Sunday, December 12th, 2004: A nervous young jockey from Liverpool gazes round a star-studded Sha Tin paddock ahead of his ride on Andrew Balding’s Phoenix Reach in the Group 1 Hong Kong Vase (2400m) and wonders whether he truly belongs.
Frankie Dettori doesn’t have a care in the world; Olivier Peslier, Christophe Soumillon and Gerald Mosse have seen it all before; and Douglas Whyte, Michael Kinane and Kieren Fallon wear the sort of steely gazes that suggest you wouldn’t want to play poker with them.
There wasn’t a catchy term for feelings of self-doubt brought on by pressurised situations back then. But there is now. And the man who rides Pyledriver in this year’s LONGINES Hong Kong Vase recognises the symptoms of Imposter Syndrome all too well.
“You do start to question yourself when you go abroad for those big international races for the first time,” says Martin Dwyer. “You don’t tell anyone, of course, but it’s there deep down. Doubt does creep in and Phoenix Reach was the horse who helped me get over that.”
Dwyer’s pre-race nerves back in 2004 weren’t helped at the start when it emerged that Phoenix Reach’s bridle had broken and it took some sharp thinking to solve the problem.
“My horse was wearing blinkers and the starter said he would have to be scratched if we took them off to replace the bridle,” he says. “You can imagine how hard my heart was beating by this point and I could hear a few jockeys saying ‘take that one in.’
“I couldn’t blame them as senior riders use all sorts of little tricks to get an edge, but there was a great horseman called Fergus Gallagher on the stalls team. It was a scary moment right in front of a huge crowd but luckily my horse didn’t flinch as Fergus replaced the bridle while I stood and held him.”
The rest, as they say, is history. Phoenix Reach was a +2500 shot having finished sixth in the Group 1 Japan Cup (2400m) two weeks earlier but he stalked the leaders in his new red headgear and struck for home halfway up the home straight.
Dettori loomed large aboard Godolphin raider Sights On Gold soon after but Dwyer had kept something in reserve and Phoenix Reach held on gamely by half a length as the pair drew clear of Peslier on the French-trained favourite Vallee Enchantee.
“Breaking through on the global stage is a massive moment for any jockey,” adds Dwyer. “I’m not one for wild celebrations but I did wave the whip after passing the post. Frankie came across to congratulate me and I just remember the whole trip as a mind-blowing experience.”
Phoenix Reach gave Dwyer another memorable success in the Group 1 Dubai Sheema Classic at Nad Al Sheba in March 2005 and his stock reached a new high back in Britain the following summer when he threaded Sir Percy through the narrowest of gaps to prevail in a dramatic four-way finish for the Group 1 Epsom Derby.
But top-level glory remains elusive for all bar a select few and, like his beloved Everton FC, Dwyer has spent most of the last 15 years performing consistently in the middle of the Premier League hoping for the arrival of a genuine star to take on the Galacticos again.
Pyledriver primed to shine on the big stage again
Cue the emergence of Pyledriver, trained in partnership by Dwyer’s “glass half full” father-in-law William Muir and Chris Grassick and homing in on Sunday’s (12 December) LONGINES Hong Kong Vase as a fresh horse with just three runs in 2021.
“The first day I really knew we had something special was when he quickened so impressively to win the King Edward VII Stakes at Royal Ascot last summer,” he adds.
“We put a line through his run in a very messy Derby but he destroyed his rivals under a penalty in the Great Voltigeur Stakes at York and he’s come back in great heart this year to win the Coronation Cup at Epsom and the Churchill Stakes at Lingfield last month.”
That Group 1 Coronation Cup success, following Casual Look’s 2003 Group 1 Oaks win and Sir Percy’s Derby, means Dwyer is one of a select handful of riders to have landed all of Epsom’s crown jewels.
“I love Epsom and I’m really proud to have won all three Group 1s there as I don’t get the chances every year that Frankie and Ryan (Moore) get. Of course, it was a blow that Pyledriver missed the summer with a muscle problem but sometimes things happen for a reason and maybe the best is yet to come.”
Pyledriver lines up this weekend as the highest rated horse in the field with an international rating of 121 and has beaten last year’s LONGINES Hong Kong Vase hero Mogul comfortably in three of their four meetings, including the Coronation Cup.
His chance is there for all to see on form and Dwyer feels his unusual character is part of what makes him so good. “He’s like a schoolboy in class who has all the talent in the world but can look out of the window if he loses concentration,” he adds.
“There’s no way he would let me put his bridle on in the morning – and his groom Babu has plenty of bumps and bruises because of him – but that’s just Pyledriver. He knows how much talent he’s got and isn’t afraid to tell you.”
Dwyer thinks carefully when asked how his 2021 Vase hope compares with the 2004 model.
“That’s a tough one,” he concedes. “Phoenix Reach was great, so versatile, a warrior who really battled for you. Pyledriver has more character and quirks but I do think he has more natural ability and he means the world to everyone connected with him.”
Which brings us neatly to Sunday, December 12th, 2021, when a calm, veteran jockey from Liverpool will gaze around the Sha Tin paddock ahead of the Vase to see Soumillon, Moore, Joao Moreira, Vincent Ho and Damian Lane among his rivals.
“Yes, I’m a different person now and this will be a massive buzz,” says Dwyer. “But let’s get this straight, this might be the last time I get to ride in an HKIR race. I hope it isn’t but you never know and that’s why this chance has to be grabbed with both hands.”
Now 46 and in the autumn of a 30-year career that has yielded over 1500 winners, Martin Dwyer knows Father Time is undefeated and that this sort of chance may never come again.
But this time there will be no sense of Imposter Syndrome. Dwyer and Pyledriver have shown time and again that they belong at the top level. All they need now is a little luck – and the bridle to remain intact.