Jim Crowley says the gruelling tussle to be champion jockey took over his life as he stands on the verge of his first title.
He has travelled more than 50,000 miles and ridden in over 700 races in a duel with 2015 champion Silvestre de Sousa.
Crowley, 38, is set to lift the title on Saturday at Ascot – close to his birthplace – on British Champions Day.
“I’ve become obsessed by it. When you really want to do something badly, you eat, breathe and sleep it,” he said.
“Literally, I have thought about nothing else for the last two months. It does take over your life.
“Any sportsman will tell you the same – you have to be obsessed with something if you want to do it well. I’ll be glad when the season’s over because you can relax a little bit, but it’s all I’m thinking about at the moment.”
From 66-1 shot to clear leader
When betting opened on this year’s top rider, Crowley was rated a 66-1 outsider.
He had signed up last year with agent Tony Hinds, who helped Ryan Moore and Richard Hughes become champions, but felt 2016 might be a year too soon for a title bid.
With the Stobart Flat Jockeys’ Championship taking place from late April to mid October, Crowley did not make it in to the top 10 until early July.
“After Glorious Goodwood [in July], I think I was 17 or 18 winners behind the leaders, which was still quite a fair way, but we were on a roll and thought we would give it our everything,” he recalled.
Head to head for the title
The battle to be champion, which is based on the number of winners, developed into a two-horse race, as last year’s victor De Sousa, 35, fought with Crowley.
With a lead of 15 going into the final week, the Briton is now highly unlikely to be overtaken.
“For about two months, we were literally neck and neck. Every day the lead would change. It’s been fantastic for racing, so many people have picked up on it,” Crowley said.
Every day brought a new quest for winners, developing into a punishing schedule.
“Some days I’ve got up at 4am and gone to Newmarket from my home in Sussex to ride work and then do two meetings that day, possibly up to 13 or 14 races a day, travelling by car or helicopter or plane.
“I would say I’ve done more than 50,000 miles going to meetings by car. I was driving myself up until about two months ago when the workload became so intense that I managed to find someone to drive me.
“Sometimes I would get to bed at midnight. It’s physically, as well as mentally, tiring.”
“It could fry your head”
Crowley recalls an evening meeting at Chelmsford where De Sousa won the first two races, and he replied with victory in the final three.
“We are both very competitive, hungry jockeys,” he said.
“When you are locked in a close battle like I have been with Silvestre, you’re watching each other all the time and seeing if he’s ridden winners.
“It’s human nature, and anyone who says you wouldn’t do that is a liar. You can’t help it. If he was at another meeting, I would watch to see where he was in a race.”
Crowley wrestled the lead from De Sousa with a 100-1 treble at Windsor on 28 August.
But a day later, his Brazilian rival rode four winners at Epsom and Crowley joked to him: “You’ve kicked my backside today.”
Crowley regrouped and pulled clear by riding 46 winners in September, the most victories clocked up in a month, beating a long-standing record held jointly by Fred Archer and Sir Gordon Richards.
“There are days when I thought he wouldn’t ride a winner, looking at the racecard, and he’ll come back and bang three in. He’s a tough, tough person to ride against,” Crowley said.
“The next day you wake up and think, ‘It’s my turn’ – and that’s the sort of mentality you need.
“You have to be a bit careful, otherwise it could fry your head if you’re having a bad day and they’re having a good day. It’s a bit like golf, where you have to just concentrate on what you’re doing.
“We get on really well. I have so much respect for him as a jockey and a person.”
Champion at Ascot and the future
Crowley rode for seven years over the jumps before making the switch to flat racing.
“I never in my dreams thought I’d be champion flat jockey, if anything I had dreams of being champion over jumps,” he said.
“It would be without doubt the highlight of my career. From a young boy when you go into racing, you want to be champion. To realise your ambition is a dream come true.
Being crowned champion at Ascot would have special resonance for Crowley.
“I was born in the hospital, literally opposite the racecourse. I grew up just down the road, a lot of my friends and family live close by, and it would be great if I could be crowned champion there. It’s always been a lucky track for me.”
Crowley concedes he might have a big party once the season is over, and then he hopes the title can be a springboard for more success.
“I’d like to win an English Classic. I’ve been second in the Oaks and the St Leger. Racing is big on the international stage and it would be good to win some big races abroad,” he said.
The father-of-three has been supported by his wife Lucinda and children Alice, Bella and Sam.
“My girls, who are nine and seven, are into ponies and horses and they’ve become really interested in it. I hope I do it for their sake. I hope I can make them proud,” he added.