[This feature appeared in the February 2019 issue of Badges magazine; PHOTOS courtesy of the Hong Kong Jockey Club].
Silvestre de Sousa is riding a finish. His head angles downward, his taut torso balances almost uncannily upon the tight vice of gripping legs, defying the jack-hammer vigour of his right arm thrusting, his left rising and dropping with urgent force. He switches his hands, the power remains, his mount presses on.
Lips set tight in a curl, his nostrils wide, eyes as if iced open, De Sousa drives Glorious Forever past the winning post. The effort bags Hong Kong’s richest race, the HK$28 million LONGINES Hong Kong Cup, the rider’s first Group 1 on Hong Kong soil, no less, and yet there is no salute, no pumping fist, no whooping elation, no rising high in the irons.
“I’m employed to pass the line safely in front,” the Brazilian says. His head tilts to the right, his eyes narrow. “That’s my job.”
His in-the-zone drive on Glorious Forever is no different to his effort in a Class 5 at Happy Valley, a European Classic, or a lowly Hamilton Park selling race. Like all repeat champions, De Sousa’s desire to win is non-discriminatory. And that’s perhaps just as well: His career win tally – including 1,527 victories in Britain – features just nine G1 scores.
But Britain’s three-time champion jockey – this season’s LONGINES IJC hero, too – does not lack a sense of occasion, nor is he indifferent to elite ambition.
“The celebrations come after,” he explains. “That’s what I learnt from the big jockeys when I was younger.”
De Sousa, whip tucked under his arm, unsticks the Velcro straps from his riding gloves and pulls them off. It’s Christmastime, two weeks after his first Sha Tin major, and, another routine barrier trials session over, he stands by the sand yard with the sun and mountains at his back.
“I can’t tell you how much it meant to ride that winner – a Group 1,” he concedes. “But at the same time, I honestly felt it was just my job and I did it well. Once I’d won, my thought was that I had another race coming and I had that straightaway in my mind. I’m a bit like Ryan Moore nowadays – I go past the line and then it’s done.”
On Europe’s Group 1 fringe
The rider, on the cusp of turning 38 at time of writing, has known success on some of the world’s biggest platforms. As Godolphin’s principal jockey for a time he won the G1 Dubai World Cup on African Story, the G1 Dubai Turf with Sajjhaa, and the G1 Champion Stakes at Ascot in tandem with Farhh. He landed the G1 Juddmonte International, too, on the 50/1 outsider Arabian Queen.
But there is no getting away from the fact that his G1 total is relatively small for a jockey of his talent and standing, so does it bother him?
“No, it doesn’t,” he says. “The way I think about it is I go all around Britain shopping for a few winners and at the end of the month the numbers are still big.”
He notes that he can go to a G1 and sit on a 66/1 no-hoper, a horse he might not have ridden before, or go to a minor track like Yarmouth for seven rides and pick up some wins. Winners pay the bills, after all.
“If I’m associated with a horse and know it has a chance, I’ll go to the Group 1,” he says. “The market in England on the one hand is very big but really it’s very small at the top end. If you’re not associated with a big stable or a big owner it’s very hard to ride Group winners. I have a small retainer but I’m really a freelance.”
That makes it tough for him to pick up European majors. In 2018, the John Gosden stable alone won 12 G1 races. Frankie Dettori rode seven of those, with Oisin Murphy collecting four thanks to his retainer with Qatar Racing. Throw into the mix the might of Godolphin’s handlers and Aidan O’Brien’s prolific G1-winning squad, with their own retained riders, and De Sousa is left on the fringe when it comes to the big events in his adopted home.
Road to the top
De Sousa was born in São Francisco do Maranhão in northeastern Brazil, the youngest of 10 children. Raised on the family farm, he first rode a horse at age six. At 17 he left for São Paulo to work in a factory, became an apprentice jockey at 18 and went on to become champion apprentice.A broken arm led to fewer opportunities and the rider relocated to Ireland to work for the legendary Dermot Weld. The trainer did not give him a single race ride in two years, so in late 2005 De Sousa moved to England and the stable of North Yorkshire’s sprint king, the late Dandy Nicholls.
His first win outside of South America was notable on two fronts. It came aboard Sonic Anthem on 1 January 2006, in a lowly Class 6 Southwell maiden: In third place, 26 lengths astern, was the Nicholls stable’s apprentice rider Victoria Behan. She is now Mrs. De Sousa and the family is looking forward to the arrival of a third child in March.
“We started working together and one day I asked her to go for a coffee and we never left the place!” De Sousa recalls.
His wife is part of the supportive team that De Sousa credits with lifting him to his three British championships. His latest title success, he says, was sweeter than the first two.
“The first time I felt I got it because so many people helped me out; the second time I had to do it because I didn’t want to do it once and then probably be forgotten; the third time, when I sat there at the beginning of the year, I really wanted to be champion again,” he says.
De Sousa clocked “about 80,000 miles” during the 2018 campaign, leaving his home outside Newmarket to traverse the length and breadth of Britain. “The travel is tough,” he says. “A couple of times a week I’ll leave at 6.30am and might not get home until 1am and you have to be up again the next day.”Without a top stable for support, he has to work hard to earn the monetary rewards his abilities and status deserve. His total of 935 rides (including those outside of the official championship) in Britain last year reaped 176 wins and approximately HK$32.7 million. His 126 rides in Hong Kong from 1 November to the end of December yielded 17 wins and HK$36.7 million.
His aim heading into his current three-month contract, though, was to make a mark in Hong Kong’s biggest races.
“The idea when I left England this time was that I would look for quality over quantity,” he says. “My dream was to win a Group 1 here. That was always in the back of my mind. But I didn’t expect to straight away ride a Group 2 (Eagle Way in the Jockey Club Cup) and a Group 1 winner. I thought it would take longer,” he says.
With that G1 sealed, he is hungry for more. His success has prompted rumours that he might extend his stay and perhaps even seek a full-year contract next term.
“I haven’t made my mind up yet about staying past March,” he says. “I’ve been approached for a retainer in Europe and if that comes up I’d have to go back – the money is good.”
For a man who risks life and limb every time he goes to work, ensuring his family’s financial security increases every win’s importance. Strong, too, is the lure of the kudos that comes with winning the world’s heritage races.
“We know how bad the prize money in England is but it’s about the prestige of those races,” he says.
And with Glorious Forever fresh in his mind, he adds: “Riding a winner on International day at Sha Tin – such huge prize money – that’s just a dream for every jockey.”