After finishing third behind Frankel in the 2,000 Guineas, Olivier Peslier looked directly at the clerk of the scales on weighing in and exclaimed loudly: “Objection! Objection!” The clerk, plainly startled, raised an eyebrow and asked Peslier to elaborate. At which point the jockey’s stern features dissolved into an impish smile. “The winner went too fast,” he replied.
As self-portraits go, it was the work of a celebrated artist – which accurately reflects how Peslier is seen in the saddle. At 38, he marries experience to precious talent. He is in universal demand, his harmony with the horse recognised the world over. Yet first and foremost, Peslier just wants to have fun.
It’s a trait he shares with Frankie Dettori, whose career has unfolded along remarkably similar lines. If Peslier is known on this side of La Manche as “the Dettori of France”, Dettori is described in France as “the Peslier of England”.
Both men have won practically everything worth winning, yet one thing sets them apart. In contrast to Dettori’s role with Godolphin, which occupies him throughout the year, Peslier’s affiliation with the Wertheimers affords him plenty of time to engage in the delights of travel. He is always on the lookout for decent sport, not all of it aboard quadrupeds.
Peslier also has riding contracts for owners based in Japan, Dubai, Saudi Arabia and Qatar; it is this diversity that keeps him motivated throughout the year. Few other jockeys are as truly “international”. The experience has so broadened his horizons that he has no desire to supplement the four Cravache d’Or titles he won between 1996 and 2000. Life, he believes, is there to be savoured. Every passing minute.
“I could not be much happier,” he maintains. “I ride good horses in France and leave for Japan in October. I ride all over the world in winter and now I can ride more in England and Ireland in summer. You can win ten races at your local track, but it’s more important to win big races in different countries. You can travel, see the lives of the people there. It’s more exciting, no?”
It becomes evident as Peslier talks that he is hooked on adrenalin. Like Dettori, he is inspired by the big occasion. They come no bigger than in Japan, where crowds in excess of 100,000 are far from unusual. An instant convert from his first visit 16 years ago, he has now ridden 480 winners, 12 of them in championship races.
“In Japan you can feel the excitement in your heart,” he says. “I really enjoy that the fans have a passion for horses. They cheer for them with flags and posters. There is a lot of atmosphere there.”
How, then, does that square with his self-professed love of riding in Britain? “It’s different, but the same,” he smiles. “In England a lot of people come with their families but still, they watch in the paddock. There are more young people; at (Royal) Ascot, it is like a party. They give energy. As a jockey, you feel this for sure. They are happy and this makes me happy. And they clap for you even when you finish third.”
Peslier’s affection for riding in Britain dates back to 1996, when he landed the Coronation Stakes at Royal Ascot aboard Shake The Yoke. The anonymous 23-year-old displayed remarkable poise on a filly he had never previously ridden, delaying his challenge until very late before winning by a neck – “comfortably” said the form book.
That victory opened the floodgates. By the time he closed the following season with victory aboard Xaar in the Dewhurst, he’d ridden subsequent Derby winner Benny The Dip to win the Dante and posted a Group-race double for Sir Michael Stoute. A seed was sown right there. Then, in 1998, he partnered High-Rise to win the Derby for Luca Cumani.
“Winning the Derby is my best memory of riding in England,” Peslier reflects. “It was my first Derby (in Europe) but, more important, it was very hard for French jockeys to get a ride in the race at that time. Trainers in England never used us, so it made me very proud.”
Back then, French jockeys at Epsom were akin to coconuts in a shy. Their reputation wasn’t entirely undeserved as they toiled over the undulations. Perhaps the true litmus of Peslier is that he brought French jockeys back into vogue. His deeds certainly inspired the likes of Belgian-born Christophe Soumillon and Christophe Lemaire – both of whom spent formative seasons with Andre Fabre when Peslier rode as stable jockey.
That strand runs right through to Mickael Barzalona, France’s teenage sensation who is also Peslier’s understudy with the Wertheimers. “Mickael has become a good friend,” Peslier avers. “I have talked to him a lot, tried to help him. He has a good mind and he listens, even when someone criticises the way he rides. He is polite and has respect, which is very important for a young jockey.”
“Trainers in England never used French riders, so I was proud to win the Derby”
Peslier flaunts the popular blend of American and European riding styles favoured by Dettori, among others. He was very much of the old French school during his apprenticeship with Patrick Biancone, to whom he stresses his debt, but streamlined his technique after spending a winter with Christophe Clement in America in 1993.
“At that time Cash Asmussen was a big help,” Peslier relates of the American who rode for Fabre before him. “I watched him, asked questions all the time and all the time he explained everything to me. I never forgot that. I do the same now with young jockeys who ask me questions.”
Peslier eventually succeeded Asmussen at Fabre’s, although the association came about through his retainer with the volatile Daniel Wildenstein, for whom Fabre trained. It was Wildenstein, Peslier maintains, who gave him the taste for the international scene.
“We had some great seasons,” the jockey reflects. “We won the Prix du Jockey-Club and the Arc together (with Peintre Celebre), and we travelled the world. Then, when the (Wildenstein) horses left Fabre (in 2001), I stayed with Fabre.”
The new millennium dawned at a turbulent time in Peslier’s life. His natural exuberance manifested itself on the failure of his first marriage and, while Fabre exercised a degree of patience, his methods have always been anchored in discipline.
Two years after he fought to keep Peslier over the split with Wildenstein, Fabre gave his consent when Peslier was approached to ride for the Wertheimer brothers in 2003. “He told me it was a good opportunity, they are good owners and I would win big races with them,” Peslier relates.
Their parting would not be absolute, since the Wertheimers had horses with Fabre. “I learnt a lot from Andre,” Peslier reflects. “He completely understands horses and thinks only for their good. People in France don’t like it when he doesn’t speak to them, but when he comes to England he speaks to everybody. Obviously, sometimes he is not happy if the race has gone badly, or when you ride badly, but that is normal if you are completely professional. You can explain your opinion and he will listen. Sometimes he will not agree, but after everything is normal.”
Open the boot of any jockey’s car and you will find a set of well-worn golf clubs. Open Peslier’s and you will find an array of guns, goggles, body armour and pellets that telegraph his other passion. Peslier is an avid paintballer, fully signed up to Redball Paris, who play in Division 1 of the Millenium Series League comprising teams from cities across Europe.
Mention paintballing and Peslier is away, regaling you with details of how Redball Paris finished third of 26 teams in the season’s opening joust at Longchamp in April. He plays among semi-professionals. A veteran of 20 years’ standing, he never goes anywhere without the equipment for an impromptu shoot-out. He has even built a playing field at his home.
“It is like riding in a race because you have to make decisions very quickly,” he says of paintballing. “That is why I like it. There is a lot of adrenalin and you need good reactions but, also, you must communicate very well with your team. I’ve played all over the world: Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Qatar, the United States.”
America has afforded him plenty of opportunity. In the last three years he has ventured forth every autumn with his favourite horse, Goldikova, who has returned home each time with the Breeders’ Cup Mile garland. While there is no denying Goldikova’s talent, Peslier’s intuitive handling of the feisty mare is what defines the partnership.
“What can you say new about her?” he asks. “She has won 13 Group 1s and, I hope, some more will follow. For a jockey, the best thing is that you can ride her in different ways, depending on how the race is run.”
Goldikova’s enduring prowess obliges Peslier to place her ahead of Peintre Celebre in his affections. Yet something more than family loyalty encourages him to believe that her half-sister by Galileo, Galikova, could make an impact this season. “Galikova showed me something last year and she is stronger now,” Peslier says. “I think, I hope, she will be my new star.”
Isn’t it too much to expect a second strike of lightning? “For sure it will be hard for her, because of Goldikova. But if she is only 50% of Goldikova, it will be enough.”
As we debate Galikova’s potential Peslier suddenly sits bolt upright. “You see, that’s what I love about racing. Every year the horses change but the dream is the same. You start looking for the new pearl. Every year there are new questions. It’s not like you wake up to do the same job every day.”
Those sentiments underline that Peslier is in the prime of his professional life. The occasional excesses of his youth have given way to recognition of the good fortune bestowed on him at birth.
The question of retirement is increasingly raised as he approaches his 40th birthday, but he is having none of it. “For the moment, I don’t know,” he shrugs. “I’ll ride for as long as I’m happy and enjoying it. It’s like Frankie: he is riding good horses, he travels everywhere and he is happy. The job is like a hobby to us. Why would we want to stop?”
Peslier’s major wins:
Born: January 12, 1973, Chateau Gontier, France
Apprenticeship: With Patrick Biancone
First winner: Rouen, March 12, 1989
Classic wins: Derby (1998 High-Rise), 2,000 Guineas (2007 Cockney Rebel), Irish Derby (1995 Winged Love), Irish 2,000 Guineas (1998 Desert Prince, 1999 Saffron Walden, 2007 Cockney Rebel), Prix du Jockey-Club (1997 Peintre Celebre), Poule d’Essai des Poulains (2008 Falco), Poule d’Essai des Pouliches (2004 Torrestrella, 2011 Golden Lilac), Deutches Derby (1997 Borgia, 2003 Dai Jin)
Other major wins: Arc de Triomphe (1986 Helissio, 1997 Peintre Celebre, 1998 Sagamix), Breeders’ Cup Mile (2008 Goldikova, 2009 Goldikova, 2010 Goldikova), Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf (2001 Banks Hill), Japan Cup (2001 Jungle Pocket, 2004 Zenno Rob Roy), King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes (2010 Harbinger), Queen Elizabeth II Stakes (1997 Air Express, 1999 Desert Prince), EP Taylor Stakes (1997 Kool Kat Katie), Ascot Gold Cup (2005 Westerner), Irish St Leger (2010 Sans Frontieres)
French champion jockey: 1996, 1997, 1999, 2000
The Royal Meeting go-to jockey
Olivier Peslier will be much in demand at Royal Ascot. The Frenchman has savoured high-profile success in his role as the go-to jockey for so many British trainers – in particular Sir Michael Stoute, who turned to Peslier when Ryan Moore plumped for Workforce ahead of Harbinger for last season’s King George.
The union of Stoute and Peslier dates back to 1997, when the jockey rode Delilah and Whitewater Affair (dam of Dubai World Cup winner Victoire Pisa) to win a pair of Group races in Britain. “Over the years I have frequently attempted to employ Olivier in the big races,” Stoute says. “Not only is he a pleasure to work with, he is a world-class rider.”
Ed Dunlop, for whom Peslier rode Native Khan into third place behind Frankel in the 2,000 Guineas, is another devotee. “I know Olivier rode Harbinger in some work before the King George but he’d never sat on Ouija Board before the Prince Of Wales’s Stakes (in 2006),” says Dunlop. “She was stunning for him that day, but then, you can only have the utmost faith in him. He is among the top half-dozen jockeys in the world.”
“The genius of some riders is that they are very quick to feel and understand a horse, and Olivier has always had that extraordinary ability”
John Gosden concurs, having turned to Peslier for Benny The Dip’s pre-Derby victory in the 1997 Dante Stakes. “I have always used Olivier when circumstances permit,” he says. “He is a brilliant jockey with a great touch and wonderful hands.
“The genius of some riders is that they are very quick to feel and understand a horse, and Olivier has always had that extraordinary ability. He gets the best out of horses he has never seen before. In my opinion he is definitely in the world’s top five jockeys.”
Luca Cumani, who sent Peslier’s stock soaring when deploying him for the winning ride aboard High-Rise in the 1998 Derby, alludes to Peslier’s unflappable temperament. “His biggest quality for me is his sang froid,” Cumani says. “He is a very cool rider on the big occasion. He’s got a good head and he instinctively delivers the horse at the right moment.”
All trainers turn to one phrase in their efforts to describe Peslier. They say he is world class. That says it all.