Belgian jockey Christophe Soumillon has had his contract as first retained rider in France for Aga Khan Studs terminated, effective immediately.
The decision follows an incident in which the French-based rider was deemed to have intentionally elbowed fellow rider Rossa Ryan from his horse, Syros, during the Prix Thomas Byron (G3) on the Friday, Sept. 30 card at Saint-Cloud Racecourse outside Paris. Ryan suffered an ugly fall from his mount, but arose uninjured and received immediate medical attention.
The horse was uninjured as well, continuing to run, but was disqualified from a second-place finish absent a rider.
As a result of the incident, Stewards ordered a 60-day suspension for Soumillon, the 10-time French Champion jockey. The suspension is not to begin until Oct. 14 according to the rules of France Gallop, that nation’s governing racing organization.
However, Arc weekend has the most important two dates on the French Thoroughbred racing calendar. The first Sunday in October features Europe’s richest at 5 million Euros, and arguably most important race, the Qatar Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (G1).
Soumillon was booked for several rides over the two-day weekend event amid calls for him to stand down from his rides voluntarily or be taken from them by the Aga Khan. The jockey refused the former, initially explaining away the incident as unintentional, that he and the Irish rider went “elbow-to-elbow trying to gain the same position.” He later amended that account. He was permitted to keep his Arc weekend rides by the Aga Khan.
France Gallop leaked its displeasure at his continued presence over Arc weekend, suggesting it would distract attention from its most important event. Notwithstanding the controversy, the jockey retained his Arc weekend mounts.
Soumillon went on to win Saturday’s Prix Daniel Wildenstein (G2) on Erevann.
Riding in the silks he made famous in France, he suffered a near-miss riding in a downpour during Sunday’s Arc when Alpinista denied the Aga Khan’s Vadeni and Soumillon by a half-length.
A disappointed Soumillon left the track in tears after Great Britain’s great gray entry became a winner for her eighth consecutive race and the first five-year-old mare to score an Arc victory since Corida in 1937.
Following the race, Soumillon gave hint that the loss was not the only disappointment he would suffer in the wake of Friday’s incident, referring to “the current situation” during a Sunday interview.
Following news of the contract termination, the 41-year-old Soumillon responded in an appropriately chastised manner during an interview with Great Britain’s Racing Post:
“I am of course very disappointed to lose my retainer with the Aga Khan Studs, but I am immensely proud and honored to have held such a highly esteemed position for so long and wish them continued success.
“I realize that I have bridges to rebuild, am determined to show commitment and desire to those owners and trainers that wish to engage my services.”
Aga Khan Studs issued a statement, reading in part:
“Following last Friday’s incident at Saint-Cloud, which resulted in the fall of Rossa Ryan, the Aga Khan Studs have taken the decision to cease their retainer with jockey Christophe Soumillon with immediate effect.”
However, as hinted in the statement, the termination of his contract as first retained rider may not end his association with Aga Khan mounts in France once Soumillon’s suspension is served.
“From this week onwards, Soumillon may still ride in the Aga Khan silks on occasion at the discretion of the French trainers and the Aga Khan Studs team. At this stage, there is no intention to retain a jockey in France for the foreseeable future.”
Instead, French trainers will be permitted the discretion of choosing the rider for Aga Khan Stud horses. Its French racing and stud manager, Georges Rimaud, said that, given the absence of a retained rider in that country, Soumillon may still be called upon “from time to time.”
“The timing wasn’t good. There would never be a good time for something like this to occur, but the decision has been taken,” asserted Rimaud. “It won’t prevent Christophe from riding our horses again from time to time if the trainer in question feels it would be useful. But he will not be under contract in the way he has been up until now.”
Rimaud was similarly vague regarding the reasoning behind not retaining a jockey in France.
“For the moment, having discussed it with our trainers, we think it’s preferable to let them have a bit more liberty in their choice of who rides, and so to not have a retained jockey in 2023.
“But nothing is ruled out. It’s the decision we have taken but that could evolve. Right now we are not looking to sign a retainer with anyone.”
This is not the first time the talented pilot has fallen afoul of his prominent benefactor.
Soumillon lost his position as retained rider in France in 2009 following remarks deemed “ill-judged” during a gala event dinner. He was replaced for a time by Christophe Lemaire.
Whether the contract termination is intended to quell criticism for permitting Soumillon to retain his Arc weekend rides or will have a more lasting effect on the relationship between the jockey and Aga Khan Studs will be determined by what happens following the conclusion of the rider’s two-month suspension in France.
As in all European countries, the suspension will apply only in France. No other country’s governing body has suggested similar action.