Racing: Focus switches to Roberts: Paul Hayward reports on Sheikh Mohammed's pursuit of the Flat's champion jockey

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The Independent Online
MICHAEL KINANE yesterday rejected the chance to ride as first jockey to the world's foremost racehorse owner, Sheikh Mohammed, after deciding that the financial terms of the deal were not to his liking. Michael Roberts, the British champion, will now almost certainly be recruited for the job vacated last week by Steve Cauthen.

Kinane's verdict says much about the problem the big owners created for themselves in the late 1980s when signing-on fees went into an inflationary spiral and encouraged the leading riders to expect, if not demand, vast retainers.

Yesterday Kinane cited affection for his Irish homeland as his main reason for turning down the offer. But if he is that reluctant to move to Britain it is impossible to understand why he negotitated for a full week with the Sheikh's advisors and undertook a gruelling journey from Hong Kong, where he is currently riding, to discuss the deal face to face. Money, not Kinane's fear of change, was the insurmountable obstacle.

From the Sheikh's racing operation in Newmarket came this statement: 'Sheikh Mohammed's offer to retain Michael Kinane in 1993 has been declined. Michael Kinane gives his strong ties and roots in his native Ireland and his current successful association with David Oughton (a trainer) in Hong Kong as reasons for not wishing to accept this offer. We wish Michael the very best of luck for the future and hope he will continue to ride for us on occasions.'

Behind the scenes, though, Kinane's decision will have been greeted with incredulity. He has been champion jockey in Ireland many times, but the post of No. 1 to Sheikh Mohammed would have given him a strong chance of deposing Roberts in Britain, and put him in line to accompany the mass of homebred horses now being produced - from the very best bloodlines - by the Sheikh's enormous stud operations in England and Ireland.

Kinane will have calculated that his winter trips to Hong Kong and his association with the Dermot Weld stable on The Curragh already guarantee him a substantial all-year income. He may also have noted that although Sheikh Mohammed produced 185 winners in Britain alone last season, the quality of his team was again far below the expected level, and with all this in mind Kinane probably argued that he required a substantial financial incentive to make the transfer across the Irish Sea.

That was not forthcoming, and the likelihood is that Roberts will be far quicker to see the openings presented by such an appointment. A look yesterday through the Sheikh's broodmare team for 1993 - Indian Skimmer, Oh So Sharp, Diminuendo and Pebbles to name but four - confirmed the impression that with its immense genetic strength the organisation cannot fail to produce a run of champions eventually.

In 1993, for example, up to 19 of the Sheikh's mares will be sent to Sadler's Wells, the undisputed leading stallion in Europe, and as the emphasis changes from the risky practice of buying yearlings at public auctions to breeding them at home from impeccable stock, Cauthen's abdication presents a virtually unmissable opportunity to his successor.

After wasting a week in fruitless exchanges, the Sheikh's assistants were last night taking stock of their choices. The only other European-based jockey besides Roberts who might fit the bill is Lanfranco Dettori, but he is regarded as being too young and inexperienced to make an immediate leap from the Luca Cumani stable to Sheikh Mohammed's maroon and white silks.

A third option is to employ a range of jockeys on a freelance basis, but that would run counter to the modern preference for having retained riders and would inconvenience the Sheikh's trainers, who would waste time making bookings and fending off agents.

All of which makes Roberts an odds-on shot. He lives in Newmarket, is an indefatigable traveller, rides at below 8st and compiles an encyclopaedic knowledge of the horses he rides. Cauthen was a good judge of a horse's ability and that skill is shared by Roberts, who takes an academic approach to form, the particular demands of different tracks, and the strengths and weaknesses of individual horses. He also has a good record riding for the Maktoum brothers, having accompanied Sheikh Mohammed's Indian Skimmer and Sheikh Ahmed Al Maktoum's Mtoto to numerous big race victories.

The weariness among the Sheikh's cornermen was evident yesterday in this concluding remark in the Kinane announcement. 'No further press statement will be made until a final decision has been made on jockey plans for 1993,' it read.

Now that Kinane has eliminated himself from the list of candidates, that decision will probably come after a call to Roberts in South Africa, where he spends the winters on his farm.

Having learnt a lesson from the bizarre flirtation between Kinane and racing's most powerful owner, Roberts is unlikely to bother with the brinkmanship.

(Photograph omitted)