Racing: Prolific Peslier rises with l'Arc

Racing: Derby-winning jockey seeks third successive Triomphe on Sagamix in Sunday's Longchamp showpiece
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The Independent Online
TWO YEARS ago, as he won the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe on Helissio, Olivier Peslier conducted the sort of mounted dancing more readily associated with the plumed riders of the Big Top. Twelve months later he was at it again, blowing a blizzard of kisses towards the stands as Peintre Celebre powered home.

It may be that the Frenchman is finding the choreography of an original winning routine more difficult than capturing the race itself. A new celebration may be unveiled on Sunday if Sagamix, the colt yesterday announced as Peslier's mount this year, can complete the hat-trick.

Peslier, the stonemason's son, has chiselled his accomplishments deeply on racing over the past two seasons. He has twice won the Cravache d'Or (French jockeys' championship) to match his successive Arcs. This year he has thrown in the embellishment of an Epsom Derby, the first time a French jockey has won the race since Yves Saint-Martin pointed Relko in the right direction in 1963.

And here is the nub. Thanks to Peslier, French jockeys no longer rank alongside Irishmen and mothers-in-law as the butt of jokes. They used to say that when Freddie Head, an earlier French jockey, attempted to navigate Epsom on Derby day, the gypsies would douse camp fires and bolt for sanctuary in their wagons.

Peslier is a firmly established figure on Britain's racecourses these days, courtesy of a talent he shows us here whenever gaps in the Parisian programme allow. He remains boyish in looks and attitude (when an estate agent first showed him around his house he asked when Peslier's father would be along), his striking feature being ears which have clearly not been designed in a wind tunnel.

He is most generous with his time. When you call Peslier at home he is very free with English that is more energetic than grammatical. He does not claim an Avon lady is at the door, a pie ruining in the oven or his wife about to give birth as a mechanism of getting rid of the caller. Most of all, Olivier Peslier still has the same hat size he has always had.

He does not consider himself a paradigm of jockeyship. Indeed, Peslier thinks he has a long way to go. "For as long as I am riding I will be learning," he said. "Every race is different, every race is a challenge. I try to be the best but nobody can be perfect. It's not possible. If I was perfect on the racecourse I wouldn't ride any more. I wouldn't have anything else to learn."

There is no swagger about Peslier, no denigration of colleagues or shows of aggression. In fact, his closest friends are his greatest rivals. He often takes Yutaka Take, the Japanese champion, on excursions around Paris (where Take is the more recognised) and he welcomes to his home Frankie Dettori, who shares his host's love of fine wines.

That is the relaxation. On Sunday in the Bois de Boulogne comes the business. Peslier has done it many times before, but the nerves will still be there. "I think everybody gets a little bit nervous at the gate," he said. "The Arc is a big race and you've got to make a lot of big decisions.

"In the big races, just before we go into the stalls, there is a voice inside me saying 'don't mess this up', but I just try to relax. You don't ride for money, that comes afterwards. You ride to win. And just winning big races is wonderful."

It has been a slightly inflated Olivier Peslier we have seen this year. While he was riding in Japan in January and February the jockey felt he was not strong enough. In France, the style is "faire l'accordion" (to play the accordion), that is to say to vary the pace. In the Far East, the pattern is to hit the gate fast and keep going. It is a method more physically demanding of a jockey, and Peslier initially felt his body was letting him down. "I've put on a bit of weight, a bit of muscle," he said. "I had to toughen up. I worked very hard and I pushed myself a lot, in the gymnasium and running. I worked longer. Now the jockeys seem so young and there is a lot of competition."

It was not, however, brute strength which got High-Rise home at Epsom on the first Saturday in June. As the colt swept round Tattenham Corner in 12th place his chance looked minimal. Then, though, came the surge, with his jockey a model of balance and cool down that undulating stretch of the Surrey downs. "It was a fantastic memory for me," he said. "It's 35 years since a French jockey won the Derby, so, for me, it was wonderful."

Peslier very much appreciates the skill for riding horses which accompanied him into the world. He also talks of the good fortune which seems to be his constant friendly stalker. "Riding is a gift but you also have to work at it," he said. "You have to know exactly what's going on, not only in front of you but also behind, which is really difficult because you are not looking behind.

"You have to use your imagination and know the other horses in the race. But to become a great jockey you have to have luck. Sometimes you'll find a gap and sometimes you won't. So you can be gifted but you still need the luck.

"It's difficult to say the difference a jockey makes. You can't really say if it's five, 10 or 20 per cent to the horse, but there are some days when the jockey wins a race on his own."

It will take more than just an outstanding jockey to win the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe on Sunday, but Peslier has proved that, given a decent conveyance, he is as good as anyone around. He knows Longchamp, its false pace and false straight. It gives him an advantage over the less experienced men of his trade.

"[Longchamp] is difficult for English jockeys, like Epsom is difficult for the French," Peslier says. "There will be a lot of strong horses [on Sunday], so it will be hard for the horse and the jockey. There are not so many leaders and everybody waits. It's tactical.

"The thing is, everybody wants to be in the same place." Yes, the same place that Olivier Peslier has been occupying at the winning post for the last two years.