Racing: Peslier is French perfection

Sue Montgomery argues that today Frankie Dettori will be meeting his match
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In Britain we have Frankie, in France there is Olivier. Dettori, that is, and Peslier. And it would be insulting to say the young French jockey is merely the Dettori of France. Perhaps he has yet to ride seven winners in a day, though he did ride five in a day last year. But our man would be more than happy to be compared with theirs.

The jockeys, the best of their generation in the world, fought out the finish of last year's Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe on Lammtarra and Freedom Cry. Victory went to Dettori, but Peslier, who rides the favourite Helissio today, has every chance of landing the big one. It would cap a golden year for the 23-year-old, who is about to win his first Cravache d'Or, ending the four-year reign of Thierry Jarnet as French champion jockey.

The similarities between Dettori and Peslier are certainly there. Both are good-looking, charming and articulate, both have monumental talent in their chosen field, and neither has an iota of side despite their success.

But unlike Dettori, the son of a wealthy Italian ex-champion jockey, Peslier does not come from a privileged racing background. Born in Cosse- le-Vivier, a country town three hours west of Paris, he is the son of a marble mason. And this, he feels, is why his feet remain on the ground. "I start with nothing and I did it all myself," he said. "I have been at work since I was 13 years old. When I begin, I know nobody in racing; I come from a family that know nothing about horses. That is why I feel I am a balanced person."

Like his father, he discovered his future lay in a pair of craftsman's hands. A jockey withrough hands is worse than useless for it is through the touch on the reins that the job gets done. It is a good jockey's light touch that kids half a ton of thoroughbred into believing the small human on his back is in charge, and Peslier's is like silk.

He learned to ride at a pony ranch in his Mayenne department, then moved to the jockey school at Chantilly. His first attachment was to Patrick Biancone, for whom he rode his first winner in 1989. He moved on to Nicholas Clement a year later and became champion apprentice. Three years ago he was head-hunted by Elie Lellouche, Helissio's trainer, as first jockey to one of the leading owners in France, Daniel Wildenstein - a move which also brought him into contact with Andre Fabre. It was the break he needed: given top-class horses to ride, he exploded on to the French scene.

This season English racegoers, too, have become aware of him. He won the Dante Stakes on Glory of Dancer before giving the non-staying colt a peach of a ride into fourth place in the Derby on his first visit to Epsom, and brought Shake The Yoke home by a perfect neck in the Coronation Stakes at Royal Ascot.

Peslier's hobby is somewhat unusual. He has become an expert in the mock war game where you stalk and splat the enemy with a paint-loaded gun, but he feels it helps his attitude to his job: "If you are timid, as I was once, it helps develop character and initiative, and I find it calming, too. It is an outlet for aggression and tension."

He is regarded as exceptionally intelligent in his ability to read a race, a quality which will stand him in good stead today. The Arc, run at a true gallop over a difficult, deceptive course, tests jockeys as well as horses to the full. Even Lester Piggott has got it wrong there.

Peslier has come close in the last two Arcs. In 1994 he finished fifth, less than a length behind Carnegie, riding Bright Moon, who broke down close to home. Last year he thought he had the race won when he sent Freedom Cry alongside Lammtarra going into the final furlong. "He just did not last the distance," Peslier said, "and 200 metres from home, he say `O, la, la, enough', and he let Lammtarra win."

Today, Helissio will be his fourth Arc ride. The only defeat of the bay colt's six-race career came when another jockey gave him a truly horrible ride in the French Derby. He has since won twice, most recently an easy front-running win in a traditional Arc trial when only 80 per cent fit. Peslier said: "I go to the front then because the pace was slow, and my horse, he like to gallop. But he can go anywhere. If the pace is quick, we stay at the back. I make no plan before, I wait until the stalls open. Then my horse will tell me. And I know he's ready for this race. I ride him at home last week and he jump around everywhere. He is a very happy horse."