Geoff Lester’s International Affairs


Geoff Lester: London – Jim Crowley, Britain’s newest champion jockey, thought it could get never better than 2016 – well, you started 2017 pretty well, old son!

Crowley (38), who lifted the riders’ title with 148 winners last season, was appointed the new No 1 to Sheikh Hamdan Al-Maktoum in November, and he made an explosive start at last week’s Dubai Carnival in Meydan, landing the first big sprint handicap of the UAE season with Ertijaal.

Successful in this race 12 months earlier when ridden by Crowley’s predecessor, Paul Hanagan, Ertijaal scored in identical fashion, grabbing an early lead and piling on the coal in the last 400m to put the race to bed in double-quick time.

Crowley, who had earlier broken his Meydan duck after 47 consecutive losers, winning the Arabian race for his new boss on AF Mathmoon, said: “It was the dream start and Ertijaal is clearly a very speedy horse, and I’d love to think he could give me a winner on World Cup Night in the Al Quoz Sprint.

“He was runner-up in that race last year and though they have upped the distance from five (1000m) to six (1200m) this time around, I don’t see that being a problem as he was not stopping at the end and has actually won over 1400m in the past.”

Ertijaal, who was saddled by leading local trainer Ali Rashid Al Rayhi, might well have his prep-race for the Al Quoz in the Meydan Sprint on 16 February.

Crowley, who was a run-of-the-mill jump jockey in Britain until he switched codes, has only ridden three Group 1 winners so far in his career, but hopes this new appointment will help him concentrate more on quality than quantity.

He added: “I’d love to retain my crown to show everybody that it was no fluke, but Sheikh Hamdan is now my main priority and if I happen to be in a good position come Glorious Goodwood (late July) then maybe I’ll step up a gear and have a crack.”

It came as something of a surprise when the Sheikh sacked Hanagan, but the leading Dubai owner has been a rare visitor to the top table in recent years – he enjoyed more than 200 winners in Europe last season but Awaad’s Irish 2000 Guineas victory was his only Grade 1 celebration – and his classic heroine Taghrooda was the last top-class filly to give him something to shout about.

Ali Al Rayhi, who had seven Carnival winners last year, including a fantastic 7,019-1 four-timer on the opening night, was again the first-day hero, completing a double with veteran Le Bernardin, who became the first dual winner of the Grade 2 Maktoum Challenge on the dirt when repeating last year’s triumph.

No prisoners were taken as the leaders went off at helter-skelter pace, but eight-year-old Le Bernardin hung on in there and when Tadhg O’Shea pulled him out he gradually wore down trailblazing Long River, getting on top in the last 100m.

Mike de Kock’s recent Argentinian recruit Lindo Amor stayed on well for third and this being his first run for 294 days he’ll be sharper next time.

Stamina is Le Bernardin’s strong suit so while the Godolphin Mile is the main target come 25 March, he is proven over further so would also be a major player for round two of this challenge on 2 February, though connections might well keep him fresh for the Burj Nahaar on Super Saturday.

De Kock might have had to play a supporting role to Ali Al Rayhi on Day 1, but the South African won the night’s feature race on grass, the Listed Singspiel Stakes, with Light The Lights.

Though finishing second with his UAE Derby hero Mubtaahij in last year’s World Cup, De Kock fares much better on the turf in Dubai than he does on dirt and Light The Lights was following up the trainer’s six victories on the surface at last year’s Carnival.

De Kock said: “Light The Lights was a decent horse back home in South Africa. He won three last year, including a Grade 2, and then finished fourth in the Met and though I feared he might need this first run, he really picked up for Christophe (Soumillon) when he got into his stride.

“Light The Lights does not have an instant gear-change, so the slow early pace did not play to his strengths, and when he runs in a fast-run race he’ll be even more effective.”

The Listed Dubai Stakes is the feature race on dirt at the second stage of the Carnival on Thursday and, having last week pinpointed Doug Watson as the trainer to follow – he kicked off with a winner, courtesy of Mizbah – I’ll definitely be backing DESERT FORCE here.

A decent sprinter in Europe – he was runner-up to Twilight Son at Newmarket when trained by Richard Hannon – Desert Force has adapted well to the Meydan dirt and, having twice won impressively at non-carnival meetings this season, he is ready to take this rise in class in his stride.

Veteran Reynoldothewizard and Sheikh Hamdan’s Muarrab, who was runner-up here last month, are the two we have to beat, but I expect Desert Force to show them a clean pair of heels from the stalls.

We might be able to pick up a few pennies for Meydan by backing John Gosden’s MESOPHERE in the maiden at Newcastle today. He showed plenty of promise on his debut here in November and will be suited by this stamina test.

Highlight there on Thursday is the £20,000 All-Weather Qualifier, and, while I have a lot of respect for Irish challenger Chiclet – “she has been cleaning up over this distance (1000m) on the Polytrack at Dundalk, but we had to give her a run over 1200m last time and she would not get that trip in a horsebox,” said trainer Tracey Collins – but with a slight doubt about whether she will be as effective on Tapeta and a straight track, I’ll row in with David Elsworth’s recent Kempton winner JUSTICE GOOD.

“That was six furlongs (1200m), but he is equally good over the shorter trip as he has speed to burn,” said a confident Elsworth.

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