Form is temporary, but class is permanent. A familiar old adage often attributed to sports stars who emerge from tough times to achieve great things and it certainly resonates with young jockey Jason Watson.
Success came quickly for Brighton-born Watson, who became Champion Apprentice in only his second year with a licence and landed one of racing’s top jobs while still a teenager, only to see the promise of a glittering career seemingly disappearing from his grasp in the summer when his partnership with Roger Charlton ended.
But, to his credit, the 21-year-old has re-invented himself and closes an eventful year as one of the most successful and sought-after riders on the circuit after winning the valuable Bahrain International Trophy on David O’Meara’s Lord Glitters and mounting a serious challenge for the accolade of All-Weather Champion.
“You couldn’t write it,” he reflects. “When Roger and I parted company my confidence took a knock but things have turned round for me so quickly, it’s been unbelievable.
“Winning on Lord Glitters was amazing and though I wouldn’t have even thought about it a couple of months ago, winning the title this winter is definitely at the back of my mind.”
Perhaps not as far to the back as he modestly suggests. Watson is riding with style, self-belief and determination. Suddenly, he’s hot property again and entered the Christmas break with championship leader David Probert very much in his sights.
All-Weather Jockeys Championship
Pivotal to his resurgence is the link-up with top northern trainer O’Meara, which in turn has introduced him to a new agent in Chris Dixon and with that the opportunity to ride regularly for reigning champion trainer Mick Appleby, too.
“I have a lot to thank David for,” he explains. “He offered me an olive branch when it became obvious I wasn’t riding for Roger any more. I rode him quite a few winners and when stable jockey Danny Tudhope got injured a couple of months ago he put all his trust in me.
“One morning when I was in there riding out he called me to the office at breakfast and asked me if I’d like to ride Lord Glitters in Bahrain. For him to put so much faith in me after what had happened was amazing.
“I studied the videos leading up to the race and Danny (Tudhope) gave me a lot of advice but it all went perfectly to plan. I just went out to ride it like any other race and he made it easy for me.
“He’s such a special, high class horse. Looking back, though, it took a couple of weeks for the magnitude of it all to sink in.”
I found myself struggling to understand why it had all gone wrong.
Watson was riding out twice a week at O’Meara’s York stables when he met Dixon, a broadcaster and member of the successful Horse Watchers ownership group who helps with race planning at Willow Farm.
“Tony Hind had been booking my rides and did a great job for me but had a lot of riders on his books so after leaving Roger’s I was looking for a fresh start,” he recalls. “I had a conversation on the phone with Chris and he agreed to take me on, initially to see how things went.
“He was new to the job so didn’t represent anyone else which was part of the attraction really. Chris is an intelligent man with a strong knowledge of the game and so far it’s worked brilliantly.
“It was Chris who suggested I also went and rode out for Mick Appleby, who he has a strong association with, and that proved to be a good move for me, too,” adds Watson, who quickly made an impact with winning rides on the Horse Watchers’ Night On Earth and Hathlool.
“Mick and David are both very talented horsemen and it’s a pleasure to ride for them both. Despite being one of the leading trainers so far, David won’t have as many runners on the All-Weather in the new year and Danny is back riding again, too, but hopefully I can continue to ride him winners when the chances do arise.
“I’ve been getting the support of other trainers, too, including my old boss Andrew Balding who’s been great, and if I can keep up the momentum into January I might be in with a chance of the title.
“It’s definitely something I’d like to achieve in life, but whatever happens a good winter will set me up to hit the ground running in the new turf season, which is the most important thing.”
Watson, who lives near Cheltenham with partner and conditional rider Lilly Pinchin, has achieved more in three years than many jockeys do in a lifetime.
He won the Stewards’ Cup on Hugo Palmer’s Gifted Master en route to becoming champion apprentice in only his second season in the saddle in 2018.
He went on to reach a century of winners that year, riding out his claim just 17 months after achieving his first ever career win and began the following year as retained jockey to Charlton at the tender age of 18.
The partnership got off to an inauspicious start when Watson fractured four vertebrae in a crushing fall at Kempton Park in January that year but a string of Group wins on Charlton’s Headman, Aspetar and rising star Quadrilateral whetted the appetite for big things at Beckhampton.
Despite finishing third under Watson in the Qipco 1,000 Guineas the following spring, Quadrilateral failed to live up to expectations while Headman’s brilliance was also short-lived.
The rider’s win in the Group Two York Stakes on Aspetar at the end of July 2020 was Charlton’s first domestic Group race success since Quadrilateral’s Fillies’ Mile nine months earlier.
After falling only three short of a second consecutive century in 2019, Watson had ridden only 36 winners by the end of last year – just 25 of those for Charlton but at an impressive strike rate of 21 per cent.
This year he added only two more for the Derby-winning trainer from little more than 40 rides as the partnership petered out.
Reflecting on a rollercoaster two years, Watson reasons: “I was very young when it all happened for me but I don’t think it was a case of such a big job coming along too soon or anything like that.
“Earlier this year I felt I was riding just as well as when I was having Group winners for him in my first season but we didn’t have the same calibre of horses last year so I found myself struggling to understand why it had all gone wrong.
“I will always be grateful for the opportunity Roger gave me but after that I was determined to prove to myself and everyone’s else that I do I have the ability to be successful. I’ve never been afraid to graft and I’ve had great support to rebuild my career at a time when I’ve needed it.
“In past winters I’ve ridden overseas, spending time in Australia and Qatar, so I haven’t spent much time on the All-Weather, but that’s my focus now.
“I’m enjoying my job as much as I’ve ever done and am committed to repaying all the loyalty the trainers I’m riding for have shown me in the last few months.”