Atzeni’s amazing four-timer at Doncaster exposes the irrelevance of the jockeys’ championship

POST MASTER -- Andrea Atzeni, pictured with trainer Roger Varian at Doncaster, where the jockey has now won the last four renewals of the Racing Post Trophy.
POST MASTER -- Andrea Atzeni, pictured with trainer Roger Varian at Doncaster, where the jockey has now won the last four renewals of the Racing Post Trophy.

Vying with the chasing debut of the mighty Thistlecrack, the standout performance of the week was reserved for jockey Andrea Atzeni, who rode the winner of the Racing Post Trophy for the fourth year running.

No mean feat considering the Doncaster showpiece is one of the Group One highlights of the season for juveniles. And no mean feat either considering the quartet were for different trainers, with Saturday’s triumph aboard RIVET for William Haggas following MARCEL for Peter Chapple-Hyam, ELM PARK for Andrew Balding and KINGSTON HILL for Roger Varian.

Only one of the previous trio fulfilled their potential at three, with Varian’s colt landing the 2014 St Leger. But I’ll be surprised if Rivet, a sturdy, well-built son of fast-emerging sire Fastnet Rock out of a Galileo mare, doesn’t make an impact next summer.

I must admit I thought his limitations had been exposed in his first tilt at the highest level in the Dewhurst Stakes at Newmarket last month when hammered by CHURCHILL. He was also too keen as if he’d had enough for the season. But Haggas was adamant he didn’t handle the track, and while that must worry anyone thinking of backing him to reverse placings with Aidan O’Brien’s colt in the 2,000 Guineas next spring, he was proved right on Town Moor.

Surprising, new tactics of allowing Rivet to stride on in front worked a treat and were judged to a nicety by Atzeni, whose mount settled into a beautiful rhythm before finding plenty at the death.

It was another example of Atzeni’s talent which, in my view, places him in the top three Flat jockeys riding in this country at the moment, alongside the obvious in Ryan Moore and the indestructible in Frankie Dettori.

So why, you might ask, is he not challenging for the Stobart Jockeys’ Championship? The final standings disclose a tellingly impressive strike rate of 19%, but place him only seventh in the table with 109 winners.

The answer lies in the strong suspicion that the mantle of champion jockey does not carry the kudos it once did, and still does in National Hunt circles. The championship has become an irrelevance. No longer a measure of the best riders, but more an endurance slog rewarding those who are prepared to travel the length and breadth of the country, taking in evening meetings as well as daytime gigs, in pursuit of quantity rather than quality.

That is how this year’s newly-crowned champion, Jim Crowley, achieved his title. Just as Silvestre de Sousa did the previous season. No disrespect to him because of that. The 38-year-old has worked wonders to reinvent himself after quitting the Jumps game and he is clearly a fine jockey, absolutely bristling with confidence. But the fact that not one of his 181 winners came at Group One level, and only a couple at Group Two, is a telltale revelation.

The very best, established pilots no longer need to rack up the road miles or air miles in some half-demented hunt for acceptance from their peers. The Moores, the Dettoris, the Atzenis, the Buicks and the Doyles of this world are retained by the top owners or are connected to the top yards and, therefore, get to partner the top horses in the top races.

The powers-that-be have tried hard to breathe new life into the championship. And the move to change its parameters and restrict it to winners between Guineas Weekend and Champions Day has been an admirable one, focusing attention on the most important period of the year. The oft-criticised structure is no different to that of the Premier League football season in that wins and points from only a particular period in specific events count.

However, the re-invigoration has not worked. The title race excites more media luminaries than jockeys or even punters. If racing is serious about a championship that engages its participants, and I’m not too sure that it needs to be, then more measures must be taken, perhaps basing the competition on prize money rather than volume of winners.

If this year’s race had been determined by win-and-place prize money, the champion would have been Moore, with Dettori second, Atzeni third, Buick fourth and Adam Kirby fifth. Next would have been Doyle in sixth, De Sousa in seventh, Oisin Murphy in eighth, Jamie Spencer in ninth and Crowley in tenth. A pretty accurate barometer of ability, I’d say.

THE return of action at Cheltenham signalled the start of the Jumps season proper last weekend. Its two-day Showcase Meeting is growing in stature every year and for those of you who couldn’t make it, I can gleefully report that the track is in fine fettle for the drama and excitement about to unfold in the coming months.

The excitement was tempered only by sadness surrounding news of the deaths of famous old warriors MOSCOW FLYER and ROUGH QUEST.

Jessica Harrington’s horse was one of the greatest chasers in the history of the sport and won the most magnificent 2m clash I have ever seen when fending off AZERTYUIOP and WELL CHIEF in the 2004 Tingle Creek at Sandown.

Rough Quest was made of altogether different stuff, but he possessed a touch of class that enabled him to coast to Grand National glory in 1996, only weeks after finishing second to Imperial Call in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. The memory tends to play tricks on you when assessing the achievements of yesteryear, but I remember that even at 7/1, the Terry Casey-trained ten-year-old was unbelievably good value off 10-7 in a dreadfully weak renewal containing only 27 runners. They don’t make Nationals like that any more!

THE passing of former heroes such as Moscow Flyer and Rough Quest is always to be regretted. However, at least they had their days in the sun. What of the likes of HARZAND, THE LAST LION, MEHMAS, three brilliant colts who have graced our turf this year but are now off to stud, their services as equine athletes apparently no longer required?

The decision to retire Derby winner Harzand is half-understandable. It fits in with the long-standing breeding policy of his owner, the Aga Khan, whose support for racing can hardly be questioned, and, after all, the son of Sea The Stars has suffered more than his share of injury problems.

But can we even begin to understand the decisions to curtail the blossoming careers of juvenile stars The Last Lion and Mehmas before they have had the opportunity to prove their entire worth as racehorses?

Of course, their respective owners are entitled to do as they please. Just as long as they realise that they are NOT pleasing the racegoers, punters and enthusiasts whose passion for the sport fuels its success which, in turn, aids the making of such self-serving calls.