Racing: Ffrench ambassador for the new generation

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The Independent Online
When he won the Cesarewitch a year ago today Royston Ffrench became the first black jockey to make an impact in British racing. Next he must break through another barrier and succeed as a senior rider.

If you had never met him before, you might think the name Royston Ffrench suitable for a fellow with blazer and cravat charmingly offering advice in a sportscar showroom.

The real Royston Ffrench is no scruff either and when he arrives at his race-track job of work there is always a suit encasing his bullrush body. Ffrench is 22 and different from his apprentice contemporaries. He rides with an American crouch they don't teach in Blighty. He is by far the most successful apprentice jockey operating in these islands today. And he is black.

It may well be that there are more black people involved in the committees of the Ku Klux Klan than in British racing, and in this respect Royston Ffrench offers far more than his precocious talent. It could be that his achievements will open up the turf to an untapped constituency.

Royston (weighing-room nickname "Tiger", after Woods) admits that during his formative years he characterised racing as "a girls' thing". He is not alone. "I think it's down to lack of knowledge about the sport," he said. "In athletics, for example, there are x-amount of black people in the sport but in racing there are very few.

"Obviously there are prejudiced people around, but in my sport I've not come across it. Everyone has been very helpful and supportive to me. It's not an issue as far as I'm concerned because the colour of your skin doesn't make you any better or any worse than anyone else."

French's ability, however, does set him apart. Unlike the peacock Oliver Skeete, who brought dreadlocks but little else to his equine pursuit of showjumping, Ffrench has more than novelty value in his corner. He is closing in on 70 winners for the season with a pounds 1 level stake bettered by only one man in the top 15, the championship leader Kieren Fallon. Twelve months ago today he launched himself into racing's consciousness by winning the Cesarewitch on Inchcailloch. The partnership attempts to regain the title today. It is hard to believe that the only horse Ffrench knew until the age of 18 was the sensation he felt in his throat after shouting.

Royston Ffrench is the son of a Jamaican immigrant, who, until his recent retirement was a welder. The family home is in the Shropshire New Town of Telford, where 18th Century ironmakers produced the world's first iron rails, iron steam locomotives and, in 1779, the first iron bridge. Mr and Mrs Ffrench produced babies, 15 of them, of which Royston is the youngest.

Like the Waltons, there are a lot of Ffrenches, but they're not quite as close. "To be honest, I can't remember them all," Royston said. "People often wonder about that, but 15 is a lot. I think Desmond is the eldest and he's about 40."

The most influential figure in Ffrench's life, however, is his uncle Errol. It was he who rescued a teenage Royston from jobs in a pallet-making factory and a garage where he cleaned and valeted cars. Ffrench now concedes he was probably not on the fast track to the boardroom. "Obviously there's no career or a future in dead-end jobs like that," he said. "My uncle wanted me to get into racing even though I didn't have any great knowledge of horses."

Ffrench, with uncle's support, obtained a place on the British Racing School's course in Newmarket. Fellow pupils may have considered him a piece of cultural exotica to start with, but it was not an impression that was to last. "Everybody on my course had been involved with horses before," Ffrench said. "I knew nothing. I'd had two pony lessons and I got run away with on the first and thrown on the second so it wasn't the ideal introduction."

Our tyro though made rapid, late headway and, by the end of the 11-week course, he was the victor ludorum, the recipient of the most-promising- student award. "I had to get my head down and work very hard to catch up with the rest," he said.

There is a lot of this talk of long labour in Ffrench's narrative. He is a karate brown belt and his thoughts appear to be part Grasshopper after tuition from the blind master and part Calvinist. "Every day is a challenge and you never stop learning," he said. "For me, to get on in life, you have to be disciplined and try your best. If you don't put anything into life you won't get anything out. I work very hard."

Ffrench's travails now continue at the Newmarket yard of Luca Cumani, to whom he is apprenticed. If the young man ever gets intoxicated by the sweet smell of success it is soon replaced by an earthier aroma as he mucks out his three charges every morning. Men whose names are now in neon, such as Frankie Dettori and Jason Weaver, have been the previous callow incumbents at Bedford House and now Ffrench is about to embark on the dilapidated rope bridge that separates champion apprentices and successful senior jockeys.

Some, such as Richard Dicey, David Coates and David Dineley have fallen through the slats. Ffrench hopes to choose his path more carefully. "It's very difficult after you lose your apprenticeship and hopefully the guv'nor will stick by me," he said. "I'll be one of the big boys until I lose my claim and then I'll have to prove myself all over again and it will be even harder this time."

Royston Ffrench, ostensibly, would have more tangible aspirations than most. He understands the politics of the game (the two puncture marks in his left ear lobe are no longer decorated) and he understands that talent always finishes runner-up to application. His manners are what you would wish for in your offspring.

Ffrench is already one of the great technicians of his age thanks to extensive repetition on his mechanical horse. His switching of the whip from one hand to the other is considered one of the smoothest pieces of prestidigitation in the game. This afternoon he may have to use such trickery on the living fibre of Inchcailloch. Only the time travellers know if he, like the old horse, is destined to become one of the notable stayers of British racing.