Sunday 18 February 2018

Murtagh eyes pinnacle as Abbey owners reach for the Stars

Julian Muscat

JOHNNY Murtagh quickened the pulse more than once at Doncaster last Saturday. Having won the Lincoln aboard Penitent, which boosted morale among punters nursing Cheltenham losses, Murtagh dismounted and said what everyone wanted to hear. "This could be a big year for me."

The Meath jockey was alluding to one thing only. The worst of the winter is gone and St Nicholas Abbey is on course for the first of the season's Classics. Should the champion two-year-old fulfil expectations, Murtagh will have the year of his professional life.

It seems clear that St Nicholas Abbey will start his campaign in the English 2,000 Guineas, with the Epsom Derby to follow. The double is ambitious yet realistic, as Sea The Stars proved last term. And if the horse justifies his billing as hot favourite for both Classics, racing will have a second equine messenger in consecutive years.

Enter stage left the marketing men who won't sell the story short, but how far should they go? Should they engage overdrive, as they did with Kauto Star and Denman for the Cheltenham Gold Cup?

To racing's regular audience, Imperial Commander's win was no surprise. It was a perfectly plausible victory from a Cheltenham specialist that ran Kauto Star to a photo at Haydock Park in November. To irregulars enticed by the hype, the outcome was anti-climatic. It is one thing to draw a new audience; quite another to leave it utterly perplexed.

What would be unacceptable, however, is for St Nicholas Abbey to pass under a radar that failed to locate Sea The Stars until it was too late. The horse with wings was only recognised as he flew away from earth towards a stallion's nirvana. What a waste.

There is one redeeming feature. Those who witnessed his career now understand what constitutes a great horse. There will be no worshipping of false gods. Great horses do what Sea The Stars did.

St Nicholas Abbey is the athlete halfway through a race inside world-record pace. His demolition job in the Racing Post Trophy was streets ahead of anything Sea The Stars achieved at two.

John Magnier and his Ballydoyle partners, who own St Nicholas Abbey, have raced countless model racehorses, yet none in the mould of Sea The Stars. They have won the big races countless times, but no horse has swept the board.

A St Nicholas Abbey win at Newmarket would offer Ballydoyle the chance of a lifetime. We can expect them to seize it, perhaps right through to the Triple Crown.

From Magnier's perspective, a Triple Crown winner would match the deeds of Sea The Stars. It may even usurp the horse whose stallion potential has attracted the sort of mares Magnier's sires would otherwise have entertained.

The marketing men should be prepared. Unlike the Gold Cup, a Triple Crown bid is cherry-ripe for hype in that it can only go one of two ways. He wins or he loses. There is, of course, a long way to go before such a prospect can become reality. But to paraphrase Murtagh: so far, so good. (© The Times, London)

Irish Independent

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