Racing Ahead


A young jockey with a winning smile is Robert’s tip for the top


Even when he’s not smiling Marco Ghiani looks cheerful. Last month 22 year-old Ghiani was crowned Champion Apprentice for the recently concluded All Weather season, but now the serious business begins as the turf season starts to blossom. Almost every Italian jockey who lands on these shores is hailed as ‘the next Frankie Dettori’ but as we will discover long after Frankie hangs up his boots, there’s only one Frankie. Not even the brilliant Andrea Atzeni, now an establishe­d world-class pilot, can aspire to such an accolade.

There’s no point getting too big for your boots, and Ghiani’s boots aren’t very big. I didn’t produce my measuring pole when we met recently at Wolverhamp­ton but after lowering the interview microphone on the socially distanced Sky Sports Racing tripod, I would guess he stands around five foot, and we didn’t mention shoe size.

A relaxed demeanour can count for plenty, as Hugh my yoga teacher frequently remarks. There’s no need to grin like a Cheshire Cat all day long, but even a minute upward curl of the mouth can produce calming qualities in the heat of battle. I’ve noticed that most world-class athletes in all sports appear to perform as if they have all the time in the world. Just look at Dettori, Murphy or Moore when they next win a big race. Cucumbers all three.

Betting for Top Apprentice this season has John Gosden’s 18 year-old ‘wonderkid’ Benoit de La Sayette as the red-hot favourite (4/5 as I type) with Marco Ghiani 8/1. It speaks volumes that La Sayette is Gosden’s first apprentice for almost 30 years; there’s no doubt that he’ll be kept busy by the champion trainer and is likely to total more rides than his rivals but still, my money is on Ghiani and – famous last words – he looks a shoo-in (yes, I always thought it was shoe-in) to be on the each-way podium to finish in the top three.

Marco Ghiani was born and bred in Sardinia in February 1999. His parents run three restaurant­s on the island, “they are more likely to eat horses than ride them” Ghiani says without a trace of irony. In Italy, eating horsemeat I am assured is as natural as tucking in to a beefsteak; cultural cuisine varies throughout our planet.

Without a drop of racing blood in the family, Ghiani learnt to ride at an early age. As a toddler he was enthralled by the annual Sardinian pageant, La Sartiglia, a traditiona­l carnival that has taken place since the Middle Ages. The general idea is to ride through the streets of the city of Oristano and head towards the cathedral where riders then attempt to skewer a star with a sword.

To describe this ritual in further detail would be the equivalent of explaining a Rule 4 deduction, or possibly cricket’s Duckworth Lewis conundrum. It’s enough to say that the number of stars gathered indicates good fortune for farmers and carpenters in Sardinia. Speaking as someone who has attended (with a guide) the ultra-historic

Palio in Siena, pageantry and ceremony is sometimes best unexplaine­d; far better to embrace the occasion for what it is.

“I was four when I started riding, but I wasn’t riding properly until I was

“In Italy, eating horsemeat is as natural as tucking in to a beefsteak ”

ten,” says Ghiani. Evidently a natural, aged 14 Marco was leading rider at La Sartiglia, and after received a message of congratula­tion from six-times Italian Champion Jockey Dario Vargiu. “I didn’t know anything about racing until then. The first time I sat on a racehorse was when I was 15.” Ghiani’s talents didn’t escape the eyes of Vargiu who put him in touch with Luca Cumani in Newmarket.

“I set off for England and the moment I was 16, I joined the British Racing School.” He remained with Cumani at Bedford House Stables until his retirement, at which point Marco joined his current boss Stuart Williams. Ironically, while employed by Cumani, Ghiani’s first winner was for Williams when 33/1 shot Lunar Deity won at Lingfield in March 2019. Maybe at that point the link was forged.

Already in 2021, Marco Ghiani has surpassed his best annual winners’ tally of 22, achieved in 2019; on my recent winter travels his name has regularly been murmered as a star of the future. If asked by an Artificial Intelligen­ce

(A.I) engineer for a blueprint of the perfect size and physique for a rider in the A.I Derby (it will happen, mark my words) I would suggest Marco Ghiani. Although, variety being the spice of life, you’d want to mix it up a bit with a few DNA samples from some past and present champions, but though small in stature Marco is powerful in physique, and crucially possesses an astute racing brain.

Stuart Williams has already invested in his future. “The winter before Covid struck,” explains Ghiani, “Stuart sent me to spend some time in New Orleans with Brendan Walsh.” Walsh, originally from County Cork, boasts career race earnings approachin­g $20 million, and rates highly as a mentor to rookie Ghiani, “I didn’t enjoy it to start with, but then everything started to click and it was really cool and I learned a lot.”

There currently appears to be an abundance of up-and-coming talent, not just the betting front-runners La Sayette and Ghiani, but also Laura Pearson (profiled in the memorable January issue of Racing Ahead), Mark

Crehan (attached to the forwardthr­usting George Boughey yard), George Rooke (no better counsellor than his boss Richard Hughes) or Angus Villiers (started with Hughes but now in Newmarket with Richard Spencer). A supply of winners is paramount, and each of the previously named apprentice­s will no doubt receive abundant support from their stables – a claim of 7 pounds,

5 pounds or 3 pounds, is a vital asset for any yard. Marco Ghiani gets my tip for the top this summer.

The first Classics of the season always set the pulse racing and as has become the norm we have to predict which (and how many) of Aidan O’Brien’s battalion of 3-year-olds will line up on the Rowley Mile. It is verging on far-fetched to consider that Aidan has greeted ten winners of the colts’ Classic, the first being KING OF KINGS in 1998. His most recent winning sequence starting with GLENEAGLES in 2015, and has been broken only by Hugo Palmer’s GALILEO GOLD (2016) and KAMEKO for Andrew Balding last year. The chances are high that the name O’Brien will be etched on the trophy, however I am hoping that it may be a first 2,000 Guineas success for Joseph O’Brien with his Zoffany colt THUNDER MOON. He ran just three times in 2020, latterly disappoint­ing when only third when favourite for the Dewhurst Stakes, often the best pointer to future classic glory. Needless to say the two horses in front of THUNDER MOON, ST MARK’S BASILICA and WEMBLEY were both trained by Aidan.

In a recent Joseph O’Brien stable tour on the website (as a contributo­r I trust it implicitly) he mentioned the draw and going (“softer than ideal”) as contributo­ry factors to his demise but that “he has come through the winter very well and is in great shape”.

That almost ranks as a confession from a member of the often tightlippe­d O’Brien family. THUNDER MOON won a maiden at the Curragh in early August, and just five weeks later had bagged the Group One National Stakes, beating both horses that finished in front of him in the Dewhurst. Watching a replay just now of that victory set my knees a-tingling. A furlong to go and THUNDER MOON was wedged in a seemingly inextricab­le pocket but with the merest hint of daylight he shot clear like a rocket from a launch pad. It was without doubt the most impressive juvenile performanc­e I had seen in 2020, so his defeat at Newmarket came as a bitter blow. Maybe another O’Brien, following Aidan and before him Vincent, will be added to the role of honour.

By comparison Aidan O’Brien can only claim a paltry six victories in the 1,000 Guineas. It seems to me (probably only me) totally barmy that a winner of an ordinary-looking Curragh maiden last September should be a red-hot favourite for the fillies’ Classic, but that’s the way it is with Aidan’s SANTA BARBARA. She won smoothly enough but the next three horses behind the Camelot filly have been soundly beaten since.

She could be a superstar but once again I find myself in the Joseph camp with the far more experience­d filly PRETTY GORGEOUS who wrapped up her five-race season, winning the Fillies’ Mile over the Classic course and distance. She could easily develop into an Oaks filly, but we’ll leave that quandary on hold until next month’s eagerly-awaited issue.

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Marco Ghiani
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Thunder Moon

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