x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Jockey Silvestre De Sousa looking to have big year

The Godolphin rider knows he must add to his tally of just one Group 1 winner in the Royal Blue silks of the Dubai operation.

The first thing that springs to mind about Brazilian sports stars is their effortless brilliance. Football provides a rich seam of prodigious talent from Pele through to Kaka.

There can be few more naturally gifted Formula One drivers than Ayrton Senna.

Even though there may be many better tennis players than Gustavo Kuerten, his unplayable backhand was so smooth that his wild Afro needed more coaching.

Which makes Silvestre De Sousa's Stakhanovite work ethic in the saddle ironic.

Where Senna could manipulate an F1 car to perform all manner of extraordinary feats through an inherent understanding of his various vehicles, to get the best tune out of a thoroughbred racehorse De Sousa uses sheer determination to bend a horse's will to his.

Senna's victory in the 1991 Brazilian Grand Prix, when he drove the last few laps in sixth gear, was perhaps his defining performance.

The World Cup was the greatest stage for Pele and Kaka, while Kuerten's French Open victories in 1997, 2000 and 2001 are the stuff of legend.

And yet the moment that characterises De Sousa so completely in his mind is a victory by half a length on Staffhoss in a Lingfield maiden over seven furlongs in Britain last month.

"I never say die," De Sousa says of that freezing afternoon when he gave up his riding fee to help out the syndicate that owned his mount.

"I give my best for any horse, whether it is rated 120 or 55. I was pushing him from a full five furlongs out. I tried twice as hard on that horse. If you see the race you will say that horse has no chance but we got up by half a length."

The 32-year-old rider is almost certainly the smallest sports star to come out of Sao Paulo, no matter how short you thought the footballer Roberto Carlos was, and yet he is in line to make a big splash in 2013.

De Sousa may have earned his spurs as a Godolphin jockey during 2012 but he will need every trick he has learnt over the past 16 years if he is to succeed in what is to be a defining year.

De Sousa's first nine months as a rider for the international racing stables of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, were solid but unspectacular.

The highlight was the maiden European Group 1 victory aboard Hunter's Light in Italy in November and for the third consecutive season he rode over 100 winners in Britain.

Despite these notable milestones, De Sousa remained in the shadows behind the luminosity of Godolphin colleagues Frankie Dettori and Mickael Barzalona. Both riders not only enjoyed the taste of victory on Dubai World Cup night, but added to their hauls at the highest level throughout the international season. Barzalona even secured a British Classic when he guided Encke to victory in the English St Leger in September.

For 18 years, Dettori reigned as the supreme talent within Godolphin but with the charismatic Italian rider ejected from the Godolphin fold after testing positive for a banned substance in September, there is now everything to gain.

The public faces of both Barzalona and De Sousa are always genial but neither would be human, or indeed elite sportsmen, if in private they did not consider this campaign to be a bitter struggle to nail down Dettori's position.

Barzalona has the advantage in so many ways. De Sousa's preparation for next week's Dubai World Cup Carnival involved getting married to long-term partner Victoria Behan while maintaining his fitness on the British all-weather tracks.

In contrast, Barzalona has been in Dubai, alongside the key players of Simon Crisford, the racing manager, and Mahmood Al Zarooni and Saeed Bin Suroor, the trainers.

At just 21, he is considered by many as the long-term successor to Dettori and despite his relative inexperience he already boasts on his CV the 2012 Dubai World Cup on Monterosso, as well as an electrifying triumph on Pour Moi in the Derby at Epsom in 2011.

Since making his Godolphin debut in 2009 he has ridden three times as many winners for the rising star of Al Zarooni than Bin Suroor, who, like Dettori before him, has provided De Sousa with the lion's share of his victories in the royal blue silks.

"Mickael has been with Mahmood from the beginning," De Sousa explains. "From my point of view Mickael is there more, but the opportunity will now be the same as for Mickael and me, especially now Frankie is out.

"I ride out for Saeed and Mahmood perhaps four to six times a week in Newmarket. The trainers organise which riders are needed where and whichever horse they want me to gallop, I'm there."

Where De Sousa holds an advantage over Barzalona, however, is in his continued association with Mark Johnston.

De Sousa actually rode more for Johnston in 2012 than he did for his employers, and with the Scottish trainer acting as a nursery for the "Boys In Blue", De Sousa is well placed to partner the horses that have transferred from Johnston to Godolphin.

Last season Godolphin's biggest successes came from ex-Johnston horses. Monterosso led home Capponi in the Dubai World Cup in March, while Colour Vision took the Ascot Gold Cup in June.

De Sousa had ridden both Capponi and Colour Vision previously and without Dettori in the frame De Sousa hopes he can finally land that elusive major Group 1 success.

In 2012, De Sousa had 33 rides in Britain in Group races but only scored in two of them.

Although he plays down his lack of success at the highest level, citing lack of opportunity, the fact that he mentions that he has Group 1 victories in Brazil, India and Italy only highlights his concern.

It was one of the driving forces behind his agonising decision to give up the opportunity of winning his first British jockeys' title in 2011 when neck and neck with Paul Hanagan to fly halfway across the world to partner Fox Hunt in the Melbourne Cup.

Fox Hunt finished seventh and, having moved to Al Zarooni, was considered a shoo-in by Godolphin for the inaugural Dubai Gold Cup in March.

The five year old suffered an horrific injury in a freak accident in front of the Grandstand at Meydan Racecourse that saw De Sousa thrown from the saddle.

"It was so unfortunate," he recounts, visibly moved. "I thought I had really decent rides that night. Hitchens went close in the Dubai Golden Shaheen, but the only one I thought would definitely win was Fox Hunt.

"I loved that horse. It did not feel great at all for us to go over like that, especially when I sacrificed everything for him to go to Melbourne. I won the German St Leger on him and I won at Royal Ascot on him. He did really well for me and is one of the great horses I have ridden.

"I haven't ridden in many Group 1 races and my only ride in a British Classic was in the 2,000 Guineas on Danum Dancer in 2007.

"Now that Frankie has gone, I am riding out for the top stable in the world, so if I can't get a ride in a Group 1 race for them then I'm not sure who is going to give me one."

Back to Dettori.

The fall of arguably the world's most famous jockey has been stunning.

Dettori cannot return to the saddle until May due to his worldwide ban by the French racing authorities. There has been talk in Britain about him possibly appearing on the TV show Celebrity Big Brother, which would be a first for an elite athlete still in his prime.

Despite the huge opportunity it has given De Sousa, he still laments the loss to the team.

"He is a great jockey and perhaps one of the greatest ever," De Sousa adds.

"He is stylish and is a hero probably to every jockey. I am very sad what has happened to him.

"He always stopped to talk to me and helped me a lot. There never seemed to be any pressure on him and it was probably just one of these things with bad friends around. It was probably just a big night out.

"I am not the kind of guy who has a lot of friends. I have very good friends in Brazil and in England but I don't have those kind of friends. I try to keep my nose clean."

It is an approach that has worked well so far.

 

sports@thenational.ae