EUROPEANS FACE SHOOTING STAR IN TEXAS

24 October 2004

South American sensation Rafael Berjarano lies in wait when Fallon and Dettori ride into town for the Breeders’ Cup. Brough Scott reports.

Frankie Dettori has never heard of Rafael Berjarano, I bet neither have you. But then Frankie has ridden only 192 winners and won £4.6 million this year, young Rafael last week passed the 400-victory, $10 million barrier. “That kid,” drawled a Texan at Lone Star Park where the two will compete in the Breeders’ Cup next Saturday, “is hotter than s***.”

In fact the tiny, 7st 5lb, 22-year-old is a mere beginner compared to our cosmopolitan champion elect. But the tale of the little boy from Arequipa, Peru, is typical of the cameos that, 20 years on, still lift the Breeders’ Cup to something like its self-proclaimed billing as “The Greatest Racing Day.”

No matter that the British runners only comprise the Oaks winner Ouija Board and the two-year-old Wilko, there is still the French mare Six Perfections going for a repeat in the mile and the Dubai World Cup winner Pleasantly Perfect going for the same in the Classic. And there is our first sight of Rafael Berjarano.

It was not until he was 17 that Rafael bumped into the racetrack when he and his father made the trek to Lima in search of work, not until he was 19 that he had learned enough about horses to start winning in the saddle, not until a year later that he moved up to Kentucky and on July 10 2002 opened his winning account at Steve Cauthen’s original alma mater of River Downs. Without a word of English he topped the apprentice chart at Hoosier Park. Last year he knocked up 260 victories nationwide but with the best will in the world the likes of River Downs, Turfway and Hoosier Park are deep in the sticks. 2004 was to be a bigger challenge.

“This is the most amazing kid that I have ever seen,” said agent Steve Elzey with no great emphasis on understatement. “We topped the lists at Turfway and Hoosier but it was when we did the same at Churchill that everyone began to notice. Now we are at Keeneland and I [the shift from first person plural to singular is a feature of agent speak] am 24 winners clear of Pat Day. Two weeks ago I had no Breeders’ Cup mounts but now I have four. It’s still early days but there is no limit to what this kid might do.”

Rafael is a product of the Peruvian jockeys school in Lima whose graduates also include the 1999 US Eclipse award winner Jorge Chavez and the prolific Edgar Prado, whose $16 million winnings (from 250 winners) makes him second only to John Velasquez (300 winners and almost $17 million) in the American standings. At a time when our own racing schools face a shortage of recruits anything near small enough to be Flat-race jockeys, it may be time to consider a trip to Lima for future bow-legged talent.

Our two greatest present day performers will both be at Lone Star Park, only 20 minutes from downtown Dallas next week, which will be transformed into a 50,000 jamboree. Dettori’s book of rides includes the Japanese horse Personal Rush in the Classic, while Fallon faces one of his most intriguing challenges on Ouija Board in either the Fillies’ or the Turf. Lone Star Park has banked bends and a tight Bermuda grass cushion on its turf track but it is still desperately tight by British standards.

In 1988 Indian Skimmer came to Churchill Downs as Britain’s flag carrier. I followed the race from a TV truck on the inside road and the memory remains of Michael Roberts being unable to get across to the inside and being constantly swung wide as the field spun through the turns. In Europe a wide post position over a mile and a half is not necessarily a “coffin box” but if Ouija Board draws wide next week Fallon is going to be up against it.

All that assumes she canters to the start as the same athlete who won Oaks at Epsom and The Curragh before running on so well to be third in the Arc de Triomphe. The mechanics and veterinary knowledge of equine travel have improved hugely since the first haul out to Hollywood Park in 1984, but flying to Texas is still a bit more than a box trip to Sandown. The charter flight on Monday goes first to Beauvais to pick up Six Perfections and the rest of the French team then shuttles over to Shannon where it will collect the Aidan O’Brien challengers as well as a freshly transplanted Ouija Board before setting off on the 9½ -hour slog to Fort Worth, Texas.

The subsequent quarantine period should end with them out on the track by Wednesday morning but you can see that by any standards this is the ultimate “away match”. Not surprisingly, many owners have opted for Japanese or Hong Kong alternatives where much of the costs are met and the tracks are not so tight. But all credit to Lord Derby for pitching his filly over.

“The Republic of Texas” (it is the only state flag which flies parallel to the Stars and Stripes) is rightly proud of holding the Breeders’ Cup only seven years after Lone Star Park allowed racing back into the state for the first time since the Thirties. They will love the symbolism of the famous colours on their track. Let’s just hope the TV interviewer gets his lordship numbers right. “We have here Lord Derby, John Derby,” said NBC’s Dick Enberg to the present peer’s uncle after Teleprompter had won the Arlington Million, “the 16th earl”. Cue, polite, very English interruption: “18th actually”.

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