SHOWDOWN WITH A SMILE BRINGS WELCOME RELIEF

13 August 2006

It has not been a great week for our jockeys: Four more charged with corruption and Kieren Fallon refused permission to ride in the Arlington Million. So yesterday’s comprehensive victory for Great Britain & Ireland over the Rest of the World in the Dubai Duty Free Shergar Cup at Ascot could not have come at a better time.

In its seven years, unwise efforts have been made to compare this annual spectacular with the Ryder Cup. In truth the only similarity is that it is an international contest where individuals accumulate their scores on behalf of the team. The intensity of the Ryder Cup is entirely missing. This is a goodwill event and at a time when the very word “jockey” can raise a suspicious eyebrow its success is very welcome.

Some 21,000 came through the Ascot turnstiles; that’s some 8,000 more than they would get on a standard Saturday and a bigger crowd than the Eclipse drew at Sandown. The percentage of children was  far greater than normal and it’s hard to think of a better way of giving them an introduction.

For while some of us purists find it hard to get excited by all the well-intentioned jollity, this is racing accepting that it is easier to start understanding people than horses than. Especially if you gather some of the very best jockeys on the globe and make sure they have smiles on their faces, and start off with the laugh of a duel between the rival captains, South African ace Michael Roberts and a slimmed-down Jason Weaver.

Well “slim” would be something of an exaggeration. 8st 7lb when he rode over 200 winners in 1994, Weaver was drawing 10st 7lb yesterday, but that is some two stone short of the 12st 7lb he weighed a couple of years ago. To his great delight, his mount ran past Roberts’ in the last furlong and so his two young sons were able to see their Dad ride a winner. Unbeknown to him, Weaver had also set a massive ball rolling for his team, who proceeded to win five of the six races and score enough in minor placings to end with a monster points victory of 158-95.

If it had been the Ryder Cup there would have been wailing and gnashing of teeth among the losers, but they and the rest of us know that it is fair to shelter behind the luck of the draw. In fact the Rest of The World have won three of the last four of these events and, to Ascot’s great credit, the half-dozen riders they assembled this time was as impressive as any they have gathered over the years.

All the more pity then that we didn’t have the chance to see a real ding-dong involving the Japanese ace Yuichi Fukunaga, the three-times Melbourne Cup winner Glen Boss, the four- times Hong Kong champion Doug Whyte or, most interesting of all, the Canadian phenomenon Emma-Jayne Wilson. True, Dettori rode a couple of seconds for the “away” team, but he is virtually a nationalised Brit, and while the now Hong Kong-based Gerald Mosse brought Ascot specialist Young Mick home decisively in the fifth, he is well known to us from his days as a top rider in France.

“I am sorry we couldn’t do better,” said Boss before going out to ride another well-beaten loser in the last. “You can’t do it without the horses and while this has been great fun, I can tell you we have been competitive enough. I imagine it is good for all your fans. They certainly seemed to enjoy it when we did the autograph session.”

For the record, Robert Winston rode the second-race winner and Seb Sanders scored in the fourth and sixth. But it was Ryan Moore’s victories in the first and third races and his two second placings which won him the Silver Saddle and cheque for £4,000 as leading rider. With 119 winners for the official Flat season, Moore has what looks like an unassailable lead of 30 over current champion Jamie Spencer. It was a memorable afternoon for Moore but nothing to match the week of his rival.

For while on the racing front Spencer returned from a two-week suspension to win at the first time of asking on Friday and this afternoon rides again for Aidan O’Brien on Ad Valorem at Deauville, it is in southern Africa where the strongest memories lie. Exactly a week before he captained the home team in yesterday’s “funfest” Spencer was in the poverty-stricken shanty town of Chainda just outside the Zambian capital of Lusaka.

He was there to see the work of trainer Barney Curley’s idiosyncratic charity Direct Aid For Africa. His experiences will be recorded in this week’s Racing Post. Watching Spencer wander through the see-saw of hope and despair, from smiling orphans getting a new start to dying Aids victims with days to live, was to draw but one conclusion. He may be in serious danger of giving jockeys a good name.

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