Jockey Tom Marquand was born five years after the release of the first Jurassic Park movie so at best it’s even-money that the promising 22-year-old rider has seen the film.
If not, he will have missed the scariest scene of the interminable franchise. A couple of kids are stranded in a car, rain hopping off the windscreen when the wide-eyed boy quietly notices tiny ripples develop on the surface of a glass of water. Soon after comes the menacing thud of approaching footsteps, the ripples get busier, the boy’s terror deepens and before long an angry T-Rex is chasing him around a remote island trying to bite his head off.
Marquand noticed the ripples forming on his own water glass almost as soon as he rode Saturday’s Epsom Derby favourite, English King, to an impressive victory in a trial at Lingfield last month.
He already knew that there was a T-Rex loose. Frankie Dettori, the biggest beast in the jungle, had yet to secure a ride in the world’s foremost Classic. There was a high probability that he’d be ‘jocked-off’ English King, the horse that could have accelerated the young rider’s nascent career.
His anxiety was well-founded.
When it transpired that Dettori’s main employer, John Gosden, wouldn’t have a credible contender, English King’s owner Bjorn Nielson opted for proven experience over potential.
Nielson is a relatively small player compared to Godolphin or Coolmore and reckoned that he wasn’t going to have too many chances to win the Derby. Trainer Ed Walker was allocated the T-Rex role and he duly bit Marquand’s head off.
“Frankie Dettori is going to take over from Tom,” he said, “which is obviously a big blow for him. I did say to him after Lingfield, ‘your only danger is Frankie’. It is just bad luck for Tom because he was only ever going to get jocked-off for one man.”
If Marquand was privately fuming his public reaction to his demotion demonstrated that even this early in his career he has learned to play the long game. He could have spilt some vinegar but chose honey instead.
He said he ‘respected the decision’ and added that: “It was handled very well by Ed and Bjorn and while obviously I want to be a Derby-winning jockey, everyone does, I’ve just got to respect the decision they’ve made now and hopefully in the future, it can be something that can come along again.”
Marquand’s reaction to being dropped is somewhat untypical of sports stars who have been so publicly sky-hooked on the cusp of their big day.
Thirty years ago this very week Liverpool captain and Ireland’s most medalled footballer Ronnie Whelan was livid when Jack Charlton left him sidelined at Italia ’90. Maradona is still complaining 40 years after being left out of the Argentina squad for their home World Cup in 1978 and Jimmy Greaves acknowledges that Alf Ramsey’s preference for Geoff Hurst in 1966 might have accelerated a slide into alcoholic misery.
Closer to home, both Devin Toner and Kieran Marmion were left speechless when left off the plane to Japan last autumn, which is probably just as well given their view on Joe Schmidt’s decision at the time.
But the term ‘jocked-off’ is mostly associated with horse racing and is usually the last step of an intriguing political tango. The decision is always more complex than the binary outcome of ‘manager doesn’t fancy player’ and laden with backroom melodrama.
Although not the case in the English King saga, greedy jockeys have for centuries leveraged their networks to disadvantage a rival and replace him on a fancied horse in a lucrative contest.
And the undefeated champion of these bouts of mischief was the one and only Lester Piggott who annually turned the last few weeks of May plotting to remove whoever was aboard his favoured ride in the Epsom Derby.
Writing years later one his sharpest rivals, Willie Carson, recalled: “Lester was ruthless. The one thing that set him apart from the other jockeys was that he always got on the best horses and always got away with it. He saw a horse he wanted to ride and the owner or trainer was usually only too pleased to let him ride it.
“Naturally, now and then someone would get upset about it, but Lester was never apologetic.”
There are a number of cases that illustrate Piggott’s employment of Machiavellian tactics to displace a rival on a fancied mount. All of them have two shared characteristics. His readiness to go over the head of the trainer directly to the owner, and a complete absence of empathy for the jocked-off rival.
A perfect example of both came in the lead up to the English St Leger in 1984.
Lester had concluded weeks before the race that Commanche Run was a good thing but there was a small problem to overcome. The horse’s trainer, Luca Cumani, had imported the top American Darrell McHargue as his retained jockey that season and had assured him of his unconditional loyalty.
Unbeknownst to Cumani, Piggott got to work on the owner, Ivan Allen, weeks in advance, nagging him mercilessly for the ride in the Leger.
Three days before the race Allen finally cracked and the switch was announced. McHargue was appalled by this treachery and sulkily took the race day off to go play tennis. On the way up to Doncaster that morning it rained heavily and Piggott’s driver inquired if the softer ground would disadvantage Commanche Run that afternoon. “No,” smirked Lester in reply, “but it might spoil Darrell McHargue’s tennis.”
Inevitably, Piggott rode a masterpiece to win a neck.
Tom Marquand will hardly spend Saturday playing tennis. His high-profile romance with the leading lady jockey, Hollie Doyle, has attracted media attention and public interest, some referring to them as the ‘Posh and Becks’ (Push and Bets?) of British racing. His dignified response to his demotion is the best PR the industry could have hoped for.
He took his medicine like a man and so the beloved Dettori has largely escaped the role of pantomime villain on the most important day of the Flat racing season.
Marquand, already closing in on 500 winners, was quickly snapped up by Andrew Balding to ride Khalifa Sat, not a world beater, but decent enough to compete in what looks to be a moderate Derby. He nicely drawn in stall 14 and should give him a nice first spin in the race.
Dettori on the other hand might have noticed a terrifying ripple form on his own glass of water when he saw the draw. English King is in the coffin box, stall one, and the old dinosaur will need all his experience and tactical judgement to prevail. Nielsen and Walker have made a sound decision.