Wednesday 28 September 2016

Flat stars crowned on golden weekend

Dettori gains Derby redemption as American hero emerges in New York

Published 08/06/2015 | 02:30

Frankie Dettori celebrates as Golden Horn passes the winning post clear of his Epsom Derby rivals
Frankie Dettori celebrates as Golden Horn passes the winning post clear of his Epsom Derby rivals

It isn't often that a weekend of Flat racing hums as stirringly as the one that we just witnessed.

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There was to be no definitive Irish angle, but that won't have stopped genuine racing fans relishing the emotionally charged events that unfolded in Epsom and New York.

You couldn't fail to appreciate the exceptional displays of Golden Horn and American Pharoah.

More than that, though, the narratives that accompanied both feats lent further magnitude to the respective occasions. Too often, the summer discipline lacks that sort of broader appeal, a spine-tingling resonance that demands its showpiece events are catapulted beyond the realms of relative obscurity in the modern sporting world. On Saturday, it delivered in spades.

As expected, the Irish contingent in the Derby just weren't up to it. Giovanni Canaletto fared best in fourth, emerging with some credit ahead of a likely tilt at the Irish version, in which he could face the Epsom runner-up Jack Hobbs.

The third Storm The Stars also deserves a mention as he raced handily, while Joseph O'Brien's decision to opt for Kilimanjaro proved as correct as that of Ryan Moore's preference for Giovanni Canaletto, as his mount kept on at a safe remove to edge sixth from Hans Holbein.

Pat Shanahan's 150/1 maiden Carbon Dating outperformed expectations in eighth, while Success Days trailed in last on unsuitably fast ground.

What unfolded at the business end was a barnstorming confirmation of Golden Horn's supremacy. Frankie Dettori's chief task proved to be settling him early on, with the blistering fractions set by Hans Holbein aiding his cause.

Emphatic

While Golden Horn had plenty to do turning in, the pace inevitably collapsed, and then his John Gosden-trained companion Jack Hobbs gave him a tow from two furlongs down. Dettori, whose parting line from Gosden beforehand had been to "be cool, take your time", launched his mount a furlong out. The response was emphatic.

As ever, which way Golden Horn goes from here is impossible to predict. Winning a Derby invariably takes more out of a horse than might seem the case, but this was a barnstorming display of superiority that puts him right up there with some of the best recent winners at the same stage in their careers.

He is a fantastic specimen that oozes class, with distances of three-and-a-half lengths, four-and-a-half lengths and two lengths an indication of the way in which he stretched the opposition.

Gosden was emulating Aidan O'Brien's 2002 achievement of saddling the first two home in the premier Classic. Going into the Derby, Golden Horn was the outstanding candidate. In that sense, his resounding victory was the best possible result for the race.

It also triggered euphoric scenes of celebration, a heady climax to Dettori's rejuvenation. Dettori is one of the greatest big-race riders in the history of the game, a man who was treated extremely shabbily when sacked from his role as Godolphin number one in 2012. Remember, it was only upon the arrival on the scene of Mahmood Al Zarooni that tensions began to surface between Dettori and Sheikh Mohammed.

Not long after Dettori got the road, Al Zarooni was ousted in disgrace for his use of anabolic steroids and disappeared conveniently into the ether. Dettori then fell from grace when handed a six-month ban for testing positive for cocaine. That was a personal humiliation that he vowed not to let define his professional reputation.

He knuckled down on his return and was appointed number one rider to Al Shaqab, but he had to deal with more frustration when missing out on Treve's two Arc triumphs, first due to injury and then when Criquette Head-Maarek requested that former rider Thierry Jarnet be reunited with the extraordinary mare last year.

This term, Dettori and Gosden have rolled back the years by reigniting their old association of the mid-1990s. Gosden's former number one William Buick had been signed up by Godolphin, so Sheikh Mohammed unwittingly handed Dettori his second Derby-winning mount by acquiring a half share in Jack Hobbs.

Buick had won the Dante on Golden Horn but had to vacate the hot seat to partner his new boss's acquisition. In the event, Dettori's execution was sublime.

He hadn't ridden in the Derby for four years, but his composure in the eye of a storm is as it ever was. They say that his box-office ebullience masks a more sensitive persona, but you've got to admire the character that he has shown.

The contrast in his redemption and the relative ignominy endured by Kieren Fallon - notwithstanding last year's fleeting revival - is stark. Fallon, who has embarked on another American sortie of indefinite duration, no longer inspires trainers' trust. Dettori does, and his Derby destiny was written.

As, it seemed, was American Pharoah's Triple Crown fate. Racing in the US has its flaws - it is hardly unique in that sense - and few will have watched Victor Espinoza strike American Pharoah 32 times en route to his gruelling Kentucky Derby victory and not winced a little.

However, that is now part of what makes this equine force of nature's historic endeavour so remarkable.

No horse had completed the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes hat-trick since Affirmed in 1978. In between, 12 fell at the third hurdle, and a 13th got injured before the final leg.

That's how hard it is to win three Classics in the space of five weeks. American Pharoah had to fight tooth and nail to emerge on top in Kentucky.

He might have danced up in the Preakness, but that was partly because a raft of his Derby rivals were being freshened up specifically to take him down in New York. They waited in the long grass to pounce when his legs would tire over the uncharted territory of a mile-and-a-half on Saturday night. Gloriously, that moment never came.

American Pharoah was utterly invulnerable at Belmont Park, bouncing out and running them all ragged. You'd have been forgiving for thinking that it was he and not his rivals that had sat out the Preakness.

We've been privy to some era-defining equine talent in recent years, with Sea The Stars, Frankel and Treve a rare calibre of Flat horse that you might hope to see once in a lifetime. Alas, now we have an American Triple Crown hero being compared to the mighty Secretariat, the colossus whose shadow looms large over every aspiring Stateside champion.

Espinoza and American Pharoah's trainer Bob Baffert had both suffered Triple Crown agony before, so they knew what it was to slip 'twixt cup and lip.

Having gone so close in the English equivalent when Camelot's quest for the Holy Grail was so inexplicably foiled in the St Leger three years ago, John Magnier and his Coolmore partners had also recently endured the pain of history being swept from under their feet.

They like to have fingers in as many pies as possible and there is none so lucrative as an American one, so they moved to purchase the breeding rights to Baffert's sensational colt after his Preakness success. Clearly, "the lads" knew.

The omnipotent conglomerate might have tasted a first Derby defeat since 2010, then, but the day didn't end too badly after all.

No French joy for Mullins and 'Fly'

Hurricane Fly may have edged slightly closer to retirement after failing to land a blow in yesterday's French Champion Hurdle in Auteuil.

Willie Mullins has hitherto been loath to discuss the issue, but Ruby Walsh's venerable mount simply didn't have it in his legs to get into contention before finishing sixth behind the emphatic David Pipe-trained winner Un Temps Pour Tout. In contrast, his fellow 11-year-old Thousand Stars, already twice a winner of the Grade One, battled valiantly to deny Zarkandar second place.

Vincent Cheminaud stole the show once again. The 21-year-old champion jump jockey was riding for possibly the last time over sticks in the wake of his Prix du Jockey Club success aboard New Bay. He departed with a treble, including the Grade One hurdle for four-year-olds on Blue Dragon.

Tweet of the weekend

Fozzy Stack (@fozzystack)

A huge well done to Waltzing Matilda. Great win! Great ride by Junior Alvarado!

Tommy Stack's son and assistant Fozzy following Waltzing Matilda's Grade Two triumph at Belmont Park on Friday night. The Danehill Dancer filly's only other win had been on the first of 11 previous starts, so it was a masterful piece of placing.

Numbers Game

37 Age at which Pat Dobbs rode his initial Group One winner when Pether's Moon swooped to thwart the odds-on Dolniya in Saturday's Coronation Cup. A builder's son from Enniscorthy in Co Wexford who has long been part of the Richard Hannon operation, Dobbs was handed the ride when the owners opted to jock off Richard Hughes. Incredibly, it was a first Group One win over further than a mile to emerge from the powerful Hannon stable for 22 years.

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