8 August 2004

He’s on the small side as scene stealers go. There’s barely five foot of South African jockey Weichong Marwing but he clamped himself into a little filly called Paradise Isle to power clear of his rivals in the final race of the Shergar Cup and snatch the Silver Saddle award for top rider from his team captain Frankie Dettori.

Ascot has of course, long been Dettori’s own private wonderland. When he finished second in the first of the six races of this Rest of The World versus Great Britain and Ireland competition and then produced an absolute peach of a ride to nail the next on the line, it looked as if he would add Shergar Cup honours to the rest of his glittering Berkshire CV.

On a scoring format logging 15 points to a winner down to three points to a fifth, Dettori was still clear with 31 points going into the last race. It was over six furlongs and run round the Ascot bend because the early part of the straight course is now part of what has become the largest sandcastle in Berkshire history, the multi-million pound rebuilding of the Royal track. Dettori dropped in on the rail to follow but he never had a chance with the little dynamo up front.

Marwing was raised in the same Summerveld riding academy in South Africa which produced his team selector Michael Roberts, the only man to have been champion jockey in his home country (11 times) and Britain (in 1992). Summerveld is famed for instilling rigid basic disciplines, and watching Marwing punching Paradise Isle home was to see more than a touch of Roberts’s slightly upright, pumping style.

Marwing’s victory clinched the team event to the Rest of The World by 138 points to 102. Celebrity team captain Shane Warne could look chuffed, his counterpart Andy Townsend could affect a “gutted” look, champagne could be presented on the rostrum. It would be stretching things to suggest that the shape of international riding credibility was one iota affected. But more than 20,000 people had come through Ascot’s gates in heatwave August, and not all (although perhaps quite a few) can have come just to listen to the Sugababes doing their thing on the stage not long after the last horse had been led away.

The truth is that by investing good money, the whole proceedings will not have left much change out of a million pounds, and ambitious ideas, the organisers have been able to pull off that rarest of tricks, a successful new idea in racing.

It has taken a few tries to get the balance right. But there are now incentives enough to ensure that there is good racing and that the riders do genuinely get involved. The actual competitiveness of the team idea is a bit of a nonsense as you are not actually allowed to apply normal team blocking tactics. But Dettori, in particular, took real pleasure in trying to help his fellow jockeys with knowledge of the course and of the horses they ride.

There was pleasure in seeing so many top international practitioners of the jockey’s art. Gerald Mosse has long been a star player in France and Hong Kong and showed all his long-legged, short-stirruped expertise in the first. Dettori’s precision finish in the second was then matched by an archetypal Kieren Fallon muscle drive in the third. The fourth belonged to that most durable and ruthless of competitors Michael Kinane and before Marwing’s finale, Jamie Spencer flashed up the inside with the day’s outstanding piece of daring on a not always willing associate called Desert Quest.

So the holiday crowd left as a happy one, but on racing terms the abiding memory remains of the duel within the wider game: Dettori trying to wrest the jockeys’ championship from Fallon. A month ago, after a sticky and controversial start, Fallon had seemingly put himself out ahead for a seventh title. But then Dettori caught fire. In the last two weeks he has outscored Fallon by 25 winners to eight. This morning he leads him in the championship by 107 winners to 105. The game is most definitely on.

The contest is one to treasure, and both Darryll Holland and the extra hot Seb Sanders are also in contention. But it is the contrast between Dettori and Fallon, their methods and their motives that intrigues. Dettori with the poise and toe-tip balance of which his trapeze artist mother would be proud. Fallon with a physical power to galvanize a horse beneath him.

Dettori was a champion jockey’s son, always set for the top, Fallon a country boy from Co Clare who took a long time to get going and even longer for the wider world to realise the genius that was within. Dettori is a crowd-pleasing showman, Fallon can make trouble his own and this year is once again driven by a need to rehabilitate himself about the allegations and shame heaped on him by a newspaper sting back in March.

That inner rage can unsettle him but it also makes him an awesome contender. Dettori’s motives this season are different, and they are threefold. Firstly, the Godolphin stable now have the firepower to mount a championship challenge but they also have a smart Dettori substitute in Australian Kerrin McEvoy to pressure his gain. Secondly Dettori is fed up with people thinking him more as a personality than a jockey. Thirdly, and never discount the power this gives, he has a book coming out in September. Can anyone want more?

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