IT is a measure of the quietly unassuming Andrea Atzeni’s rapid rate of progress that he – and not his more extrovert countryman, Frankie Dettori – is the only Italian jockey riding in today’s Investec Epsom Derby, still the most coveted contest in Flat racing.
Yet, while the charismatic Dettori’s absence can be attributed to his Qatar Racing paymasters not having a runner, 23-year-old Atzeni and his mount Kingston Hill head to Epsom on merit and with an outstanding chance of denying Aidan O’Brien’s hot favourite Australia.
For, if Kingston Hill handles the unique undulations of Tattenham Hill and the forecast rain turns the one-and-a-half-mile Derby into an even tougher test of stamina, it will complete a remarkable rise to prominence for the horse’s Sardinian-born jockey.
Just seven years ago, and when Dettori was finally ending his Derby jinx on Authorized to widespread acclaim, Atzeni was struggling to grasp the English language so he could be gain a sought-after place at Racing School.
Now he is such a polished performer – both linguistically and in the saddle – that he was quick to issue reassuring words about his fitness after suffering the indignity of being unseated moments after passing the Windsor winning post on Monday.
Even though Biz The Nurse’s win in last year’s Italiano Derby probably means the most to Atzeni because he was winning his country’s premier race, his sense of history is sufficient to recognise the significance of today’s test.
“It’s one of the most important races. There are a lot of important races, but the Derby is a great race,” Atzeni told The Yorkshire Post in an exclusive interview.
“It’s great just to get a ride – and on a horse that could win the Derby. It’s unbelievable. The Epsom Derby, it’s one of the races watched all over the world.”
Yet it is an irony that the polite Atzeni never watched the race when he was a child riding ponies on his family’s farm a decade ago – his father was a farmer while his mother was a nurse.
Despite their non-racing background, they spotted enough potential to take their son, then 15, to Milan to ride for Alduino Botti.
Three months later, the aspiring jockey was on the telephone to his heartbroken mother to say he was making a solo trip to Newmarket – and without a word of English to his name – to team up with Botti’s son Marco, now one of this country’s top Flat trainers thanks to horses like Ascot Gold Cup contender Tac De Boistron.
Atzeni tried to soften the blow by saying that he would only stay for a couple of months. Yet he made such a positive impact that the Botti family went out of his way to help their new recruit to settle in Britain and come to terms with the language.
His first win came at Great Leighs in July 2008 and it was not long before other trainers, most notably Kingston Hill’s handler Roger Varian, were coming to appreciate the quiet effectiveness of Atzeni’s horsemanship.
The accumulation of winners was matched by Atzeni being asked to test himself in higher quality races – and there being no question of the Italian losing the ride on Kingston Hill after winning the Racing Post Trophy by a wide margin four-and-a-half lengths.
Though the horse disappointed in the 2000 Guineas after stumbling while leaving the stalls, the Doncaster form looks even more impressive after Kevin Ryan’s The Grey Gatsby – a well-beaten seventh – won the French Derby last Sunday.
Five horses have completed the Racing Post Trophy and Epsom Derby double, the first being the Sir Henry Cecil-trained Reference Point, and Atzeni was impressed by Kingston Hill’s versatility during a racecourse gallop at Epsom 10 days ago.
His potential horse of a lifetime is owned by Paul Smith whose father, Derrick, is part of the Coolmore triumvirate responsible for the hot favourite Australia.
“Kingston Hill did it well. You need a horse who can handle the track and stay well. I was very pleased, but I’m also watching replays of all the old races on YouTube and talking to jockeys like Frankie. You have to be prepared,” said Atzeni ahead of his first Derby ride.
“Everyone knows about Frankie back home, but I didn’t really know him until I came over. I don’t copy him. Frankie is Frankie. The same with Ryan Moore. I just want to be the best Andrea Atzeni. I love travelling, and my goal is to win as many international races as possible.”
Of the threats, John Gosden’s Western Hymn – the mount of William Buick – has strong each-way claims that will become even more enticing if it rains at Epsom before 4pm. But there is one certainty if Kingston Hill is first past the post. Unlike Frankie Dettori, who celebrates big race successes with a flying dismount, Andrea Atzeni will be keeping his feet firmly on the ground.