Racing: Weaver bobs into title contention: Dettori shuffles championship hopes with a Far East tour, while the current holder falters in the top events

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JASON WEAVER, who rode out his apprentice's claim less than 12 months ago, attracted significant support yesterday to be the next champion Flat jockey. Betting interest in the title, for which Lanfranco Dettori had been considered a certainty, was revived by the news that the Italian will ride in Hong Kong when Flat racing on turf ends in November.

Dettori rode more than 50 winners on the all-weather circuit before the turf season opened, giving him an apparently unassailable lead over Pat Eddery, the reigning champion, who remained idle. Though Weaver also performed with considerable success in January and February, his relative inexperience meant he was overlooked as a serious title contender, but while many expected him to stutter when the season started in earnest, he has instead maintained his position as Dettori's closest challenger. He is just 11 winners behind the championship leader, but almost 30 clear of the third- placed jockey, Kevin Darley.

In terms of glamour and remuneration, Happy Valley and Sha Tin score heavily over Wolverhampton and Southwell, and no-one can blame Dettori for accepting the Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club's invitation to ride in the colony. In his absence, however, the humble courses which gave him such a flying start in the title race could yet be the stage for a last-minute overtaking manoeuvre by Weaver. Certainly, a number of punters were sufficiently convinced yesterday to support Weaver to 2-1 from 5-2 with William Hill, prompting the firm to ease Dettori to 1-3 from 2-7. Eddery is also on the drift, at 8-1 from 7-1.

Loyal followers of Weaver will need little persuading about the 22-year-old's ability: a pounds 1 level stake on all his mounts this year is showing a profit of over pounds 130. And as Terry Norman, Weaver's agent, pointed out yesterday, 'Frankie's had 170-odd more rides, but Jason's winning percentage is much higher'.

Punters should be aware, though, that Norman has not backed Weaver for the title. 'Realistically, I don't think he'll win it,' he said, 'but you can only give it a go. Jason's never been afraid of travelling and he certainly won't be now. On Monday, for example, he'll probably go to Edinburgh for two rides, and then back down to Nottingham.'

As for Eddery, the youthful enthusiasm of Dettori and Weaver is the one thing that the current champion cannot match. In the 20 years since he won his first title, the Irishman cannot often have been as long as 8-1 for the championship at this stage of the season. This is the final year of his contract to ride for Khalid Abdullah, and he will be forced to freelance next season. Eddery's days as a serious title contender may be drawing to a close.

The Levy Board has announced that it has up to pounds 30m, the largest sum ever available, for interest-free loans to racecourses. Its resources have been given a pounds 20m boost by the sale of Epsom, Sandown and Kempton.

(Photograph omitted)