Nine days on, the image already feels eternal. It was as if he had abruptly peeled away the hide of convention to disclose the glistening, pulsing vitals of genius in the raw. No matter what Mickaël Barzalona might go on to achieve, starting at Royal Ascot tomorrow, the shock of that glimpse will never fade. And you would be surprised if it did not eventually acquire a patina of greatness.
Seldom in the long history of the Turf has a jockey announced so flagrant a talent. When Barzalona stood bolt upright in his stirrups and saluted the stands, the Derby in his grasp, he was reprising the sort of celebration long familiar to the sport – albeit its scope betrayed unusual youth and excitement. True, Pour Moi was still several strides short of the post, but even experienced riders will often pat their mounts in congratulation as they ease down. The trouble was, in this instance, that Barzalona was not even in the lead.
Over the blurred, headlong seconds that followed, seasoned witnesses variously laughed, gasped and fulminated at his temerity. In the event, Pour Moi stuck his nose in front in the final stride, though a photo finish was still required to make sure, Barzalona having yanked the colt's head back to support his euphoria. The stewards would later scold him that this was not the way the British like things done, and many expected the formidable trainer of Pour Moi to add his own reprimand. Instead André Fabre gave a wry half-smile. "He is only 19," he shrugged.
Nineteen! Good grief. The eccentric configuration of Epsom, remember, is supposed to be inimical to the habits and experience of French jockeys. Yet Barzalona, having ridden his first race over the track only the previous afternoon, blithely restrained Pour Moi in last place even as they began the descent into Tattenham Corner. Only the most mean-spirited, surely, could mistake as some ingenuous folly what was plainly a coup de génie.
For most instructive of all was Barzalona's demeanour after pulling up. At no stage, while the buzzing stands awaited the result of the photo, was there even the briefest spasm of doubt. Imagine the wrath – from Fabre and the stewards, from press and public – had the verdict not gone his way. There is sangfroid; and there is playing with fire. In the conclusion of one experienced French trainer: "This, to me, was stamped with the seal of genius. He never questioned himself for a moment, while the judges were studying the photo. This Derby has consecrated a great rider."
Back in seventh was Christophe Lemaire, an elite French jockey and affectionate mentor. "I saw him standing up in the stirrups and was very happy for him," he says. "You can't blame him for that. When you finish so strongly, and don't know whether you are going to get there, all the pressure comes out very suddenly when at last you know."
Barzalona was wearing the silks of John Magnier, the boss of Coolmore Stud. Most of the Coolmore horses are trained by Aidan O'Brien at Ballydoyle, where there happens to be a vacancy for stable jockey. But Fabre's principal patron is Sheikh Mohammed, Magnier's big rival, who has already fast-tracked Barzalona as understudy to Frankie Dettori.
At 40, Dettori is approaching the evening of his career. But he seems pardonably offended by the notion that his long career at the top could, or should, be abruptly traded for the potential of a kid who only won his first Group One last month. Since Epsom, Dettori has rebuked Barzalona's antics in his newspaper column. "I was 19 once, and know what it is like when the joy of winning takes over," he wrote. "But it was too close for comfort. Remember, my flying dismounts take place in the winner's enclosure, and I will mention it to Mickaël."
Perhaps he perceives an uncomfortable template in his replacement on his employers' best hope for the week, Delegator in the Golden Jubilee Stakes. Dettori misses the last two days of the meeting to start a suspension for failing to ride out for third on the favourite for the Oaks, 24 hours before the Derby. Regardless of that oversight, Dettori had looked strangely panicked in that race, forcing his way out when belatedly realising the leader was going to slip clear. Sheikh Mohammed will be hoping that the emergence of an obvious heir will now spur Dettori, still at the height of his powers, into a rather more focused response.
Barzalona intended only to convey respect, and bemusement, when he said at Epsom: "This is all the more fantastic when I think of how the master, Dettori, had to wait 15 years to win the Derby." That may well have been received as a double-edged
compliment, but Dettori will recognise much of himself in his young rival – the Mediterranean brio, the air of destiny.
There are parallels in their origins. Dettori, though born in Milan, has roots in Sardinia; and Barzalona, born near Avignon, traces his to Corsica, divided by just seven miles in the Strait of Bonifacio. Dettori's father was a jockey; likewise Barzalona's uncle. Though his first love was rugby, "something clicked" when Barzalona's grandfather, a trainer, introduced him to horses. He entered the jockeys' academy at Marseilles, before going up to Paris, where he was drawn to the attention of Fabre, whose faith in young blood was evinced at Ascot last year when another protégé, Maxime Guyon, won the Prince of Wales's Stakes on his first ride here.
From the outset, Fabre trusted Barzalona with good ones on the gallops. Unusually, his first winner, in the spring of 2008, was a dead-heat. But he soon proved himself first among equals. By the end of the following year, he had used up his apprentice allowance, with a 70th winner, and been signed as second jockey by the Wertheimer brothers.
By all accounts, he is a polite, attentive young man, likely to heed the counsel of Fabre and senior riders even as the conveyor belt accelerates beneath his feet. "With André Fabre I learn every day, and in a happy environment," he says. "I owe everything to him. The chance he has given me is unheard of."
Even in his own tongue, he largely confines himself to such decorous platitudes. More eloquent testimony comes from Lemaire, who has himself excelled on British tracks. "Mickaël has the freshness of the young jockey who has nothing to lose," Lemaire says. "He's able to take decisions very quickly, to be very positive. He has a nice technique, obviously, and for one of his age has valuable experience of good horses in particular. With André Fabre he rides high-quality horses every day and that's important when it comes to big races. He knows that even if you make a little error, you can trust a good one to help you correct it – to retrieve the length you have lost. This gives you confidence to ride a little more quietly. It's when you think you have no margin that you hurry, and when you hurry that you make mistakes."
Lemaire commends Barzalona's intelligence, manners and eagerness to learn, and trusts him not to be led astray by sudden stardom. But what will happen, the day the racing gods introduce him to their capricious ways? "We will see in the future," Lemaire says, guardedly. "It's when you have pressure on that you have the bad days. He looks a very settled guy. He leads a quiet life, has had a nice girlfriend for a while. So I hope for him he stays the same way, for when he must face the difficult moments. We can't forget that it is still horse racing, not jockey racing. He has been very lucky to ride some good horses. But he uses them very well, and he's a good pupil, born for this job. I'm sure he will have a great career."Reuse content