Smullen shines as Eagle lands Ascot showpiece by a whisker
Free Eagle finally enjoyed the bit of luck that had hitherto eluded him to claim a first Group One courtesy of a dramatic short-head triumph over The Grey Gatsby in yesterday's Prince Of Wales's Stakes.
Dermot Weld's classy High Chaparral colt arrived at Royal Ascot having had just two starts in each of the previous two years and none in 2015.
However, Weld's renowned patience remains one of his most valuable attributes, and he never rushed a horse that he has always spoken of glowingly.
In yesterday's £525,000 10-furlong event, the Rosewell House wizard was rewarded in glorious style, as Free Eagle confirmed his quality in nail-biting fashion. On the four-year-old's first start since finishing a gallant third in the Champion Stakes 242 days earlier, it constituted a remarkable training feat, one that was matched by that of Pat Smullen's turn in the saddle.
As the French raider Gailo Chop slowed the early fractions in front under Julien Auge, Smullen immediately cottoned on to what Auge was at and deliberately moved on to his tail to ensure that he would be best positioned to take advantage.
All the while, Jamie Spencer was having a nightmare in behind on The Grey Gatsby. He eventually got out and rallied to force a photo-finish, but Smullen, who sent on Free Eagle two out, had done enough to pinch it.
While circumstances might have conspired to deny the best horse on the day, the respective displays of Smullen and Weld were inspired. Moreover, it is worth noting that a stronger gallop would also have suited Free Eagle
"Pat gave him his usual brilliant ride and seized the opportunity," Weld beamed after welcoming his 17th Royal Ascot winner. "He's a very good horse but he hasn't been easy; he has had a lot of problems. He had a heavy head cold a couple of weeks ago, and I thought today was going to be very much in doubt, but we got him right.
"You can't force fitness, and ideally the race was two weeks too soon. I did have huge confidence in the horse and his ability, though. It was a calculated risk and a personal triumph for me."
Weld added that the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe remains the long-term objective, possibly via a tilt at the Irish Champion Stakes. Smullen, palpably relieved at the outcome aboard the 5/2 favourite, said of the success: "I've never enjoyed a winner like it. I have been saying for two years how good this horse is and he showed it today."
Ryan Moore partnered his fourth winner of the week when carried to an emphatic Queen Mary victory aboard Coolmore's Acapulco. Heavily backed into 5/2 favouritism, the imposing Scat Daddy filly looked in a different league to her rivals in giving American handler Wesley Ward his fifth juvenile win at the royal meeting.
"Wesley said she is like a four-year-old and she rides like one," Moore said of Acapulco, which some bookmakers promptly made a 3/1 market leader to trump her elders in the Nunthorpe.
Moore then doubled up when taking the Hunt Cup on John Gosden's GM Hopkins (8/1), while Fermoy-born David O'Meara excelled in revitalising Amazing Maria to secure a shock 25/1 coup over Rizeena under James Doyle in the Duke of Cambridge Stakes.
In the Sandringham, Richard Hannon's Osaila (13/2) thwarted Always Smile by a nose to give the rejuvenated Frankie Dettori a 50th royal win. As was the case in the Derby, Dettori's win came chiefly at the expense of his former Godolphin employers. "I must thank Sheikh Joaan (Al Thani), as two years ago he saved my career," Dettori gushed of his boss and Osaila's owner.