Andrea Atzeni is fit, just how fit the British Racing School found out before his jockey career had even begun. New recruits are put on to a motorized “Equicizer” on which they have to adapt the jockey’s crouch position and pump their arms as if riding a finish. Few manage as much as a couple of minutes. No one has ever matched Atzeni. He was still pumping after seven.
On Tuesday that fitness was going to be tested by six rides at Yarmouth but from the moment the little, big eyed, easy smiling, mini-man from the sheep hills of Sardinia comes on to racing’s most eastern outpost it was obvious that he brings a lot more than muscle power with him. At 23, seven years since he joined trainer Marco Botti at Newmarket and failed his Racing School entry test for lack of English, he is in the big time. This season he has a hundred winners and over £2.5 million in prize money already in the bag climaxed last weekend with Kingston Hill’s St Leger on Saturday followed by Cursory Glance’s Moyglare Stud Stakes, his first victories in an English classic and an Irish Group One. At Yarmouth everyone wanted a piece of him.
It’s the same with a “man of the moment” in any sphere. Official figures feel they should come over and give “official” congratulations. Ordinary Joes tug at the sleeve and want an autograph, two girls want to pull him in the middle for a “Selfie”, photographers begin snapping and add to the chase and then a TV interviewer steps forward and asks for his own pound of flesh. It’s heady stuff and it tows hassle in its wake, yet there was something both touching and incongruous at seeing punters and patrons alike love bombing little Andrea as he came through the fish and chip smells of Yarmouth’s holiday heat.
For while this tiny be-jeaned figure might look exotically different from the shirt-sleeved racegoers who only need a four cornered handkerchief on their heads to take us straight back into the 50s, the boy from Nurri is greeted like an adopted son. Riding winners always does that especially if the jockey smiles and looks grateful. Even more so if he keeps doing it and over Yarmouth’s three day meeting there would be six more winners to smile at.
As he comes into the changing room this sense of shared ownership is even more marked. The round, jolly and red braces figure of Clerk of The Scales Jeremy Lind walks in to shake Andrea’s hand, jockey’s valet John Edge purrs with pleasure as his little patron starts to strip down in readiness for the afternoon stint and fellow rider William Carson revels in Atzeni’s weekend reminiscence as he towels himself down after the sauna.
A year older than Andrea, William has become a highly competent jockey in his own right and was to win Yarmouth’s first race with a brilliant late flourish on a promising filly called Deep Blue Sea. But with his surname he will always carry the challenge of being the grandson of the little Scottish dynamo that was five times champion Willie Carson and it is that distinctive figure in the saddle whom Atzeni now most recalls.
For while most flat jockeys, William Carson included, are some five and a half foot or in the extreme cases like George Baker and Joseph O’Brien, actually bordering six, Andrea Atzeni harks back to the old fashioned image of the flat race jockey, the little man who found a talent in his tininess. Willie Carson had seemed the last of the line that stretched back through Gordon Richards, Steve Donoghue and other five foot nothings who were small only in stature. Today’s taller jockeys bend themselves like a bow behind the mane and like to hold their horse’s energy like an arrow in their hand. The shorter rider can afford a more upright posture in the saddle and often, as in Willie Carson and now Andrea Atzeni’s case, adopt a busier more energetic style.
Doing this demands great physical strength to avoid the rider becoming something of a pea on a drum. Those who have watched Atzeni over the last couple of years and the many, many more who have cottoned on to him now, cannot miss the muscular dynamism with which his little body clamps down into the saddle, nor the obvious power emanating out of his tight elbow-pumping drive as he asks his horse for effort. This season it has been on big winners at Newmarket, Epsom, Ascot, York and now a classic at Doncaster and it shone clear through the sea mist at York on Tuesday.
Not that it could have much effect on the two year old filly Imtiyaaz in Yarmouth’s opener as she found the hurly burly of her first race too baffling to deliver the talent she had shown at home. But a race later the more experienced Queen’s Pearl was a perfect example of Atzeni in action. Only six straight furlongs, just 73 uncomplicated seconds, yet enough to recognize the familiar punch of the elbows and the stillness of the lower body as the filly beneath is compelled to fulfil what it was bred for.
But they don’t all win. It’s fun to chide AP McCoy that he has ridden more losers than any other jump jockey in history, and at Yarmouth Andrea adds another three “failures” before the eight year old Doctor Parkes appeared to decide that a sixty second start to his career was one too many and refused to enter the stalls. But those failures included a final furlong pitched battle with the Brazilian pocket dynamo Silvestre de Souza that lost by a nose even if no one watching what will soon become racing’s favourite Sardinian galvanizing a huge colt called Kinshasa could doubt that here was a rider ready to be tried against the best.
Yet that is precisely the challenge and more. Atzeni can no longer be cut slack as a jockey of promise. He is not just in the big time, he has accepted the huge opportunity but undoubted risk of moving on from his present arrangement of de facto first jockey to Kingston Hill’s trainer Roger Varian and retained rider to the 20 Mohammed Obaida horses at Luca Cumani’s, to succeed Jamie Spencer in pole position at Sheikh Fahad’s ever burgeoning but still very disparate Qatar Racing operation.
No doubt there is some fancy finance around but the merits of the move are not nearly as obvious as some have assumed, especially after last week which saw not just that Group One double for Roger Varian but three Luca Cumani trained winners at Doncaster including the Park Hill Stakes with Silk Sari. So far this season Andrea has ridden 33 winners for Varian and 18 for Cumani and amongst his 107 winners overall there have been 26 with a Racing Post Rating of over 100, Kingston Hill topping the lot with a RPR of 123.
The seven year Atzeni career, which in 2012 saw just 54 winners and £328,000in prize money, was clearly set on a happily fixed upward curve with the pledged support of two complementary high class stables and agent Paul Clarke having to use the wisdom of Solomon to accommodate the rides from many other quarters. Last years £1.6m in prize money will soon be left seven figures adrift as will the 120 winner total. If Andrea had continued with his present arrangements he would have become a serious challenger to Ryan Moore and Richard Hughes for next year’s jockeys championship.
Now the demands of Qatar Racing’s gold braided silks will be paramount and while Sheikh Fahad and David Redvers have put together a pretty formidable team in a very short space of time, they have hardly half as many horses rated above 100 as Atzeni has ridden this term and nothing at the moment to match the classic and older horse prospects that Cursory Glance and Kingston Hill would have given Andrea next season. There is an exemption in his new contract for Group One races provided Qatar don’t have a Group horse engaged on the day and there is still clearly the hope that old partnerships will survive. But with the ambition Prince Fahad has expressed one would imagine that big days will also see him with big runners – and now they will have A. Atzeni in the irons.
What’s more those rides will be for a whole raft of trainers many of them as yet unfamiliar with the young Sardinian’s virtues. At the last count Qatar Racing had 26 of them in England and Ireland and 54 worldwide. David Redvers talks sensibly about “consolidation” but whichever way one looks at it Paul Clarke is going to have a very different hand to play next season and will need his best diplomatic as well as card playing skills to keep other trainers in the loop as he keeps his own man to the demands of the new contract.
So plenty for the 23 year old to answer as he readied himself on Tuesday and the answers were impressive for their candour. “I knew what I was letting myself in for when I signed for Prince Fahad,” he says of the new arrangement which shook the racing world when it was announced last month. “It was a big decision and the first people I went and saw were Roger and Luca and Mohammed Obaida. I told them I had been offered this job and I wanted to take it. Mohammed Obaida put it best. He has been a great owner for me, I have only been retained by him this year but we have become good friends. Yet he said to me, ‘friendship is friendship, but business is business. If you want to you must do it.’ I look at this as the future. Not next year, or maybe not even the year after, it could be the best job in racing. Sheikh Fahad is very ambitious. He wants to be a champion. And so do I.”
Everyone from Richard Perham at the Racing School, to fellow rider William Carson, to old red-braces Jeremy Lind speaks of how pleasant, polite and without side Andrea has always been and on Tuesday you could understand why. But Roger Varian had warned not to confuse politeness with shyness, most certainly not on the track, and for all Atzeni’s scrupulously correct demeanour, he even went to get me a bottle of water to stave off Yarmouth’s stifling heat, there was still a firm professionalism beneath the bonhomie.
It was noticeable when he talked of going out to ride Mount Logan for Luca Cumani and Mohammed Obaida in the race immediately after the St Leger. “It had been my greatest moment. I must have had a smile all across my face but once I was on Mount Logan I was not thinking of that any more. I was thinking of how to win on Mount Logan for Luca and Mohammed Obaida.” And this same firmness came through more strongly when he talked of how he has come to the challenges up ahead.
“I have worked hard to get here,” he says in what is now perfectly considered English, “and although I got going very quickly with Marco Botti, rode 30 winners in my first year, things got difficult later. I had made some mistakes – riding mistakes” he adds hastily – “because I don’t live it up or anything and it seemed better to start again so I went on my own. It made me look after myself and going freelance proved the best thing I ever did.”
Not least, of course, because in that crucial 2011 season, he began riding out for Roger Varian. It says much of the distance travelled that Atzeni’s biggest numerical supporter that year was Michael Wigham for whom Andrea rode 11 winners from a string of just over 26. Today Roger Varian’s stable strength is little shy of 200. Varian made no promises. “To be honest,” he said last week, “I didn’t really know who Andrea was. But when I asked around I got good reports on him as a person and when we did give him some rides he had winners from the start.”
“It really steam-rollered from there,” continued Roger in that calm way of his, “and the more his profile was raised the easier it was for me to ask owners to put him up on their horses, one thing complemented the other. He has a quiet, personable demeanour but is neither shy nor timid and has an inner belief that shines through in his riding. They all make mistakes but on every occasion in the spotlight, not just for me but for Luca and William Haggas he has delivered.”
As with Cumani there is both goodwill and uncertainty over possible arrangements for next season. “It’s fair to say,” offers Varian with masterly understatement, “that there will need to be a little bit of adjustment. But I do believe there will be opportunities for me to use him. His decision was a difficult one but the job has great potential and his enthusiasm is certainly there.”
Back at Yarmouth those big amber Atzeni eyes had a direct look about them as he reflected on last week and thought about what might lie ahead. “Last week I looked at the entries and could not wait to Sunday night,” he said. “It was not because I was nervous but there were such good horses to ride that I wanted to know what would happen and do you know I have enjoyed every single moment of it. I knew the Leger was a big race for me but I am one of those persons who are very laid back on a horse and while it was a big day, every day is a big day. Today is a big day. I have six rides at Yarmouth and I need to ride winners.”
The question remained as to why sacrifice the chance of the biggest wins of all with the likes of Kingston Hill and Cursory Glance and the answer is a surprisingly direct one. “I knew Kingston Hill and Cursory Glance were likely to win the St Leger and the Moyglare when I signed,” he says. “And in the contract it says that I am free to ride if they haven’t got a Group horse on the day. Sheikh Fahad is very supportive. He wants me to ride good winners because having them will give me confidence. When I signed I already had a three month contract to ride this winter in Hong Kong and he is happy with that. For I want to ride good horses in big races and travel the world. That what I want to do.”
It’s all a long way from his younger brother’s life on the family farm in Cagliari.
“But I am the same person I was ten years ago,” says Andrea Atzeni. We know what he means but the truth will be different. His challenge is to ensure that the difference will only be for the better. It will not be easy. But the feeling at Yarmouth is that the fates should keep smiling.