Racing’s Luke Littler on conquering the sport at 17

Billy Loughnane rode a staggering 130 winners in 2023 despite being off the track for six weeks – Gareth Copley/Getty Images

On the same night that Luke Littler was playing in the World Darts Championship last week, racing wunderkind Billy Loughnane put together a hat-trick under the floodlights at Kempton to maintain his momentum from winning last year’s apprentice championship, just a year after starting to run.

“That night the darts got us,” Loughnane remembers. “We were curled up watching on an iPad between races and then in the car on the way home. “As I’m quite tall, I have to be very careful about what I eat, so unfortunately I wouldn’t be celebrating a victory with a kebab and a can of Fanta.”

The fact that teenage talent comes to the fore is not such a strange phenomenon in racing and its history is littered with examples; Lester Piggott rode his first winner in 1948, when he was 12, while, 10 years earlier, Bruce Hobbs had taken the Grand National in Battleship when he was 17.

With 16 being the minimum age to obtain a riding licence, Walter Swinburn won the Derby with Shergar as a teenager, while more recently James Bowen won the Welsh National with Raz de Maree before he was old enough to take a driving test.

Perhaps the best example of the last 50 years is Steve Cauthen, who rightly presented his trophy to racing’s last Billy Whiz on British Champions Day in October. The ‘Kentucky Kid’ rode 487 winners in his second season riding when he was just 17 years old and, in 1978, at 18 years old, he had the US Triple Crown secured with Affirmed.

Loughnane, 17, who spent the first seven years of her life in Ireland before moving to Stoke with her family when her father Mark, who has 50 horses, began training there, did not have her first ride until October 24 of 2022.

Now he earns more than his father and drives an Audi A3 when his part-time driver is not driving it.

Still young enough to be “protected” by safeguarding laws, he rolls his eyes and laughs when asked if he uses it. “Well, they’d offer you a changing cubicle if it bothered you, but there are a lot of young guys and no one seems to care about the atmosphere in the locker room,” he points out.

Winning the apprentice title so early is an indication of his precocity, but other records include taking less time to clear his claim (novice jockey weight allowance, 95 winners in 11 months) than any other jockey in recent history and riding the astonishing number of 130 winners in calendar year 2023 despite spending three weeks at Gulfstream in the United States and three weeks in the summer sidelined by a broken thumb.

Last May, six months after his first race, he became the youngest jockey since Piggott to ride in a Classic when he rode Sweet Harmony in the 1,000 Guineas. With everything else in place for him and incredible professionalism, he now just needs to ride a good horse.

Billy Loughnane at AscotBilly Loughnane at Ascot

Billy Loughnane was champion apprentice jockey in 2023 and is going from strength to strength – Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images

“It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do since I could walk and talk,” he says after a horse riding session with his hockey coach, Rodi Greene, a man he talks to twice a day. “I was never one to mess with my peers when I was young, I was playing with horses and ponies practically since I was born. Now I’m doing it, it’s something you do every day all day long. You can’t turn it off or on. Anything goes.

“And if there are races on a Sunday night (in a trial period, but not very popular in the weighing room), I’m available. “I’m sure it would be different if I had a family and kids, but I wouldn’t be doing anything.”

He was so committed to being a professional jockey that he turned to sports nutritionists at Liverpool John Moores University when he was 15.

His father had prevented him from participating in pony racing until he was 13 years old. “The first year was slow, then the second year was wiped out by Covid, but he had three good ponies and I was champion. It was a great help. He teaches you on the tracks, you practice in a racing situation and the bigger ponies are essentially small racehorses.”

For him, geography might now be where Ascot and Ayr meet on a map, but his mother Clare insisted he pass all his GCSEs before becoming an apprentice. “She doesn’t say things she doesn’t mean!” he explains he. “It was an incentive.”

So what makes it so good? That’s something he can’t answer, but George Boughey, who similarly burst onto the scene as a trainer in 2019, and now uses him regularly, remembers Loughnane’s father telling him before he became an apprentice that his son was a “good boy who, he thought, “could ride a bit.”

“He’s been riding for me ever since,” Boughey says. “The most impressive thing is his attitude: she goes well beyond his years and offers the kind of response you would expect from a 30-year-old driver who has raced with thousands of winners.

“He knows how to ride well, he thinks about the game and he is a student who adapts to what we do. He has good hands, he is good tactically and I don’t have to talk to him much because he knows what is going to happen.

“Feedback is a big part of this. I often review what he said about a horse on a given day to determine what we do with him next. You create a portfolio of information like that.”

Covid, Loughname explains, was a turning point. With owners unable to attend, it became the norm for trainers to film the jockey’s report on their phones. “Dad has sent a copy to the owners and another to me since he was 12 years old,” he remembers. “While they were talking about horses, I was riding at home, so it was huge to know what they were saying. It gave me a big advantage.”

Your goals for 2024 are simple; over 100 winners again, ride a better horse or two, get into the real estate market and get a bigger car.

“You can’t have a mortgage until you’re 18,” he points out. “I’ll start looking in March. As I practically live in my car, spending three or four nights in Newmarket and the rest of the week at home, I would also like to get a bigger car.”

In a results-driven industry, Loughnane is a young man who goes far and hits the mark.

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