A Ffrench revolution in Newmarket

a young jockey with style and guile from a champion stable
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A Bright spring morning on Newmarket Heath. Blue sky, green grass and silence broken only by the buzz of a strimmer as Jockey Club workmen trimmed the edges of an otherwise pristine gallop. Then, from the distance, a rhythmic thump as the first of Luca Cumani's long string of horses climbed the gentle, curving hill. Not much to choose between the horses, so early in the flat season, and the same applied to their work riders, in football shirts and anoraks. It was an "easy work" day, and the first 20-odd riders past the top of the gallop were casual in the saddle: style was not the point. Then, in mid-string, a chestnut with a white blaze on its nose puffed efficiently by. A flashy animal, and there was something eye-catching about the rider. His stirrups were short, halfway up the animal's flanks, and his nose was almost buried in the mane. His bottom pointed skywards, an attitude more familiar to racegoers on the west coast of America than to work-watchers on the Suffolk borders.

The horse, an unraced two-year-old, was called Ramon Vega, a name recognised by football fans but which may never become well-known to racegoers. The jockey was called Royston Ffrench, and if his ambition and his mentor's belief is justified, he will one day be as synonymous with winners as his predecessor as an apprentice at Cumani's yard, Frankie Dettori.

Ffrench, who is 21, has ridden 20 winners already, the latest a clever ride on the fancied Night Dance at Beverley on Friday. He is confident, wirily fit, determined and, in an increasingly media-conscious sport, good-looking and articulate. But there is something else about him which is significant in his chosen sport as it would not be if he was a gifted footballer, cricketer or basketball player. Royston Ffrench is black.

"I find that in a way it helps," he said, after unsaddling Ramon Vega in Cumani's Bedford House stables at the foot of the gallops. "There are very few black jockeys in this country and if someone sees someone doing well they are more likely to take note of you."

A racing stable can be a hard place to make a living, banter between lads and lasses is non-stop, and Ffrench takes his share: "I hope the photographer's using colour film," one lad called out as he posed in the sunshine, "otherwise you'll come out as a negative." Another suggested: "Make sure you get his best side - the backside." Ffrench took it in good part. He won't mind if plenty of jockeys get used to looking at his rear.

His father, Roy Snr, came to Britain from Jamaica, and settled in Telford in the Midlands, where he works as a mechanic and welder. When Royston the younger - one of 13 children - left school he went to work in a local factory, hammering pallets together. After that, he had a spell as a car valet. "But really, I was doing nothing there," he recalled. "I'd wasted two years and I had no future career."

Then his Uncle Erroll paid for Royston to have lessons on a pony, and an unlikely ambition began to take shape. He had a natural aptitude for riding, and eventually gained a place at the British Racing Academy in Newmarket, then a placing with the trainer Mark Campion in Sussex, from whose yard he joined Cumani three years ago.

The trainer is pleased with his latest protege. "He is very promising," he said, once Ffrench was out of earshot. "He had the right attitude from the moment he arrived. He works hard, he's sensible." Cumani has repaid the work by arranging for the youngster to spend the last two winters on the west coast of America, gaining priceless experience and learning the bum-high riding style that will remind many British racegoers of the great Steve Cauthen.

Since his return, Ffrench has been in demand. His win on Inchcailloch in the Cesarewitch last year marked him out as a strong man in a finish, and his agent, Tony Hind, has kept him busy with rides from outside the Cumani yard. But it is Bedford House horses that represent his best chance of following Dettori to the champion apprentice's title. His boss believes that he can make it. "If he keeps at it," Cumani said, "I'm sure that he will."

Royston Ffrench is an immensely likeable young man, enthusiastic, eager to please, one of life's smilers. But there was something slightly spooky about his description of his progress from the pallet factory to the parade ring. He wanted to get every detail just so, in the right order, as if by patterning the past he could plot the future. There, the aim is simple. "What I would really like," he said, "is to be the first black champion jockey."

Five to follow: Sue Montgomery gives her dark horses to watch out for in the summer season

Lord Of Men

(Trainer: John Gosden)

Four-year-old chestnut colt by Groom Dancer - Upper Strata (Shirley Heights)

Was a high-class juvenile, but a pelvis injury sustained in a collision with a tractor kept him off the track last year. Could trouble the best over middle-distances if he has recovered.

Mungo Park

(Lynda Ramsden)

Three-year-old bay gelding by Selkirk - River Dove (Riverman)

Big, imposing round-actioned individual who should leave his previous form behind once he is given a mile and ease in the ground. One to keep an eye out for in handicaps.

The Faraway Tree

(Geoff Wragg)

Three-year-old bay filly by Suave Dancer - Sassalya (Sassafras)

Quickened well to win over six furlongs on her only run last year. A May-foaled half-sister to classy Sally Rous and Susuru; could make up into a smart middle-distance filly this year.

Yaliaetanee

(Michael Stoute)

Three-year-old bay colt by Sadler's Wells - Vaigly Star (Star Appeal)

Won a hot seven-furlong Newmarket maiden by four lengths, staying on well. Entered in the Guineas and Derby. The key will be the ground - he needs some give as he must get his toe in.

Za-Im

(Barry Hills)

Three-year-old bay colt by Green

Desert - Al Bahathri (Blushing Groom)

Fluent mover who impressed when winning his maiden at Newbury over six furlongs on soft, and should stay a mile. His high-class dam has already produced some smart winners.

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