Ghiani All Smiles As He Joins Green Team

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Marco Ghiani will be riding in Ahmad Al Shaikh's white and green silks | Racingfotos.com

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If you are a regular viewer of British racing then the chances are you will have seen plenty of interviews last season with jockey Marco Ghiani. He's the one who is always smiling, with the kind of impish face, dimples and all, that could soften even the sternest of stewards. In 2021, he had much to smile about. 

With 101 winners under his belt, more than four times as many as his previous seasonal best, Ghiani was crowned champion apprentice at Ascot, receiving his trophy from Lester Piggott on QIPCO British Champions Day, less than six years after enrolling at the British Racing School. Now, having only just turned 23, the Italian-born rider likely has an even broader grin on his face as he just been named as the retained jockey for Ahmad Al Shaikh's Green Team Racing. That team may not have the numerical strength of Godolphin but the Dubaian owner has certainly had plenty of bang for his buck from the dozen or so horses he has racing in his colours each year. 

Notably, in the last two years, he has had a runner in the Derby: Khalifa Sat (Ire) (Free Eagle {Ire}) was runner-up to Serpentine (Ire) (Galileo {Ire}) in the 'lockdown Derby' after winning the Listed Cocked Hat S., while Youth Spirit (Ire) (Camelot {GB}) lined up last year following his victory in the G3 Chester Vase. Al Shaikh also has a potential Classic contender for this season in the Andrew Balding-trained Hoo Ya Mal (GB) (Territories {Ire}).

“It's very exciting to be riding for Green Team Racing,” Ghiani says. “Ahmad Al Shaikh has a lot of 2-year-olds and a few 3-year-olds who are going to run soon and hopefully go on to show something special.”

With the horses spread around between Hampshire, Yorkshire and Newmarket at yards including those of Andrew Balding, Kevin Ryan, Mark Johnston and Kevin Philippart de Foy, Ghiani will be covering plenty of miles this year, but then that's nothing new. The in-demand rider took up 590 rides across Britain last year, and now only halfway through March he has already ridden 23 winners in 2022 at a strike-rate of 20%.

“Last year was amazing. I never thought I could have achieved that, to get to 100 winners was really good,” recalls Ghiani, who was joined at Ascot on Champions Day by his parents whom he had not seen for almost two years during various lockdowns across Europe. 

Ghiani was born in Oristano, Sardinia, an island with a rich racing heritage, especially when it comes to jockeys. Plenty of Sardinian riders have enjoyed success in Siena's famous Palio, while those who have prospered in mainstream racing include Gianfranco Dettori, the father of Frankie and a multiple champion jockey in Italy, and Andrea Atzeni.

Racing, however, did not grab Ghiani from the start, though appearances in Oristano's 'Sartiglietta', the children's version of the town's celebrated medieval carnival-cum-mounted games, proved to be something of a catalyst. 

“I grew up riding ponies from the age of 11 but not in racing,” says the jockey. “Every year we have a carnival with horses and I was involved in that as a kid. In 2014 I was the leading rider there and my horse and I both fell at a full gallop. I got up and my horse got up and later the champion jockey of Italy, Dario Vargiu, texted me to tell me how brave I was.”

Ghiani continues, “I was clueless about racing but I looked him up and started following him. I started going racing at home to watch him and then I told my dad I wanted to be a jockey. We tried to find a course I could go on in Italy but there wasn't one at the time, but I found one in Newmarket and I applied for that.”

Having attended an open day at the British Racing School in 2014, Ghiani returned the following December to take his place on its well regarded apprentice course. He brought with him plenty of talent but almost no spoken English. 

“There were only English people at the racing school so it helped me a lot. I started to catch some words and link them together but it was hard,” he recalls. 

Newmarket is not without its strong Italian connections, and fortuitously Ghiani found employment with Luca Cumani directly after graduation from the racing school. 

“I went there for three and a half years until Luca Cumani retired,” he says. “I had my first ride for him. I then went to Australia for six weeks and when I came back I was offered a job by Stuart Williams. He's a very smart trainer, his horses always run well and he has given me a lot of chances.”

Indeed, being apprenticed to the shrewd Williams proved to be an important stepping stone for Ghiani, who started out with a handful of rides in 2018 and thereafter has kept the winners rolling in at an impressive rate each season.

“So far this year I am going better than last year,” says Ghiani, whose major breakthrough last season came when winning the Royal Hunt Cup for Godolphin at Royal Ascot aboard Real World (Ire) (Dark Angel {Ire}). Saeed Bin Suroor kept him on for the next two races, with the young jockey landing his first two stakes wins on the 4-year-old in the Listed Steventon S. and G3 Strensall S.

“It's been a great start,” he adds. “Now I am trying to get on the best horses I can. We'll see how it goes.”

Ghiani has been based in Newmarket ever since arriving in the town to attend the British Racing School, which in its history has only ever had two youngsters score 100% in the rigorous fitness test which students are required to pass before graduation. Ghiani was one, and he followed another famous graduate with the racing world now at his feet: Tom Marquand.

In addition to his banner year at the track in 2021, Ghiani also became a father for the first time, with his son Louis having been born last May. There are clearly currently many good reasons for him to flash that enchanting smile, and it is a safe bet that we will be seeing plenty more of it in the seasons ahead. 

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