30 September 2007

Beneath the showman there remains the superstar. For all the kisses, flying dismounts, restaurants, celebrity friends and showbiz, Frankie Dettori lives and dies as a jockey. His Ascot Festival ride on Ramonti, 11 years to the day from the immortality of his “Magnificent Seven,” was a jockey’s life at its fullest.

Ramonti is ultra tough but also ultra keen. He was a jig-jogging bundle of nerves as the Italian jockey brought him out early on to the track and forsook the parade to avert an equine nervous breakdown. He was an arm-stretching powerhouse as he rocketed out of the stalls and set to run up and round that Ascot hill with every ounce of energy in his body. But he had two strokes of good fortune. First that Duke of Marmalade, pacemaker for Excellent Art, wanted to go even quicker. Second, the clock in Dettori’s head was tuned to perfection.

Dettori’s problem was when to commit. On the turn you could see from the tug of Ramonti’s head that the ex-Italian five-year-old was prepared to attack Duke of Marmalade any time his rider wanted. But if Dettori went too soon he would have a legless horse beneath him over those last desperate yards. Wait too long and no advantage would have been taken. Into the straight and the world’s most recognisable riding figure clamped down in the famous Godolphin royal blue silks and Ramonti flattened for the line. At the post he had a rapidly-shrinking half a length in hand of the fast-finishing Excellent Art. Problem solved.

In second place Jamie Spencer was entitled to gnash his teeth with frustration. Committed to dropping Excellent Art in for a late run, he was dependant on getting a smooth passage through off the final turn. It did not happen – no dramatic boxing-in but not the clear racing room that was wanted until 300 yards, out when Ramonti had flown a full four lengths clear. Racing alongside the also-closing Cesare, Excellent Art caught a wet sail to haul the tiring leader in all the way to the wire. At the finish he was still half a length adrift. At Goodwood it had been just a head. Dettori and Ramonti have the hex on him.

One of the great redeeming features about autumn Flat racing is the emergence of a true merit list among the two-year-olds. For it gives not just a definition of this year’s talent but the promise of even better things next season. The victories of City Leader in the Royal Lodge Stakes and Listen in the Fillies’ Mile were typical of this: good performances in themselves but open to argument when the principals renew battle in the spring.

The grey City Leader showed plenty of guts to get home by three quarters of a length from the Irish raider Achill Island with Scintillo, Ridge Dance and Alfathaa in a close pack behind them. When the supposed top two-year-olds finish in a bunch the usual assumption is that none of them are exceptional. Add to that a seven-length defeat last time by crop leader Raven’s Pass and City Leader is understandably still as big as 33-1 for next year’s 2,000 Guineas.

But testimony from trainer Brian Meehan “he has grown up a lot since that last defeat” and from jockey Kevin Darley “the bit slipped out of his mouth so I was trying to steer him on the reins alone,” suggest that this elegant-moving grey should be kept on the right side. Next stop the Dewhurst in what has become something of an emotional swan-song for the Sangster family, all of whose bloodstock interests, but not this colt, are due to be sold this autumn.

The Irish filly Listen needs no such excuses. She relished the increase in distance to reverse form with her compatriot Saoirse Abu and was always keeping the French filly Proviso a full length adrift over what, with the softened ground, had become an arduous final furlong. Post-race inquests focused on how much an early race rough-house had cost Proviso. Jockey Stephane Pasquier reportedly called Murtagh a “connard” which has many translations about the cleanest of which is “jackass.” Trainer Andre Fabre was Olympian by contrast – “she did not have the speed to take a good position – otherwise she would have won.” The renewal will be worth the wait.

Murtagh did not involve in any badinage but gave the slow smile of a master jockey who started life in the boxing ring. A top jockey’s role involves, nerve, belief and not a little ruthlessness. He looked good on Listen, even better a race later when committing Candidato Roy to a lone course next to the stands’ rail and holding out against the bunch in centre course led by Shevchenko who, his Chelsea namesake should note, has been dramatically improved by being gelded.

Murtagh is 37, Dettori six months younger. For a jump jockey, as with a soccer star, that would be twilight time. But, and in poor Murtagh’s case it is a very painful “but,” if the weight holds these are the golden days. The years have given you not just skill but judgment. In sport, as in life, judgment can be a beautiful thing. And better than showbiz.

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