THE BIG INTERVIEW Fabrice Veron: a United Arab Emirates success story
Having established himself among the top ten jockeys in the UAE, Fabrice Veron has quickly forged a place among the elite in what has amounted to his first long stint abroad. The 35-year-old clearly relishes this new environment in which Purebred Arabians have played an integral part in his success.
The French Purebred Arabian. – What prompted you to take up race riding in the UAE?
Fabrice Veron. – I had decided that a change of scenery was called for in the form of wanting to ride abroad. There was no real gameplan at the beginning – save for the fact that I had planned on leaving for a month or two. It was then that my agent, Helen Barbe, who is well acquainted with Claude Piccioni, informed me that the latter had been keeping me in mind regarding a winter stint. As Claude is part of the team of trainer Ismail Mohammed, he suggested that I should spend six months in the UAE. I wasn’t immediately sure whether to accept the offer. I took into account that my freelance status didn’t tie me down contractually even if a French clientele was still very much in place. At the age of 35, it was very much a case of now or never. Therefore, I accepted Claude’s offer, with the seal of approval of Ismail, and became the stable jockey. The stable have around twenty-five English thoroughbreds in training, eighteen of which are racefit. He is also a very talented trainer of endurance horses and enjoys the patronage of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. He also buys Arabian horses with a view to gearing them towards this particular sector.
I gather that you also ride for Éric Lemartinel?
Yes. Claude suggested to Éric that he should use my services, despite the fact that
Pat Cosgrave is the yard’s retained rider. It is to my advantage that I can do light weights. In conditions and maiden races, the weights assigned to fillies are typically either 53kg or 54kg. Pat Cosgrave rides at 55kg, although he can trim down to 54,5kg when his mount has a first rate chance. That leaves me with a bit of scope. Granted that I can do light weights, and that Éric knows the way I ride, we have hit it off and six wins for Al Asayl Stables have ensued. I also ride for Musabah Al Muhairi although it goes without saying that Ben Curtis is the stable jockey.
Is this your first experience of the UAE scene?
His Highness Sheikh Mansour Bin Zayed Al Nahyan invited all the jockeys that had won in his colours nine years ago, and consequently I spent a week in Abu Dhabi. I rode at the capital’s racetrack and finished second. It provided for wonderful memories. They took very good care of us.
How has the adaptation process gone?
I’m very happy to ride for a full season. It took me fifteen days to adapt to the way of race-riding here. It entails being up with the pace far more and you don’t always have to think tactically. If you miss the break, the situation can become very complicated. Arabian horses have natural powers of endurance and, what happens at the start, can make it very difficult to make up the leeway. In general terms, an Arabian horse in good condition and able to race handily in the first three, should be able more or less to maintain the same position throughout. Getting off to a good start is key here. I have ridden at the five tracks of the UAE and, when undertaking something, I invariably give it my best shot.
How have you taken to the local dirt conditions/track?
I haven’t been surprised by the dirt tracks in the UAE. I had a very positive experience in Japan on this type of surface. The races there are run at a fast pace and the kickback ‘factor’ tends to be very bad, which means that both the horse and rider are having a lot of dirt thrown their way. It was a very good learning curve. You need to push your horse along, while at the same being able to breathe and turn…Sometimes the visibility is limited.
So it’s very different to the French fibresand surfaces?
The French fibresand surfaces are a snip compared to the dirt surfaces! The fibresand tracks are giving surfaces which means that the horses don’t have to force the issue, and consequently the pace in French races tends to be less taxing. It all tends to boil down to a sprint in the final 500 metres. Above all, the kickback is rare except for when it has rained a lot. At Lyon-La Soie, for example, you never finish a race with grit in your teeth. However, in the UAE, you never finish the race in a clean state. The local conditions are such here that I have set aside a set of riding breeches per each track and, after four or five meetings, despite washing and the valets using stain removers, they need changing…
Could we say that a horse able to act on fibresand doesn’t necessarily take to dirt?
That’s true. You need a very speedy type and one not prone to thinking about it too much; they also need to have plenty of dash and be blessed with a fluid action. The dirt horses are a different breed. The proof lies in the fact that Godolphin, a stable for whom I have great respect, ran their French Gr1 winner, Royal Marine (Raven’s Pass), in a UAE 2,000 Guineas prep on the dirt at Meydan. He was in a class of his own but, despite things panning out perfectly for him tactically, he had to settle for fourth behind Walking Thunder (Violence). I would tell everyone that this is a run best forgotten. Royal Marine is a very good colt – and a veritable machine – and one that proved himself in the Qatar Prix Jean-Luc Lagardère (Gr1) last season. He’s a very good horse but on dirt that’s a different matter. You need very hardy types. There’s flat, trotting and jump racing, and then there is dirt racing…!
The Purebred Arabian is very much a feature of the local racing landscape. Have you had previous experiences of the breed?
In France I rode for Jean-François Bernard and Damien de Watrigant for whom I had the good fortune to win the Ifahr Trophy (Gr2 PA) on Gharraa (Matador). It’s not difficult as, in my dining room, I have two photos on the wall: Prince Gibraltar (Rock of Gibraltar) – the horse on whom I won the Longines - Grosser Preis von Baden (Gr1)… and Gharraa! I loved the mare to bits and she was too attractive, in a manner of speaking, in terms of looks. She had been second in the same race a year earlier. It was a great feeling. I also won a Gr3 PA contest at La Teste for Jean-François Bernard on Sahlambo (Munjiz). My abiding memories of this trainer will last a lifetime. For when issuing me with my riding instructions, he was very precise. One has sometimes a tendency to forget this way of doing things as time goes by, and I make it a point of honour of recollecting what he told me on a certain day. When things are going wrong, I say to myself: ‘Yes, it’s true and this is how things need to be done.’ He had a superb way of explaining how Purebred Arabians should be ridden. I didn’t ride for him a great deal but, in the paddock, he was a mine of information.
Are these types of horses a breed apart?
They are very different and almost the complete opposite of the English thoroughbred. A lot is required of them in terms of speed and courage…When you ride quality performers in the mould of Mawahib (Abu Alemarat), Rb Torch (TH Richie) and Rb Money to Burn
(Majd Al Arab) – who provided with my first winner in the UAE at Al Ain - it’s great. When they feel that they are getting on top of the opposition, they give their all. It’s a real pleasure. A lot is also dependent on the PA horse’s mood and their character is of primary importance. Contrary to the English thoroughbred, whose career span is a short one if they are any good, the racing career of the PA can last a number of seasons and they will continue to give everything to the cause. It’s the endearing appeal of the breed.
Granted the support of Éric Lemartinel, I gather you have been able to ride a number of very good Purebred Arabians…
Yes and it is, at the same time, both great and a stroke of very good fortune. We get on very well and we don’t necessarily have to communicate a lot to understand each other. This means that more winners have come my way as I’m not exclusively riding English thoroughbreds. It’s a haven of opportunity.
Which horses have impressed you since your arrival in the UAE?
I would say Al Hayette (Union Rags) on whom I won a UAE 1,000 Guineas prep race. She had been running well in maiden races in Britain. She has a lot of speed but does get very wound up. On her local debut, she was ridden close to the pace on the strength of some encouraging homework. However, she made too much use of herself and faded. We were disappointed. On her subsequent start, we held her up and she easily landed her maiden when accounting for modest opposition. Fifteen days later, she won a trial race for the UAE 1,000 Guineas in good style, bearing in mind, at the same time, that the trip was on the sharp side for her. She is progressing with her races and one is entitled to have future ambitions for the filly while, at the same time, remaining realistic. Thanks to her, I have enjoyed my first two wins at Meydan. I went close to having a third win at the same track aboard the Éric Lemartinel mare Mawahib. She proved a narrow loser of the Bani Yas (Gr2 PA) when beaten by a quality performer, Es Ajeeb (Big Easy). Small in stature, she’s a super mare. She just lacks a little something that would otherwise take to her to the top of the class, but otherwise is a genuine Gr1 PA performer. Fourth in the Dubai Kahayla Classic (Gr1 PA) last season, she is up to the required standard and particularly on dirt. She is a great favourite of the yard.
Finally, this UAE experience has proved to be very positive for you?
Yes and I will be seeing the season out. Having arrived before the start of the first meeting of the season, I will be leaving after the very last fixture. The climate is great and, above all, jockeys are treated with consideration. I’m not criticising other countries but jockeys are considered important here, and on a par with the Japanese example. Many believe that it is easy to be a jockey which isn’t always the case. The people are getting to know me and I have never spent so much time with my family. In France, I’m always on the road because I enjoy my work and out of choice. However, here I can make the most of my time with my family while, by the same token, continuing to work in the right manner. When things go pear-shaped, literally everything goes wrong. Here, there is horse racing and there is life. The attitude of the people, coupled to the presence of a number of a different nationalities, is a stimulating one. Everyone gets on well with each other and follows instructions in the Japanese mould. There is discipline and I love that. Finally, I have come across exceptional characters such as Claude Piccioni, but also a different way of doing things. To sum up, I’m really enjoying my time here. So why not return year after year?
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