Friday 22 November 2019

Goodwood braced for latest Duel on the Downs

Fireworks expected as Dawn Approach and Toronado renew rivalry, writes Ian McClean

Wednesday will see the third showdown between the two best three-year-old milers on these islands: Dawn Approach and Toronado
Wednesday will see the third showdown between the two best three-year-old milers on these islands: Dawn Approach and Toronado

Ian McClean

Every sport has its legendary head-to-heads. Borg-McEnroe. Ali-Frazier. Coe-Ovett. England-Germany. There is something uniquely compelling about the best facing off with the best to determine the very best.

Bustino v Grundy in the King George of 1975 is commonly held as the benchmark for single combat in the equine world on this side of the Atlantic, but it pales in comparison to what the Americans hail as the 'Match of the Century' which took place at Pimlico between Sea Biscuit and War Admiral in 1938. It may have been watched by a sell-out crowd of just 40,000 people – but it was heard by over 40 million nationwide.

Declaration Of War may be a fellow contender for the Sussex Stakes – Glorious Goodwood's feature on Wednesday – yet declaration of war could just as appropriately describe the third showdown between the two best three-year-old milers on these islands: Dawn Approach and Toronado.

The Sussex Stakes (first run in 1841) has steadily established itself as the definitive all-aged mile championship, nestled in the heart of midsummer. The race's position almost halfway through the Flat-racing calendar naturally qualifies it as a proper reconciliation of merit in the milers' half-term report, and so it is hardly surprising that it has historically been the venue to either adjudicate between generations or, in the case of the three-year-olds especially, settle a few old scores.

Many have referred to the upcoming clash between Dawn Approach and Toronado, this season's Duel on the Downs, as reminiscent of the rivalry between King's Lake and To Agori Mou in 1981. Back then King's Lake had already won the Irish 2,000 Guineas narrowly from his English rival only for the stewards to reverse the placings on the day. The original result was re-instated on appeal by the Turf Club and a bitter discord was hatched. The St James's Palace Stakes at Royal Ascot saw To Agori Mou avenge his Curragh defeat by a head and witnessed Greville Starkey famously issue the V-sign to Pat Eddery under the shadow of the Royal box as the horses passed the finish line.

The Sussex played host to the decider and yet another nailbiter led to King's Lake prevailing, again by a head. There was a lot of harrumphing after that as well, but subsequently both horses went their separate ways. King's Lake won his Group One at 10 furlongs in the Joe McGrath Memorial at Leopardstown (precursor to the Champion Stakes), while To Agori Mou stayed at a mile and delivered a brilliant success in the QEII with Lester Piggott up – without even a trace of a V-sign.

However, seductive as the comparisons with 1981 appear, the parallels with 2008 and the rivalry between Henrythenavigator and Raven's Pass are, notwithstanding the stewards' room, even greater. Like Dawn Approach and Toronado, Henry and Raven's Pass first met in the English Guineas. Henrythenavigator nosed out favourite New Approach with the pair pulling clear of the field. Raven's Pass, drawn wide in 13, had to come around the field to finish fourth, beaten just over four-and-a-half lengths by his rival. Toronado also finished fourth to Dawn Approach in the Guineas.

The rematch came in the St James's Palace Stakes where again in both cases the Guineas winner prevailed, but by a much reduced margin. Raven's Pass got to within three-quarters of a length this time.

The third clash saw Raven's Pass get even closer; he went down by just a head to the 4/11 favourite which got crucial first run on his adversary. Raven's Pass went on to get his revenge on Henrythenavigator in the QEII, when this time he got first run, and prevailed by a length. Thereafter, Raven's Pass extended that margin to a length and three quarters in their fifth and final encounter of that remarkable sequence in the Breeders' Cup Classic where they both dominated the Americans on their surface in their backyard.

The latest billing of the Duel on the Downs came just two years ago when Frankel faced his year-older rival Canford Cliffs. Both had won their respective Group Ones on the same day at Royal Ascot on their previous outing and arrived representing the best of their generation. On the day Canford Cliffs, suffering from "the downs", failed to produce his best, going down by five lengths. Indeed it is ironic that Frankel only won by a length further last year at odds of 1/20 when the race against Farhh and two other rivals was billed as a mere lap of honour.

It is to be hoped that this year's duel will match the highs of 2008 and 1981. It is certainly hotting up to be with Simon Crisford, Godolphin's racing manager, declaring: "Both camps believe they have the better horse". He certainly believes he has. "Toronado could warm us up a bit in the Sussex Stakes but I don't think he will beat us. Dawn Approach has beaten Toronado twice and hopefully he can do so again."

Rival trainer Richard Hannon Jr is no less animated. "We were unlucky in the race at Ascot," he said, adding that he is fully anticipating fireworks on the Downs on Wednesday.

The attraction of the head-to-head is matched by its capacity to attract a wider audience that gets compelled by the story. The Dawn Approach-Toronado saga-so-far will certainly bolster viewing figures for Wednesday but it has no chance of coming anywhere close to the record viewership ever recorded throughout the history of the race. That came in 1981 with King's Lake and To Agori Mou.

But, even then, the size of the TV audience had nothing to do with the clash of the stars. It did, however, have everything to do with the fact that Charles and Diana got married on Sussex Stakes day 1981: therefore it was a public holiday, and on the afternoon the BBC switched directly from the wedding action to Goodwood Downs.

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