World renowned jockey Christophe Soumillon has chosen Kenilworth Racecourse on the southern tip of Africa to make his comeback to the saddle following a 60-day ban for an infamous incident in France in which he elbowed a fellow rider off a horse in mid-race.
Soumillon arrives in Cape Town on Tuesday to fulfil an engagement with trainer Eric Sands’s six-year-old Golden Ducat in the L’Ormarins King’s Plate on Saturday.
The Belgian’s good friend and fellow jock Bernard Fayd’Herbe said on Cape Racing’s Twitter feed that Soumillon had been “skiing and getting fit” in Europe while serving out his two-month banishment from the racetracks of the world.
The presence of such an illustrious racing figure adds a layer of lustre to an already eagerly anticipated event. The venerable race – the Queen’s Plate for the past 70 years, but now acknowledging Britain’s new monarch – is the top mile contest in South Africa and has been won by great racehorses down the years.
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Excitement for the 2023 race is heightened by the participation of wonder colt Charles Dickens, from the Candice Bass-Robinson yard, whose sensational performances in his six-race unbeaten career has evoked memories of Sea Cottage and Horse Chestnut.
Charles Dickens, to be ridden by local ace Aldo Domeyer, is quoted at 11-20 in the ante-post market, while Golden Ducat, a two-time Grade 1 winner, is a 16-1 fourth favourite.
Soumillon has ridden at the highest level for many years and his gongs include the Prix de la Arc de Triomphe, the Breeders’ Cup Turf, the Japan Cup and the King George. But he suffered a moment of madness at Saint-Cloud on 30 September when riding a horse called Syros in the Group 3 Prix Thomas Bryon. In the back straight, he violently elbowed Irish jockey Rossa Ryan, who plummeted to the turf at about 60km/h.
Ryan was not injured but television viewers were shocked and outraged – as were the local stipes, who disqualified Syros, the eventual runner-up, because of Soumillon’s antics.
The guilty man immediately apologised and vowed to pay all the unfortunate visiting Irish stable’s costs. Ryan was forgiving, but the authorities were not and handed Soumillon his 60-day “holiday”.
The punishment wasn’t over. The Aga Khan, one of the world’s prominent racehorse owners, tore up the jockey’s lucrative retainer, in place since 2014.
As the bans didn’t kick in immediately, Soumillon was permitted to ride the Aga Khan’s horses over the next few days – winning on a couple at the Saint-Cloud meeting and then running second in the famous green and red silks aboard Vadeni in the Arc two days later.
Soumillon’s last ride before his enforced layoff was at Keenelend in the US for top Irish trainer Aiden O’Brien – finishing third in a Grade 1 mile race.
A very contrite jockey remarked to journalists: “It was a terrible thing that happened … I made a mistake and I am upset for my owner and trainer as well as for his … I totally understand the reaction of people who question what happened and feel it was totally unacceptable, so it is for me to suffer the consequences … I have to serve a suspension, which is certainly a heavy punishment but nonetheless justified.”
Phlegmatic Ryan told Racing Post: “I just got a bump and lost my balance. It’s just one of those things that happens.”