“Racing is a brilliant game but it’s very tough. That’s why it’s important not to get above your station and appreciate what you have,” Jim Crowley says as he reflects on his rise from being a journeyman over jumps to becoming Flat racing’s champion jockey while seeing death and paralysis on the track.
Crowley has reached an even higher level this year. Apart from the increased prestige and excellent horses he now rides as the principal jockey for Sheikh Hamdan al-Maktoum, Crowley won three Grade One races over the summer to record the most significant victories of his long and unusual career. Crowley has confronted disappointment and savoured glory – but he has witnessed racing tragedy. It helps explain why the 39-year-old is so approachable and philosophical in the hard-edged world of Flat racing.
Last October at Ascot, his favourite track and the one just across the road from where he was born, Crowley was crowned champion jockey. He had won 148 out of 759 races and his gaunt features and sunken eyes were markers of his gruelling commitment.
Sixteen days later Crowley was involved in a terrible fall at Kempton. He was concerned in the immediate aftermath that he might be paralysed. But it was the fate of Freddy Tylicki to be desperately unlucky. Tylicki’s horse, Nellie Deen, collided with the leader and went down. Three other horses followed – including Crowley on Electrify.
Both jockeys were treated on the track for an hour and placed on spinal boards before being airlifted to a major trauma unit. Tylicki suffered a T7 paralysis which has robbed him of all movement in his lower body. A wheelchair has replaced the horses he loved to ride. Crowley’s racing, meanwhile, has hit fresh heights.
Two weeks after Tylicki’s catastrophic fall, Crowley received a career-changing invitation to become Sheikh Hamdan’s No1 jockey. He immediately accepted the glittering opportunity and, like his great contemporaries Frankie Dettori and Ryan Moore, Crowley sacrificed his championship defence and chose quality over quantity. This mature strategy has produced exceptional results and over six weeks in July and August Crowley won the Eclipse Stakes, Sussex Stakes and Juddmonte International. But darker memories of Kempton remain.
“It was like a normal day of racing but another horse came in on top of Freddy’s horse and clicked heels,” Crowley remembers. “We all came down in a big melee. I had no feeling all down my left side so I thought it could be serious. You’re kept very still so I wasn’t aware of how bad Freddy was. It was not until we got to the hospital that we realised the severity.”
Crowley looks up and, gently, shakes his head. “It’s awful because he’s a friend of mine. You ride together and when you see one of your colleagues hurt like that it puts life in perspective. I see Freddy as often as I can when I go to Newmarket. But in our job you have to be tough. Otherwise, if you thought about that accident too much you wouldn’t be able to ride.”