve been with Ron Faucheux. He was leading trainer at the Fair Grounds for four years and packed it in about a year and a half ago when he was at the top of the game, he just wanted to enjoy life a bit more.

“He’s going to come with me to Delaware and we’re going to ride the mid-Atlantic circuit and then there’s a meeting at Colonial in the middle of that which is mainly turf-based with good money so we’ll base ourselves there for that. Then we’ll head back to Delaware and ride at Monmouth, too.

“Ron worked for Todd Pletcher for years before training himself and grew up alongside the younger trainers now coming through, like Whit who trains Honor Marie, like Rob Falcone, who is making a name for himself in New York. And with the contacts he got from training, he’s been a big leg up for me.”

As well as Dettori there are two other familiar faces riding in the Derby whom Curtis is well acquainted with in Antonio Fresu on Stronghold and Adam Beschizza on Epic Ride.

Epic Ride, the mount of former UK-based jockey Adam Beschizza, on the track at Churchill Downs
Epic Ride, the mount of former UK-based jockey Adam Beschizza, on the track at Churchill Downs (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

“Myself and Adam, when we were apprentices, went over to Italy to do a jockey challenge together, Frankie spent a lot of time with Adam in the UK and I spent a lot of time with Antonio in Dubai, so there are a lot of familiar faces there. I know a lot of the US jockeys from when they came to Ascot or from when I came over here many moons ago. I think I’ve slotted in pretty nicely,” said Curtis.

Of Honor Marie, Curtis feels he is coming to a peak at just the right time.

He said: “He’s a horse who is going the right way, it was a big step forward in the Louisiana Derby to finish second but we all feel he’s very much at home at Churchill, he seems to come alive.

“He looks fantastic, his skin is absolutely shining. On a normal morning he’s not like the rest, dragging you around, he’s very relaxed and takes it all in, looking at the press – he just seems to enjoy it.

“He’s also one of the later foals as he doesn’t turn three until May 4, ironically the day of the Derby, so we feel he’s just coming to his peak, he’s on a nice trajectory.

“Obviously it’s very competitive but we couldn’t be happier, his pedigree screams stamina and he’s got course-winning form in the Jockey Club so there are ticks in the right boxes to make you hopeful of a big run.”

It is well known that dirt racing is almost a different sport to racing on turf. But Curtis appears to have adapted very well.

“It’s very different riding on the dirt to turf, it’s a different style of racing, but he’s a very simple horse to ride. He’s not a strong puller, he likes to find his own rhythm and the key to him is not to interfere with him too much and just let him warm into a race,” said Curtis.

“There’s 20 runners and yes it is the Kentucky Derby, but a lot of horses are going an extra furlong or two further than they’ve ever gone and on his pedigree you’d be confident of him staying so he should have more time to find his way into the race.

“Looking at the draw, it should be a strongly-run affair which should suit us. Dirt races aren’t won by horses quickening, it tends to be the horses who can go fastest for longest, they tend to be won by horses grinding it out.

“I think a lot of people here think if Fierceness gets out in front and gets his own way, that will be the race over. He’s a bit of an enigma, though. He runs one race and looks unbeatable and then he can put in a below-par performance. Sierra Leone I’ve been watching gallop on a morning and he looks a lovely, big, imposing type, but I’m not sure stall two will suit him.

“To be honest, with the way my horse is training and looking and with his uncomplicated nature in the way he does things effortlessly, I’m hoping that will stand to him on the day.”

Although a champion during his time in the UK, the big jobs escaped him and now Curtis is just enjoying what the future may bring.

“A lot of it in this game is about being in the right place at the right time unless you have a name that you can kick people off horses. A lot of the time I’ve not been in that position, for it now to turn around I’m absolutely elated and I can’t wait for the big day,” he said.

“There’s hundreds of people on the track in the morning, the press are everywhere and the build up is fantastic. They are estimating 160,000 on the day so it will be as close as you can get to being in a Roman colosseum, I think. I’m really, really looking forward to it.”

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