Racing: Soumillon anxious to take his place among the élite

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The Independent Online

Christophe Soumillon is on the verge of many ambitions. On the cusp of the French jockeys' championship, riding the favourite in tomorrow afternoon's Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe and, most tantalisingly of all, potential riding greatness. It must all be quite difficult to take in at the age of 22.

Four years ago, Soumillon was still mucking out and feeding the horses for Cedric Boutin. Now he is the coming man, only just a man, a figure who has justified leaving behind all he knew in his native Belgium.

"When I was 14 I made a choice," he said at Newmarket yesterday. "The racing in Belgium is not very good. I wanted to become the best and to be the best I had to come to France. Everybody has been surprised with my success. Me too."

Along with the fledgling glory has come the inevitable comparison, the one that has acted like an anvil in the saddlecloth for the tyros before him. Soumillon has been referred to as the next Yves Saint Martin.

"It is difficult to compare," Alain de Royer-Dupré, who will help Soumillon into Dalakhani's saddle for tomorrow's big race, says. "I worked with Yves at the end of his career and Christophe is very young. But, like Yves, he is very strong.

"Even when he was 16 we saw rapidly that he had a big talent. Christophe has good balance on a horse and he likes all animals [particularly his own tribe of Jack Russells], he has a good connection with them.

"Now he is okay. There is no problem with the weight. He is tall but the bones are fine. But the thing for a jockey is not to be good for a short time. It is best to make it a long career."

Soumillon became proper box office in the course of Dalakhani's stroll in the Prix du Jockey-Club [French Derby] in early June. As the grey was sauntering clear, his partner gave a dismissive flourish with his left hand, an invitation for others to pass. It was either showmanship or brattishness, more certainly it was evidence that Soumillon is a character in the sport.

Perhaps that means he is on the path to carving his name on the tree trunks reserved for the greats in his profession. For Cash Asmussen, the five-times French champion, believes it is personality which separates the cream from the weighing-room whey.

"The guy is well on his way," the American says. "He's progressed so much in the last couple of years and he's now a force to be reckoned with. I see a lot of confidence and a man on a roll. He's taking a lot of chances and they're paying off. He sits and waits longer, waits for things to develop. It's working for him. And, as the great Yves Saint Martin used to say, "the greater the race, the farther the winning post". And that's so true you know, because not everybody rides the same for £10,000 as they do for £1m.

"What Christophe has to do is mature into an athlete who is respected and admired both in and out of the saddle, to become seasoned and someone like Yves or Pat Eddery, a personnage."

Now the Cravache d'Or, the French jockeys' championship, beckons as Christophe Soumillon seeks to overhaul Asmussen's 1988 record total of 200 winners. Enduring celebrity is a more distant aspiration and for the moment there is the microcosm of a single race, albeit one as mighty as the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe.

"It is a race I love to ride in, maybe the biggest race of the season in Europe," Soumillon says. "I want to win. I want my name on it."

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