x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Emirati jockey is leading the charge to replace Frankie Dettori

For a nation that dominates the stable scenes, there are precious few countrymen riding the race horses. But Frankie Dettori's departure could pave the way for that to change.

Ahmad Ajtebi charges the wire on Capponi to win at Meydan Racecourse in March 2012
Ahmad Ajtebi charges the wire on Capponi to win at Meydan Racecourse in March 2012

We've got the horses. We've got the stables. We've got the resources. But, apart from a handful of notable exceptions, Emirati jockeys remain a rarity.

In the days since it was announced Frankie Dettori would not be a retained rider for Godolphin next year after an 18-year relationship, speculation has centred on where his next move might be; who will replace him, if anyone at all; and a general discussion of the merry-go-round of the world's best jockeys. Among the names bandied about, however, very few seem to come from these shores.

Dettori's departure leaves Mickael Barzalona and Silvestre de Sousa as Godolphin's senior riders, although it seems likely the Italian might still wear the stable's royal blue colours at the Dubai World Cup in March.

Since the announcement, Godolphin officials have indicated that no single jockey would signed specifically to replace Dettori who, frankly, is as irreplaceable as riders come.

Dettori's exit may be a setback for the stable, but Godolphin's decision not to replace him on a permanent basis leaves the door open for others to step up. And leading the charge for local riders is a jockey who had never been on a horse before the age of 22.

Ahmed Ajtebi's story is a romantic one. A camel rider between the ages of seven and 15, he turned to horse racing only in 2002 after being encouraged by Godolphin's founder Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, who was concerned at the lack of Emirati jockeys in the industry.

Blazing a trail for Emiratis, Ajtebi the following years ramped up his racing education in Ireland and Australia, riding his first winner while at apprentice school in Melbourne, before honing his racing skills in South Africa and England.

Success on the world's toughest stages followed. In 2008, he became the first jockey from the UAE to win at Royal Ascot, and then gloriously won the 2009 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Stakes in Santa Anita, California.

Meanwhile, his three successes at the Dubai World Cup festivals between 2009 and 2011 raised his profile among his countrymen.

At every step, he has maintained his pride of representing his country.

"I don't think we could give the country any greater gift than a UAE-trained, ridden and owned victory on National Day," he said after riding two winners for Sheikh Mansour bin Mohammed at the 2010 Dubai World Cup.

Since 2009, Ajtebi has ridden 79 winners from 501 races in Godolphin's colours.

Today, the challenge for stables across the UAE is producing young Emirati jockeys to emulate Ajtebi who, if he remains healthy, still has years left in his racing career. Certainly, the environment is favourable.

As is the case with many other sports in the country, funding and facilities are readily available. Indeed, training programmes and overseas apprenticeships are already in place, thanks to the Emirates Racing Authority (ERA).

And it is not just Godolphin that is casting its net for local talent. In 2010 the ERA sent the Emirati jockey Saeed Al Mazrooei to Ireland for four months to study at the Racing Academy Centre for Education, the same school at which Ajtebi gained his racing education. Al Mazrooei now rides for Grandstand Stables and he has already racked up seven first-place finishes from 140 races.

More recently, Abdullah Al Masoori has enrolled in the racing authority's UAE Apprenticeship Scheme and was placed with the French trainer Erwan Charpy at the Green Stables at Meydan Racecourse, before winning his first race at Jebel Ali in March.

Al Masoori's case in particular is a great example for any anyone looking to break into the sport.

The 22 year old had participated in showjumping as a teenager, but grew up with no background in any form of racing. Proof you don't have to be from a family steeped in racing to make it as a jockey.

But reaching the top does not come easy for these young Emiratis. Sacrifices have to be made: long training stints overseas and a heavy toll on the body, to name but two. Not to mention carrying out the menial jobs that all successful riders must experience before they make the grade, like mucking stalls and grooming horses. It might not seem like a glamorous life to the newcomers, but it is a necessary part of training, a rite of passage.

On November 2, the new racing season starts across the Emirates. For a sport dominated by Emirati stables and owners, there will be precious few Emiratis jockeys on show. Slowly, however, they could be making a breakthrough. But the question remains: how long before they are spoken of in the same breath as Dettori?

 

akhaled@thenational.ae

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