8 June 2008

Publicly  New Approach is the first derby hero to be led by a pony both to the start and into the winner’s enclosure. Privately, he is the first to have begun life with a bell round his neck to stop his blind mother bumping into him. Who says the two are not related? But while it’s fun to highlight his cussedness and to taunt his trainer, Jim Bolger, for changing plans, the true fascination is just how good an athlete lies behind the chesnut frame and contrary head.

He is brilliant but yesterday the real problems only began when the stalls opened. Because the front-running strategy employed in all bar one of New Approach’s previous seven races was rightly abandoned for this first attempt at a mile and a half, jockey Kevin Manning tried to apply the brakes after the first uphill dash, and when he did so his partner disagreed – violently.

One of the things you don’t want to happen in a tightly packed Derby field is to have a horse reaching and yawing over the runners in front. The rapid-speaking but ultra diplomatic Manning would admit to New Approach being “a little bit keener than I wanted”, which is a massive understatement for the 100 yards of nightmare as the powerhouse beneath him put himself and those ahead of him in peril of collision.

When Manning’s mighty arms finally anchored his partner, he was then right at the back of the 16 runners as they began the swing down through Tattenham Corner with the pacemakers coming back like galloping flotsam through the field. His massive acceleration swept him up towards the leaders only to find a whole barging scrum of horses in front of him. The cambered helter-skelter of the Epsom course is hard enough to handle on your own. Manning had a dozen companions. And they weren’t there to do him any favours.

First it was Jamie Spencer, on Curtain Call, who held hard on his line as his rival came through. When Spencer was brushed aside, Manning then had a wider wall ahead and no easy way through. Kandahar Run and Doctor Fremantle had led into the straight, and a quarter mile out the latter’s stable companion, Tartan Bearer, had stormed past in what looked like a Derby-winning move. We could see New Approach had running in him, but he had ground to make up and little space to do it in.

As Kandahar Run weakened a gap opened along the rail and with a race-rider’s instinct that first saw success in 1983, the 41-year-old Manning launched New Approach across to take it and now had 300 yards between himself and history. The fact that Frankie Dettori and Rio De La Plata were in the way was one of those things you pay for later – in Manning’s case with a three-day ban – but once balanced New Approach then did what only true class horses do. He widened his stride and swept past a good opponent to show himself something close to a great one.

What New Approach did over those last 300 yards will remain the defining image of this Derby. For here was a horse fast enough to win in the highest class over seven furlongs as a two-year-old and run a photo-finish second in the 2,000 Guineas over a mile this year, scything his field down over a mile and a half. After New Approach’s unhappy defeat in the Irish Guineas we all wondered whether Sheikh Mohammed might have second thoughts about all those millions he spent to buy the horse last year. We don’t now.

That we don’t is above all a credit to the Co Carlow team to which Bolger paid eloquent tribute on the winner’s rostrum. When a horse has a talent like New Approach you have to make allowances to try and avoid pulling the fibres of his volatile mind into an immovable knot which you cannot unravel. Early yesterday morning head man Pat O’Donovan and Manning, along with exercise rider Adrian Taylor on the big five-year-old Metamorphosis who is now hailed somewhat incongruously as “the pony,” took New Approach on a rehearsal of the pre-race routine. In the afternoon backers were on edge but they, and indeed their contrary chesnut, oozed enviable calm.

Before the Irish Guineas, the ribs showed lean and hard in New Approach’s coat. After what looked a hard-worked unhappy failure you might have expected him to look worse yesterday. He didn’t. Let’s give credit to the Bolger team for that, but most of all let’s salute the son-in-law jockey who sensibly keeps his counsel but yesterday signed his name in Derby immortality.

Anyone who has ever ridden knows the precariousness of the horse with scary brakes. New Approach has both a straight-ended bit and a “chifney” to control him but both early in the race and particularly afterwards you could see how difficult it was. But this was Manning’s moment. He anchored the colt and, unforgettably, launched him up the inner at the crucial moment.

Afterwards who else, except Pat Glennon on Sea Bird II in 1965, has been able to say “the most difficult thing was pulling him up.”

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