A week at the seaside

I have been attending the Yarmouth three-day September meeting for longer than I care to remember, not to mention other visits here and there to the Norfolk track. The course is one that has attracted a fair amount of criticism over the years, notably with regard to prize money levels but there is no denying that the September meeting, now more grandly – and meaninglessly – retitled the Eastern Festival is very much the high point of the season with decent purses on offer.

This is also a track that has witnessed many top-class animals oblige over the years. I saw that magnificent globe-trotting mare, Ouija Board, break her maiden at Yarmouth, whilst John Gosden’s crack miler, Raven’s Pass made a winning debut here. But most of all I will never forget the debut appearance of a superb-looking beast that walked into the parade ring and already looked like a properly-developed three-year-old. He won in a canter, could have won by 25l and his name was Dubai Millennium.

Nothing of the calibre of the above is likely to have been on show last week but here are the ones that caught the eye for the future. Best eyecatcher each day in capitals.

Day One

William Haggas 580 x 350 8469477www.britishchampionsseries.com

Al Thakhira and Expect were one-two in the maiden and both should improve again. The latter should certainly find a maiden for the Noseda team as he looked to be beaten by a more streetwise sort. Ghaawy showed a determined attitude to repel the late thrust of Newmarket Warrior for Sir Michael Stoute in the nursery and looks the type to progress with time and distance. He should be a useful middle-distance sort for the yard next season. However, the star of the show was undoubtedly BATTALION. The 3-y-o Haggas colt controlled a competitive enough 1m4f handicap throughout and looks a really progressive sort for a top-notch yard. Fascinated to see where he turns up next. Wherever it may be, he’s one to have on your side.

Day Two

The track was abuzz with talk of the Stoute debutant in the opening maiden – a good-looking son of New Approach called MUNAASER. He took time to get himself organised but stayed on to good effect to fill the minor placing and must be supported wherever the Stoute team opt to go next with him. He should make up into a very useful three-year-old. The winner was Oxsana (Haggas again) who reappeared over the weekend to run a fine second in a competitive sales race so the form has already assumed a very healthy sheen. Also keep on an eye on the fourth – John Gosden’s Throne Room. He looked more in need of the run than many of his rivals and is sure to come on a bundle for the experience. The big race of the week, Yarmouth’s only Listed race, went to Miss You Too at 20-1 for the Simcock team but this is a race that seems to throw up a strange result every year and the only one to take from the race is Ribbons – strongly backed but found herself with far too much to do. The form can be forgotten and she remains of considerable interest. Kelvingrove probably didn’t beat much in the staying handicap but was far superior to his rivals and it wouldn’t surprise to see him return in search of a course hat-trick.

Day Three

Werribee trackwork. English trainer Luca Cumaniwww.geelongadvertiser.com.au

Wednaan did the business for the de Kock team on his debut but the form is hard to assess at this stage and it was the other maiden that took the eye for the future. MOUNT LOGAN and Istikshaf both improved considerably for their respective promising debuts and are in good hands to develop into three-year-olds of interest over middle distances next term. Luca Cumani’s winner was always holding the upper hand and is yet another son of New Approach who looks destined for much better things. Shalwa made a valiant attempt to defy topweight in the fillies’ 1m4f handicap, battling on well when headed. She’s just a solid galloper but one would think that there’s a soft maiden waiting for her towards the end of the campaign should Marco Botti opt to take that route. Don’t be put off by her form figures. There’s nothing wrong with her attitude – she just lacks real pace.

Doyle the Kingman – for now

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In a distinctly quiet racing week (until the Curragh today), off-track activities have dominated, with the appointment of James Doyle as Prince Khalid Abdullah’s retained jockey grabbing the majority of headlines.

Doyle is enjoying his best-ever season, highlighted by efforts on Al Khazeem and a splendid Royal Ascot treble on the Wednesday of the June spectacular. However, having listened to the rationale for this appointment from Lord Grimthorpe, I remain sceptical. Three reasons were given for the Doyle elevation.

One – Prince Khalid has apparently been most impressed with Doyle’s riding and is now looking to the future with this appointment. Fair enough, I suppose, but Doyle has ridden 60 winners this season at a 14% strike rate – the likes of Franny Norton and Daniel Tudhope have ridden more.

Two – how could anyone choose to lose the services of Ryan Moore, William Buick and Tom Queally, all young jockeys with plenty more to offer.

Imagine the scenario next Derby Day. Sir Michael Stoute has a leading contender for the Oaks and/or the Derby for the Juddmonte operation. Be in no doubt about which rider (Ryan Moore) Sir Michael would want in the plate. Nevertheless, all good luck to James Doyle whom I am in no way demeaning. He is a jockey on the up as victory on Rizeema in Ireland today clearly showed and I am sure he’ll do a very solid job. I am just not convinced he will do a better job than Moore (especially), Buick or Queally. The latter is likely to feel most disappointed in view of his efforts on such as Frankel, Twice Over and Midday for Team Cecil down the years for Juddmonte.

Three – despite the assertion that the Prince likes a retained rider, it’s seven years since Richard Hughes was dismissed from the post. All rather strange methinks.

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However, it was a nice ‘n easy start for Doyle as he steered Kingman to a smooth success in the Solario Stakes on Saturday to make it two from two for the Gosden colt, who displayed a nice turn of foot to put the race to bed. He has considerably more to prove to justify his current Guineas quote with the likes of Great White Eagle(impressive from a poor draw today) and War Command to name but two waiting in the Ballydoyle wings to tackle him but has so far done all asked of him.

The other hot potato of news this week was the desire of the BHA to race on Good Friday. As a regular visitor to the Middleham Open Day, I can confidently say that’s where I – and my money – will be venturing in the future, irrespective of the racing fare on offer. We already demand so much from the racing circus and I fail to see the benefit of demanding any more.

Perhaps the BHA and other interested parties could spend their time more profitably by working out why a Thursday in the middle of the Flat season this week comprised two all-weather cards, two jumps meetings and a turf meeting in Scotland.

In the long run, the piece of news with the most significant long-term implications was the announcement that Willie Mullins will be raiding UK shores with greater regularity and may even set up a satellite yard in the UK. What a fascinating consideration and now we all know precisely why Ruby Walsh chose to quit as Paul Nicholls stable jockey in order to spend more time with his family in Ireland!!

Access all areas – with strange results

It has been the strangest of weeks in the sporting world – not merely in the horse racing corner of the sporting spectrum.

Admittedly, this is a time of year where racing aficionados are primarily fed a relentless diet of extremely modest fare and I will be far happier with punting life once the evening racing comes to a close in a couple of weeks (yes, the Newbury card was decent on Saturday). However, next week’s Ebor Festival cannot come quickly enough although a personal view is that this is yet another meeting that is self-harming by the decision to move their final day to a Saturday.

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The York executive will tell you that it all worked very well last year but the simple fact is that there are other sporting events that will command far greater media coverage, namely every Premier football league match (because that is the way of the world), the last big Saturday of the final Ashes Test at The Oval and the Rugby League Challenge Cup Final at Wembley, which features a Yorkshire side in Hull who take on Sam Tompkins’ Wigan.

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There’s no point in pretending that the last day of the Ebor meeting is a bigger draw – as far as the media goes it isn’t. Nevertheless we will be graced with four excellent days of action on the Knavesmire with the Yorkshire Oaks my personal highlight. It will be interesting to see if the Cecil team field both Wild Coco and Riposte whilst it is a desperate hope that a decent field will turn up to tackle Al Khazeem in the Juddmonte International.

However, one thing we have learnt in the past week is that an intrinsic element of the fascination of sport is its glorious unpredictability. Hitherto, this week we’ve seen Andy Murray, Juan Del Potro and Novak Djokovic all fall by the wayside in the ATP Cincinatti tournament against decidedly inferior opposition whilst Warrington, almost unbelievably, folded to a home defeat by Widnes on Thursday evening in Superleague, followed by a home defeat for Leeds the following evening at Headingley by Hull KR and a French battering for Wigan on Saturday in Perpignan.

Such results shouldn’t happen – but they do. In the same way that Arsenal shouldn’t lose 3-1 at home by Aston Villa on the opening day of the Premiership- but they did. It’s something we all need to bear in mind when throwing a few shillings at our racing selections day after day. I was told by one colleague during the week that there was no way the hitherto unbeaten Soft Falling Rain would get beaten in the Hungerford but he was comfortably put in his place by Gregorian. And what about Ruby Walsh’s only ride of the evening at Tramore on Saturday night for the all-conquering Willie Mullins. 2-7 in a four-horse race – couldn’t lose could it? Yes, it could.

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Maintaining a level head, treating each bet with cool equanimity and ensuring that you have a suitable betting bank to handle to unexpected are crucial to any prospect of professional punting.

As a professional punter for whom I have the greatest admiration once told me: “Never forget. The worst thing that can happen is the worst thing that can happen – and it frequently does.”

Finally, it was tempting to pen a few words about those owners and trainers who carp on incessantly about the poor prize money on offer. In the end I was too annoyed to bother but it would be interesting to hear their views on the £9000 winning pot on offer in a juvenile contest at Ripon on Saturday. Two runners and an exercise gallop at 1-25 for Supplicant. Ridiculous, quite ridiculous.

Battle Royal worthy of the name

Glorious Goodwood is a contradictory experience for this writer – I adore watching the sport and hardly ever wage war with the bookmakers. Like Epsom, it seems a ludicrous place to host top-class racing with its’ relentless turns, undulations and camber.

For the last two seasons it has also hosted a self-proclaimed ‘Duel of the Downs.’ Last season’s contest turned into a non-event as Canford Cliffs failed to get anywhere near the greatest racehorse ever to set foot on the turf but this time around the Sussex Stakes shoot-out between Dawn Approach and Toronado produced a truly stirring spectacle and not only lived up to but exceeded expectations.Dawn Approach and Jim Bolger (580 x 350) racingfotos_16554147581www.britishchampionsseries.com

It matters not a jot that Toronado turned around Royal Ascot form with the Bolger colt. What matters is that for the second successive time these two high-class colts treated us to a magnificent battle royal. It may well be that the decision went in favour of the Hannon inmate because Richard Hughes clearly rides Goodwood better than anyone else but that doesn’t matter either.

18/04/13 Second day of Newmarket Racecourses' Craven Meeting, with the feature race the Craven Stakes - Rowley Mile, Newmarket Racecourses, Newmarket

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With the score reading Dawn Approach 2 Toronado 1, the victory of the latter means that their fight for supremacy will continue apace with no quarter given. Nothing is expected in Round 4 other than another pulsating contest – a contest that has without question become the highlight of the Flat racing season which was otherwise in danger of becoming rather mundane and low-key at the highest level. Thanks to both Messrs Hannon and Bolger for their boldness in taking one another on so captivatingly.

The other performance of note in Goodwood week was the superb performance of Wild Coco in landing the Lillie Langtry for the second successive season – both times without a prep run. She’s clearly a talented lady and will be a leading challenger for Group 1 honours if able to go to work on the soft/heavy ground she craves. The Yorkshire Oaks is an obvious target but she would be an Arc possible in my book if Longchamp came up heavy in the autumn.

Elsewhere, hopefully one or two will have followed up last week’s piece on Rosie Jessop by supporting her success on the grand old veteran Baan at Yarmouth in the week – another finely judged tactical ride. Sadly, Jessop will not be making her way up to Carlisle on Monday evening to participate in the evening programme for which the Carlisle executive deserves massive credit.

It takes guts and conviction to put on a six-race card for lady riders  only and it’s excellent to see them rewarded with a competitive night’s racing which pits amateurs and professionals against one another. Let’s hope the weather remains set fair for the evening which concludes with a Ronan Keating concert.

PLANS FLUID FOR OSIRIXAMIX

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Finally, another offer of congratulations – this time to Tony Martin for his Galway exploits with Busted Tycoon. To win once is hard, to win twice is very tough but to win three times during the Galway week is a remarkable achievement – a piece of theatre in a long but always absorbingly special week of Irish sport.

A Week In Focus

A moderate week of sport until the last couple of days but always something to caught the eye.

STABLE TO FOLLOW

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It’s practically impossible to come up with something original in a world of information overkill and (at times) over-analysis. However, that must not stop us trying and a yard that continues to impress is that of Jo Hughes. Partner of former trainer Paul Blockley, Hughes is now in her third season as a handler, each of which has witnessed steady progression with 2013 well on course to be her best yet by some way. The yard predominantly operates at the lower end of the spectrum but is perfectly capable when provided with appropriate ammunition to aim higher. This season has also demonstrated that all-important ability to progress charges through the ranks with the likes of London Bridge a noteworthy example. Pay special attention when the money is down as the yard rarely leaves their cash behind. Earlier this week, Smart Payer was sent to Catterick to contest the direst of sellers, having been beaten 13.5l on debut when finishing fourth of five at Brighton over 6f. Upped to 7f, the juvenile was backed into 11/10 with supporters never having a moment’s worry, bounced out of the stalls by Frannie Norton to cruise home to a 10l success.  Harbour Captain was another well-backed stable success at Salisbury on Saturday night for a yard that clearly knows the time of day.

PREDICTING A ROSIE FUTURE

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Six years ago I watched a young apprentice called Rosie Jessop land a Yarmouth handicap at the Norfolk course’s prime meeting of the year in September – the 3-day eastern festival. Coolness and style hallmarked the ride for one Sir Mark Prescott – arguably a tough-as-teak task master. Six years on, Jessop, still attached to the Newmarket baronet, somewhat surprisingly can still claim the 5lb allowance. Maybe the decision was taken to develop and hone her skills steadily, and more especially her strength, but the fact remains that her best season came in that first year with 11 winners. Nevertheless, check out the figures and you discover that Jessop has ridden 41 winners over the past six seasons, each year at a strike rate of over 10% – a good figure for an apprentice pilot. This season rides have become more plentiful and it will be a disappointment if that best-ever tally of 11 is not surpassed by the conclusion of the current campaign. Recent highlights include two beautifully-timed late swoops on Catflap (Derek Haydn Jones) and Threetimesalady (Sir Mark) but the ride that plays in the mind this season was the make-all effort  at Yarmouth on Peter Charalambous’ 11-year-old warrior Colinca’s Lad, on whom Jessop has now scored six times. The confirmed front-runner blasted off as usual before, in the words of the Racing Post analyst, ‘looking vulnerable’ from two furlongs down as the pack closed in. But Jessop nudged, coaxed and cajoled the old boy to repel all raiders and just inched home. It was a ride of a cool tactical brain and precision that would have been lauded to the skies had it come from a Moore or a Fallon. Rosie Jessop remains excellent value for her 5lb claim, looks far more the finished article in the saddle this term and should be a popular pilot for more yards at her current riding weight.

NOVELLIST A STAR

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The King George V1 and Queen Elizabeth Stakes is no longer the race it was, not to people of a certain generation anyway. The days of Nijinsky, Mill Reef, Nashwan and Dancing Brave landing the prize are long gone it seems as many trainers eye later-season opportunities. However, Novellist was a spectacularly impressive winner this weekend and looks sure to take high rank at the top level for the rest of the season. A superb effort under the immaculate Johnny Murtagh.

All a question of love and hate

On visiting my local bookmaker on the second Wednesday of Wimbledon fortnight, I listened to a conversation between two people I know well, both highly knowledgeable about racing.

However, it was tennis that was on their minds – or rather Andy Murray.  Put simply, they both vented their spleen about how much they hate the guy. It was all down to a throwaway comment by the young teenage Murray that he would always support any side playing England at football. And that’s it. That one comment – years ago- was still producing a storm of vitriol. They were both supporting Janowicz to win the semi-final and, even if Murray won, they would both be ‘lumping on’ Djokovic in the final. Apparently Murray would have no chance whatsoever against the Serb, irrespective of what happened when Murray landed the US Open title last year against the very same player.

All of which got me thinking. Do we adopt the same attitude with our betting strategies when it comes to racing? The answer is almost certainly yes – to an extent anyway. The trainer who clearly polarises opinion more than any other is obviously, as we touched on in last week’s column, Mark Johnston. I have come across more strategies involving the Scottish (is a trend developing here!) handler than the rest of the training fraternity put together.

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From a punting perspective however, the message is clear. If you get involved in supporting any runner from the Middleham yard then it’s best not to moan afterwards if things don’t go your way because they frequently will. There is no other yard in the country that is so difficult to read (even Clive Brittain!) even though you will also be guaranteed a hatful of winners. Sorting them out is the difficult job as the yard sends a double hatful to the races most days of the week.

In a nutshell, the Johnston horses have become predictable in their unpredictability. Accept that premise and backing in races where they have a runner becomes far easier. An obvious example was Galician on Saturday.

Back to the Murray story and what intrigued me more than anything was the decision of the two men in question to actually support Murray’s opponents on both occasions, semi and final, just because they hated (their word) him – and even though, by their own admission, they know little if anything about tennis. Such is life and it’s a view that permeates the world of football betting too.

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We probably don’t do precisely the same thing with racing but there are parallels, especially when it comes to jockeyship. It’s human nature for us to have our favourite pilots – for me it’s Ryan Moore (by light years) and Jimmy Fortune on the level and Noel Fehily and Denis O’Regan over jumps. Jamie Spencer is probably the obvious one to focus in respect of this column as he seems to be the love/hate jockey on the level at present.

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I well remember seeing Spencer in his very early days on these shores riding more experienced rivals to sleep on Southwell’s fibresand week after week. As time has moved on, including being champion jockey, he’s been regularly criticised for exaggerated waiting tactics, be it in a Leicester seller or at Royal Ascot. However, the fact is this – that is how he rides and it must be factored in to any bet placed on any Spencer mount if the the horse is not a prominent racer. In the words of Nike – just do it.

SIR HENRY CECIL (1933-2013)

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The death of Sir Henry Cecil on June 11th 2013 takes from us arguably the best and without question the most charismatic trainer British racing has seen. Irreplaceable is a strong word to use in any context but in the case of Henry Richard Amherst Cecil nothing could be more appropriate.

For the majority of trainers, the handling and training of the thoroughbred racehorse remains very much a case of scientific discipline and evolution. Not for Sir Henry. His conversation, when discussing his profession, was sprinkled with words like ‘instinct’ and ‘feel’. Not for him sectional timing or interval training. Just an eye for the horses he always called “friends.” Remember his reaction to the memorable second Champion Stakes success of Twice Over? No major eulogies about his or his horse’s ability – just a heartfelt “He’s one of my best friends.” And he meant it. Just like he meant it when saying “He’ll tell me when he’s ready to run,” when questioned about future plans for any stable inmate by the media who so loved interviewing him as they never knew what was coming next.

His death in the week preceding the Royal meeting placed a practically intolerable burden on his widow, Lady Jane, and all the staff at Warren Place, superbly led by assistant trainer Mike Marshall, as they attempted to put in place the immaculately-laid plans with a team Henry regarded as one of his best for many years at the showpiece of British Flat racing. The response was magnificent with prize money won by six of seven Cecil runners and in the most dignified manner imaginable.

Tiger Cliff would probably have won the Ascot Stakes but for being shuffled back early and arguably being ridden too conservatively with a view to getting the trip. His fast-closing second nevertheless signposted the possibility of further progression into Listed and Group company. Joyeuse, drawn on the ‘wrong’ side in the Albany, still came home late and fast to fill third spot and seems sure to improve considerably when upped in trip.

Disclaimer pulled away his chance in the Queens Vase, named in memory of Sir Henry, whilst Chigun was probably the main disappointment of the week after only finishing sixth in the Duke Of Cambridge. She remains a good filly though and there will be other days for her – and Disclaimer too. Noble Mission looked like winning the Hardwicke at one stage but flattened out in the closing stages as is his wont nowadays before finishing a respectable fourth.

However, it seemed entirely appropriate that it was in the 3-y-o fillies’ middle distance championship race, the Ribblesdale Stakes, that the desperately-desired Warren Place success arrived. Riposte had not set foot on a racecourse until this season but here she was, on the back of only a Newmarket maiden win, scything through her field and powering away to land another Royal success for Warren Place.

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If there was one person whose dignity and bravery shone out over the five days it was Lady Jane Cecil. Her cracked voice told us of Riposte’s victory: “That was for Henry, for the Prince and for all the staff at Warren Place.” It was a wonderfully proud but heart-breaking moment. But nobody could have foretold the last horrible twist of fate to assail Team Cecil.

Thomas Chippendale, trained to the minute to land a second successive triumph at the Royal meeting when taking the Hardwicke Stakes, collapsed and died within seconds of passing the post. Life is never fair but the gods had chosen to inflict further pain upon Warren Place. Yet once again the response from Lady Jane and the grief-stricken groom who looked after Thomas for Sir Robert Ogden, struck the perfect chord. Triumph and resilience in spades in the face of adversity.

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The future of Warren Place appears unclear. Much may depend upon the continued patronage of Prince Khalid Abdullah, the man and friend who continued to support Henry through the deep gloom of his fall from the heights of the training profession and personal unhappiness before the Light Shift (owned by the other steadfast stable supporter, the Niarchos Family) and Frankel -inspired resurrection. The Prince has stated his racing interests are to be significantly reduced. The impact of that decision seems sure to play a major role in determining the future of Warren Place, allied, of course, to whether Lady Jane, without whom Henry openly admits he would not have survived the difficult years, wishes to bear the training mantle in years to come.

Whatever decisions are taken, everyone knows that things can never be the same again. In our current culture, the words ‘legend’ and ‘genius’ are used with annoying flippancy.

In the case of Sir Henry Cecil they are the perfect description of a special and uniquely-talented man and trainer of the thoroughbred racehorse.

Sir Henry Cecil 1943-2013

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The fact that this blog is called The Reference Point says all you need to know about my life-long admiration for Sir Henry Cecil. We will, quite genuinely, never see his like again. He made me cry when returning from the wilderness to win the Oaks with Light Shift and he made me cry this morning at the news of his passing. An unforgettable genius and a wonderful man.

French Open looks a gift for Serena

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Whilst sister Venus looks a sad shadow of the powerful Grand Slam-winning athlete that devoured many a title, sister Serena could not be living up to her name more impressively. Serene progress since becoming injury-free last year has delivered a string of victories in which, crucially, she has gained a massive psychological advantage over her prime rivals in Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova. Both are outstanding talents but it’s hard to see either displaying sufficient mental resolve to stop the American from taking this week’s French Open title. Azarenka looks the most likely but at present it seems simply a question of how long Williams wants to stay on the tour and continue to rack up evermore titles. It’s hard to take to her at times but never difficult to appreciate the dominating brilliance of her current winning streak.

Ultimate challenge for Dettori

Frankie Dettori is back – as we all know thanks to the relentless diet of relevant facts and irrelevant drivel trotted out by various factions of the media. Some were keen to welcome back the flamboyant Italian, choosing to seemingly disregard his flagrant breach of the rules within his sport. For heaven’s sake we even had a racecourse – Leicester – choosing to call their opening race of the day the “Welcome Back Frankie” stakes. Idiocy of the highest order that was thankfully dealt in impressively speedy and practical fashion by the BHA. The eventual return was predictably low-key, although it’s likely that the first winner back will be greeted in certain quarters with indecent rapture. For most observers, the most fascinating aspect of the story will be the approach of the former Godolphin number one to his new freelance role.

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Just how committed will he be to travelling to the very places he has chosen to eliminate from his schedule in the past? Nottingham on a quiet Monday and Ponte on a Tuesday – for a couple of rides at each? And how about the double headers that could end at 9.30 in the evening at Wolverhampton or Kempton? Frankie has never been easy to predict in the past so I’m not going to try now as he ventures forth on a dramatic new chapter of his career at the age of 42. After all, Lester Piggott enjoyed a period of astonishing success when taking the post of Henry Cecil’s stable jockey – and he was 46 when stepping into that pressure cooker of a role. The chance for Dettori to pay back his sport for his misdemeanours is one which he will hopefully grasp with both hands and confirm that he remains one of the world’s great jockeys. It’s a long road back to the top after the remarkable years of the Godolphin summer of a magnificent career on horseback. Let’s hope he can reclaim that brilliance with the approach of autumn.