The Last Word: Dettori deserves place above the new generation
It is not just premature to give Barzalona immediate parity with Dettori – it is folly
You had to love that picture of John Henry and Roberto Martinez strolling along a Miami sidewalk. Slacks and chinos, sneakers and deck shoes, take-out coffee. See? Same as you and me, these Yankee tycoons and Iberian soccer dudes.
In the event, their tryst was never consummated. But they must have cursed their luck that someone happened not only to recognise them, but also to have a camera. Is nowhere safe on planet football?
It's only fair, mind, that normal rules about privacy be suspended for assignations of this kind. Hiring and firing of players and managers involves us all, as fans, and likewise the prelude to either process – not just the flirting, but the freezing out. There's no hiding place for the big-name striker staring glumly between the invisible horns of the coach who has banished him to the waifs in the fourth row of the dugout. And none, equally, for Frankie Dettori, as he spends Derby day exiled at Haydock.
The most celebrated Flat jockey since Lester has found himself without a mount in either Epsom Classic, for the first time since 1992 – with the pardonable exception of 2000, when he had just been mashed up in a plane crash. Many headlines this week, however, have simply resulted from sleeping through the alarm clock.
Last year, the Derby was won in outrageous fashion by a French teenager, Mickael Barzalona. New to the notorious Epsom rollercoaster, he broke every rule in the book. Last down the hill, he launched Pour Moi on a desperate surge up the straight and careered alongside the leader even as they reached the post. Before they got there, however, Barzalona swayed upright in the stirrups and saluted the stands. As it happened, he would be vindicated by the photo finish – but traditionalists were appalled. He had got lucky, and needed bringing down a peg or two.
Sheikh Mohammed took precisely the opposite view. For the past two decades, the ruler of Dubai has been Dettori's boss. Earlier this year, he hired Barzalona to ride alongside the Italian for his Godolphin stable. He also signed Silvestre de Sousa, who had a breakthrough season in 2011.
Each duly had a mount for Godolphin in the Dubai World Cup, in March, but it was Barzalona who delivered on Monterosso. That same week Godolphin's manager, Simon Crisford, had made the situation crystal clear. Dettori was now first among equals. If Barzalona or De Sousa won a race, he could expect to keep the mount next time.
"It's not like there's going to be a pecking order," Crisford stressed. "There's no second jockey, third jockey. I think we'll decide who suits which horse."
So the fact that Barzalona retained the ride on the stable's runner in the Oaks yesterday was fairly old news. And, on the face of it, Dettori's absence from the Derby would seem no less difficult to explain, Godolphin having failed to muster a runner.
But this is where things become more complicated. Their last feasible Derby colt was Mandaean, who was prepared for a trial at York last month. And suddenly Sheikh Mohammed got it into his head that Barzalona should ride. As things turned out, Mandaean ran like a pit pony through suet and the affront to Dettori did not extend to today. None the less, that looked a genuine and grievous snub.
Plainly, the biggest spender in Turf history is perfectly entitled to do whatever he likes with his horses. Barzalona is a rider of great promise and panache, and it makes sense to groom an heir to Dettori. The sheikh is not some conceited, capricious trifler. He is a true horseman, a loyal patron, and deplores sycophants. Barzalona simply reminds him of the young Dettori, and he wants his senior jockey to light a path for a mutual protégé.
But it is not just premature to give Barzalona immediate parity – it is folly. Decline in jockeys is transparent. You often see former champions all but fall off as they strive to reprise the finishing of their pomp. Pound for pound, however, Dettori arguably remains the best in the world. And he deserves to be treated with corresponding respect.
The layman might well surmise that Dettori is simply raging against the dying of the light. In reality, an equivalent embarrassment can instead be discovered in his employers. Because whatever the problem with the sheikh's empire, it certainly isn't the quality of its riders. Godolphin admits to housing 350 elite thoroughbreds, with access to many more. Ostensibly, that's why it needs these guys to ride them. In recent years, however, it has failed to muster enough horses in big races to keep one top jockey busy – never mind three.
In the event, Barzalona gave Kailani far too much to do in the Oaks. The previous evening, moreover, he had failed to settle another of the sheikh's fillies at Sandown, and then become trapped in traffic. Dettori, surplus to requirements, won the race for another stable with a masterly ride.
The real question for the sheikh is not how he eases out Dettori. It's how to find the horses – and horsemen – that warrant him staying. After all,if Martinez was uncomfortable about working alongside even a seasoned achiever, like Louis van Gaal, why should Dettori yield to a raw tyro?
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