FRANKIE Dettori is used to riding for high stakes – the public face of racing has won more than 500 Group contests in a glittering career.
He has competed on 24 consecutive occasions in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, a quite remarkable level of staying power. The charismatic Italian has also won Europe’s blue riband race on three occasions.
But Dettori’s decision to partner Camelot in the rider’s 25th successive Arc represents one of the biggest gambles of his life; one that has the potential to backfire spectacularly on Longchamp’s lush turf.
First, the horse. The 2000 Guineas and Epsom Derby winner was denied an historic Triple Crown when faltering in last month’s Ladbrokes St Leger at Doncaster. He is expected by many, including his owners, to bounce back over a trip that is two furlongs shorter than Town Moor’s gruelling one-and-three-quarter miles.
Next, the politics. Camelot’s owners bankroll Ireland’s Coolmore stud, whose greatest rival when it comes to thoroughbred breeding is Sheikh Mohammed’s Godolphin operation, Dettori’s primary employer.
Now the twist. Dettori’s services only became available after Godolphin opted to use the Italian’s deputy, Mikael Barzalona, the jockey who beat Camelot at Doncaster thanks to a masterful ride aboard Encke, on their sole runner, Masterstroke, who is trained in France. Was this a deliberate snub to racing’s crowd favourite?
Then the previous form. Dettori had to apologise profusely to Sheikh Mohammed in 2005 after securing an 11th hour winning ride in the 2005 St Leger on Scorpion who – like Camelot – came under the Coolmore ownership banner because of future earning potential at stud. He still took up the ride in the knowledge that Godolphin wanted his services at Goodwood on the day in question and believed that he was irreplaceable.
That the jockey only texted the Sheikh this week, to inform him of his intentions after it became clear that Joseph O’Brien could not make the weight aboard Camelot, adds to the intrigue following a controversial season in which Dettori has had to battle for superiority at Godolphin following the recruitment of Barzalona and Silvestre de Sousa.
Yet the 42-year-old is non-plussed about the controversy. He only has one objective – and that it is to become a four-time Arc winner following successes with Lammtarra (1995); Sakhee (2001) and Marienbard (2002).
“I didn’t have a ride for Godolphin,” said the father-of-five, who rode his first UK winner 25 years ago and who was originally due to ride Ed Dunlop’s globe-trotting (and less controversial) Snow Fairy before the mare was withdrawn because of injury.
“It’s an honour for me to ride the horse. Let’s hope he’s in tip-top shape. He’s had a long season, but if the Camelot we know turns up, he should have a very good chance of winning the race.
“I think you want to judge him on his Guineas and Derby runs. Coming back to a mile-and-a-half will be his absolute cup of tea. He was ridden to stay in the Leger, it was a stop-start pace early doors, although I still think the horse quickened well at the end.
“He looks to be tremendously well balanced. He came into his own in the Derby when he ran over a mile-and-a-half. He spreadeagled the field and was mighty impressive.”
Another points need to be made. The BBC’s veteran ‘voice of racing’ Sir Peter O’Sullevan, who will be at Longchamp in his 95th year, is among those to point out that Dettori is still the most accomplished big race jockey in the world and that it would have been remiss of Camelot’s connections to overlook his availability.
While Camelot clearly takes star billing, and only has to carry 8st 11lb because of the weight allowance for three-year-olds, trainer Aidan O’Brien has a second major contender in St Nicholas Abbey.
Set to carry 9st 5lb, he will be ridden by the trainer’s teenage son Joseph, who was in the saddle when the horse won the Breeders’ Cup Turf last year after finishing fifth in the Arc. “He’s been running well all season and I don’t see why he won’t again,” said O’Brien junior, who has been Camelot’s sole pilot until now.
Christophe Soumillon is embracing the expectation on his shoulders as he prepares to partner Japanese superstar Orfevre, the race favourite after last year’s winner Danedream was ruled out because of equine travel restrictions in Germany.
Orfevre’s legion of supporters from the Far East anticipate nothing less than another victory from Japan’s Triple Crown hero. However, he will have to overcome the widest draw of all in stall 18 – a significant disadvantage because no horse since Dalakhani in 2003 has won the Arc from a double digit stall number due to Longchamp’s relentless turns.
“You need a real champion to win the Arc, who is efficient over a mile as well as over a mile-and-a-half as you need speed and stamina,” said Belgian-born Soumillon, who was, coincidentally, victorious on Dalakhani and then Zarkava (2008).
The soft ground will suit Sir Michael Stoute’s Sea Moon and stable jockey Ryan Moore has been passed fit to ride following an aggravating wrist injury. Like Orfevre’s connections, the trainer’s primary concern is the draw – stall 16 in this instance.
However, stall seven will suit John Gosden’s late entry Great Heavens. The Irish Oaks victor is not as talented as her full brother Nathaniel, who was withdrawn earlier this week after picking up a minor injection, but she will relish the going.
The downside is whether she will have enough tactical speed to hold her position on the final turn before the two-furlong dash for home.
“She is a filly with a lot of ability,” said jockey William Buick, whose mount carries a featherweight 8st 8lb because she is a three-year-old filly taking on. “She handles cut in the ground, she has done nothing wrong in her career so far and has stepped up to the plate with every run.”
As Great Heavens is an unexpected runner, the pressure is off the 24-year-old. If only the same could be said of his friend and mentor, Dettori, who is potentially putting his job on the line in his pursuit of Arc glory. He will hope that his riding reputation alone allows him to prevail – on and off the course.