French flair adds a dash of diversity

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 January, 2013, 5:47pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 January, 2013, 11:08pm

French jockeys speak about their sport sounding more like an artist than an athlete. “Mercurial” is often attached to their name and they have the reputation as having the best hands in the business. And while their influence in Hong Kong might not seem as strong as their southern hemisphere counterparts, at least in terms of numbers, they provide the crucial dash of flair that helps make racing here such a melting pot of styles and philosophies.

French guns-for-hire Olivier Peslier and Christophe Lemaire – and Belgian-born, but French-based Christophe Soumillon – are held in almost mythical regard by the local media, but it is their Hong Kong-based compatriots Gerald Mosse and Olivier Doleuze that give racing some much-needed diversity. The Europeans, but particularly the French, make the difference. Without them, the sport would be simply Australian racing exported to the East.

Gerald Mosse, who turned 45 on Thursday, has ridden in Hong Kong since 1992 and to talk racing with him is an illuminating and educational experience. Mosse, who won on Richard Gibson’s Full Value on Tuesday, has aspirations of being a trainer and when listening to him talk about horses you get a clear idea why.

Ask an Australian jockey about a race and they will typically provide a blow-by-blow account of where they wanted to be in the run, where they ended up and where their main dangers were in relation to them when turning for home. Ask Mosse, and the answer is a thought-provoking description of how the horse felt underneath him and an ensuing discussion about the horse’s behaviour, rhythm and breathing. He takes the long view of getting the horse to learn how to perform at his best consistently, not forcing it to do whatever it takes to win an individual race.

When he jumps the priority is helping a horse relax, while Australians and South Africans are typically taught to be in a pre-determined place in the field – preferably as close to the fence as possible, with cover. It’s something that matters more in Hong Kong’s fast-moving, but chess-like, tactical battles than in France, where the early stages of some staying events can look like a leisurely afternoon canter through the countryside and mid-race moves can be made in slow-motion.

Mosse is renowned as having remarkably soft hands and is capable of sheer brilliance in a race, an example being his race-winning move to get one off the fence on Red Cadeaux and in front of favourite Dunaden in the Hong Kong Vase. It was an opportunist snap decision made in the space of two strides, and the right one, but made in the context and flow of the race and not forced.

The criticisms of Mosse are he is caught wide and without cover too often, and that he saves his best for the big occasions – and thus finds it harder to lift for the Class Four and Fives. There are plenty of Australian punters who took the short odds about Americain in last year’s Tancred Stakes at Rosehill who might argue he wasn’t at his best there, either.

When Trakus, the GPS tracking device that measures how far a horse has travelled in the race, is operational soon it will settle a few debates about whether his “three-wide, no cover” reputation is warranted.

Joining Mosse in the style stakes is countryman Doleuze, who by our reckoning is the coolest man on the planet. His infectious joie de vivre is matched by a seemingly endless and equally exuberant wardrobe of both custom-made and designer gear, with a retro chic slant on contemporary fashion.

His description of horses is as colourful as his dress sense: a timid gelding might be described as “feminine” and a horse with a nice turn of foot is “like a motorcycle”.

The charismatic Doleuze is said to have single-handedly inspired one second-generation Melbourne horseman to take up training as a career. The story goes that the teenager wasn’t that keen on the racing game, but upon seeing Doleuze celebrate a Spring Carnival success with a few bottles of Moet and surrounded by an attractive entourage hanging off his every word, he saw a side of the sport beyond cleaning boxes.

In the past few years wunderkinds and airs to the French throne Maxime Guyon and Mikael Barzalona have dropped by and, true to form, have at times looked out of their depth, but also have an abundance of talent.

Barzalona’s winning celebrations – we won’t call them post-race, because they aren’t – are awesome, but risky. Pour Moi in the Derby was the best, leaving you thinking for a second: “Did he even win?

He also gets top points for last year’s Dubai World Cup win on Monterosso (celebration at 5min mark)

But judging by his effort past the post in the St Leger on Encke, the stand-in-the-irons and raised whip salute still needs some perfecting and could end in disaster one day … click on around 3.05 …

Guyon won the 2011 Hong Kong Derby on Ambitious Dragon when he was the flavor of the month, but in his last stint he rode only four winners from 93 rides. The tenure didn’t end well when he lashed out in apparent frustration and was given a nine-meeting suspension for hitting rival jockey Keith Yeung Ming-lun three times with his whip.

Five years ago it was the combustible Eric Saint-Martin who thrilled and infuriated punters in equal measure - and he too is planning on starting a training career this year, and recently spent some time with master horseman Alain de Royer-Dupre.

He also had his share of run-ins with officialdom – his career in Hong Kong peppered with improper riding charges. In 2008, while riding in superb form, the then 43-year-old Saint-Martin bizarrely shoved a rival rider during a race and elbowed his mount in the neck. After riding brilliantly to win the last race of the day, he tempestuously announced to media: “If they don’t want me here, I don’t need to be here. I am finished – I will be leaving Hong Kong tomorrow. You can put that in the paper – I am leaving.” (He rode in Hong Kong again after a long suspension).

Saint-Martin was the only jockey to flee the country because of the Sars outbreak in 2003, saying he didn’t want his family to be held in quarantine and die.

But it is a sign of Saint-Martin’s undoubted talent that even stewards recall his worst moments with a smile. Once when required to front stipes, but with no rides to close the day, he went home. He then famously returned to the stewards’ inquiry wearing board shorts and flip-flops, and stated matter-of-factly that he had gone to his nearby apartment to open a bottle of red – “to let the wine breathe”m he explained – and begin preparing dinner.

Many trainers also recall a moody jockey prone to turning his back on connections when pre-race instructions were being handed out. Also on the list of Saint-Martin’s alleged offences is the time he reached over after a race and grabbed a rival on, we’ll utilise some Australian rhyming slang here – the “Niagara Falls” – from behind. Which must have come as a shock, but you’d probably take that over a few cuts across the back with the whip.

But for all of his flaws, and like his fellow French hoops, no one ever discounted Saint-Martin’s brilliance or ability to bring much-needed colour to a racecourse.