Silvestre de Sousa: Brazil's tough nut jockey bids for racing supremacy

Story highlights

  • Arrived in UK not speaking a word of English
  • Is bidding to be top jockey for a second time
  • Brought up on a 200-acre farm in Brazil

(CNN)In his mind, Silvestre de Sousa is the outsider.

It is not an unexpected tag for a jockey hailing from São Paulo in Brazil, who came to Ireland initially not speaking a single word of English but now finds himself battling for a second successive crown in the Stobart Flat Jockeys' Championship.
As he goes head-to-head with Jim Crowley for the title, his diary reads like a who's who of unheralded places on an British map: Pontefract in northern England one day, Musselburgh in Scotland the next, de Sousa eking out every possible race winner he can in the dying embers of this year's championship.
    It reaches its conclusion at QIPCO British Champions Day at Ascot on 15 October. As things stand, Crowley boasts the edge over de Sousa with 144 winners to the Brazilian's 128.
    Last year's title -- 15 years after sitting on a racehorse for the first time -- was the undoubted career high and a chance to prove any doubters wrong having the year previously been released as a retained jockey by the Godolphin stable, owned by UAE's vice president and prime minister and Dubai ruler, Sheikh Mohammed.
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    "I do feel like I'm the outsider," he explains from the back of a chauffeur-driven car en route to his latest race meeting. "I'm not a retained jockey, I'm a freelancer and that can be hard to do as there's plenty of them. I'm lucky to be well supported by many but I'm still the outsider."
    The outsider has clearly been relishing the inside line on British racecourses picking up a multitude of winners, all very impressive from such an inauspicious start.
    Growing up, de Sousa can only ever remember horses in his life. He estimates he was four when he first saddled up -- "there were no quad bikes on the farm, if you wanted to get around you had to ride" -- and he was desperate to keep up with his vaquero (cowboy) father on the family's 200-acre farm.
    The farm is still run by his father and another brother -- de Sousa has nine siblings in all -- and there were times when he pined for home comforts at the start of his career.

    Built for flat racing

    That he ever made it onto a racetrack at all was by chance -- he mounted a racehorse for the first time at Sao Paulo's Cidade Jardim racecourse aged 18, and was told by the late champion Brazilian jockey Fausto Durso that he had the build to ride on the flat.
    With a natural weight of eight stone, de Sousa has never had to fast or sweat off the weight in the sauna like many of his peers, but it was an inauspicious start.
    "It was six months before I got my ride," he recalls and it wasn't long afterward that he broke his arm in a fall, which again meant another six months without a ride.
    Today, his rides are far more frequent -- sometimes it is hard to find a day when he isn't racing.
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    "It was very tough to begin with," he says, apologizing for his English which is actually very good. His first words taught to him in Ireland were swear words.
    "Nobody knew me at all and I couldn't get a ride here. But I just worked. First one ride every month, then every 15 days, then a week, always improving, improving.
    "It took time to wait for the opportunities and I was homesick but I never thought I would give up. I decided to go home when I had been successful."
    A mark of his success, he has been back to Brazil twice already this year and plans another trip before the end of the year.
    He laughs at the suggestion back at home that he is recognized like São Paulo's other sporting sons like Neymar or Felipe Massa.
    "At a racecourse in Brazil for sure people recognize me," he says. "But horse racing is not that big in Brazil. It's a bit hidden. Away from the track, I'm not much recognized. It's definitely not like football or Formula One, and that's OK."

    Racing is 'so special'

    De Sousa is happier in the company of horses rather than people.
    "With horses, it's easy," he says. "The horse clears your mind. When you ride, that's all there is, and when you race it's so, so special.
    "It's the adrenalin and being in a battle where you want to get the very best out of the horses. If it responds to you, well, it's just amazing. It's like a drug and, if you have a bad race, it's not nice but you know it's OK as you get another chance. And then there are those great days that gather momentum."
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    His first big break came with Irish trainer Dermot Weld before a chance encounter with David Nicholls at The Curragh racecourse. Nicholls gave him a job at his yard which changed his life both on and off the horses.
    For one, he picked up the occasional ride and came close to winning the 2011 Jockeys' Championship -- remarkable as he was so unfancied at the start of the season bookmakers didn't even offer odds on him winning.
    His first day at Nicholls' stables also brought him in contact with Vicky, now his wife and with whom he has a nine-year-old son, Ryan, his staunchest critic.
    "He tells me what to do," he says. "He's only nine but he has some big advice. Maybe he'll be a jockey too. He has the frame for it. That would be nice but I'll leave it in his hands, and show him the way if he wants to do it."
    De Sousa calls himself an adopted Englishman and Irishman because of his spells in both countries and there is even the faintest Irish twang to his accent, a nod to his time there and also his wife, the daughter of a Kildare farmer.
    Even if he can feel like an outsider, England is now home. And unlike his countrymen in Brazil, he is not a football fan, a virtually sacrilegious admission for a son of São Paulo. An outsider perhaps both home and abroad.