Wednesday 13 December 2017

Weld and Brittain show the value of experience at Ascot

Trainer Dermot Weld
Trainer Dermot Weld

Ian McClean

When Francis Bacon composed his essay Of Youth and Age a century ago, it is unlikely he had Royal Ascot 2014 at the forefront of his mind.

Sculptor David Mach’s giant illustrated collage of Royal Ascot’s historical characters, unveiled at the start of the meeting, features many of the colourful greats of the sport down through the years. However, many of those same characters refused to be confined to just canvas during the pulsating week that was as they popped up to remind us that class is indeed permanent.

Both Clive Brittain and Dermot Weld need to thumb back four whole decades to remember their first ever Royal winner (Averoff and Red Alert respectively in 1974), while Michael Stoute, long before knighthood, was a little tardier in registering a first in 1977. Yet they each put the wisdom of experience to good use once again last week, where one recurring theme from many was just how difficult it is to win a race, any race, at the Royal meeting.

Newmarket-based Clive Brittain has lived more life than most. Chronologically now 80, his legendary 3.30am starts mean he has put more real time into this life than the average octogenarian.

Beginning racing life as a stable-hand with Sir Noel Murless at the age of 15, that’s 65 years at the game. Optimism undimmed, he told anyone who cared to listen on Friday that if Rizeena reproduced in Berkshire what she was demonstrating in the early morning mist of Suffolk then she would win. And win she did in the featured Coronation Stakes, justifying all of Ryan Moore’s early morning alarm-setting investment.

Refreshingly, neither the advancing years, nor the ensemble of Middle-Eastern sobriety encompassing his star filly’s owners in the winners enclosure discouraged in any way the evergreen Clive from dancing his whimsical Group One jig.

Dermot Weld’s main business of the meeting was Mustajeeb in the Jersey and he admitted, after a very straightforward victory for the colt, that the win didn’t come as a surprise. How could it, after all, with the 2,000 Guineas form as 18-carat as it gets in 2014? Although beaten in the Guineas, Kingman now unequivocally sets the gold standard for milers, arguably of any age, but certainly for three-year-olds. 

Kingman’s victory in the St James’s Palace Stakes not only cemented his place in history, but continued the remarkable domination of those horses that competed in the Newmarket Guineas in May. Five of the first six horses home in Tuesday’s feature ran in the Guineas.

Indeed, outside of Yuften, which finished fifth, the only horse to subsequently beat any horse that lined up in the Guineas is another horse that ran in the Guineas. From amongst those, Australia has won the Epsom Derby (with Kingston Hill second); The Grey Gatsby a Dante and the French Derby; Kingman an Irish Guineas (with Shifting Power second) and a St James’s Palace; and fifth-placed Charm Spirit next won a French Group Three easily. So Mustajeeb, which finished third behind Kingman and Shifting Power in the Irish Guineas, was an obvious form choice in the Jersey. QED.

Brittain and Weld are now into their teens of Royal Ascot winners but they both trail in the wake of the 70 firsts compiled by Stoute in the last few decades. Yet, in spite of getting on the scoreboard once again last week, perhaps Stoute’s finest training performance came in defeat as Estimate — off the track for precisely 10 months — narrowly failed to retain her Gold Cup crown. Whilst not perhaps ranking as a career-defining training moment for Stoute, it nonetheless produced a career-best effort from a very brave mare to go down just marginally to a race-fit classy colt like Leading Light.

That Galway Hurdle winner Missunited should still be in there scrapping until the last after leading the field for most of the way must have been more of a thrill for first-timer Michael Winters than even meeting Clare Balding in person. How ironic, then, that the Queen’s Vase should be demoted to Listed status in the very year the Group One long-distance meeting highlight was fought out by the two previous winners of that race?

With Royal Ascot hosted by the most famous octogenarian on the planet, and experience playing a large part for many who were successful, it is hardly surprising that connections should err on the side of wisdom over want in their quest for victory. Young Harry Bentley was elbowed aside to make way for Olivier Peslier on Lightning Thunder in the Coronation.

Dettori has jumped Sheikhs and is now re-emerging from the doldrums on the crest of an increasingly prominent Qatari wave. Meanwhile, Kieren Fallon is finding favour all over again with Dettori’s former employer Godolphin at the expense of youth as Silvestre de Sousa and Mickael Barzalona have both been overlooked.

It is a rough-and-tumble, high-stakes game where proven experience trumps youthful effervescence. Breaking through to register a first Royal Ascot victory meant so obviously much to the likes of George Baker and Andrea Atzeni —incredulous practically that they had finally got one on the board. If racing is a game of talent, endurance and a small dash of luck, then Ascot marks its ultimate measure.

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