Ben Coen boxes clever on Sonnyboyliston to take the Ebor at York

SUNDAY TIMES, 22 August 2021

The rain came before the Ebor, but it could not stop the fun, nor the knock-out blow Sonnyboyliston and 19-year-old Ben Coen gave their 19 rivals in this richest handicap of the season.

A riotously happy, natty-suited, flashy-frocked, 30,000 sell-out Yorkshire crowd got the sort of ding-dong finish that gets you cheering even if you had backed Quickthorn, the gallant loser. Cheering loudest was Irish trainer Johnny Murtagh who had 26 glittering years as a jockey and is making a major mark in his new profession having already saddled Coen-ridden winners at both Goodwood and Royal Ascot this term.

His faith in his young protegee was fully justified as Coen worked his way steadily through a big field when some older heads rushed too soon once the leaders swung into the straight. The duel with Quickthorn and local jockey Jason Hart was a tough one but Coen had just enough horse at the line. “He’s cool, he’s calm, he’s strong and that’s everything you need in a good jockey,” Murtagh said of a rider whose future looks as bright as his own and is likely to link up with Sonnyliston next in the Irish St Leger and might even take up an entry in the Melbourne Cup.

It has been terrific to have the buzz of crowds back this week, but it is to the horses that we must repair and we have seen plenty of stunners this week. Mishriff majestic in the Juddmonte, Snowfall supreme in the Yorkshire Oaks, Winter Power awesome in her matching and then exploding the American rocket that was Golden Pal. But nothing last week, nor for many weeks will match Stradivarius and an inspired Frankie Dettori as they finally out-gunned  super gutsy Spanish Mission and the so talented William Buick.

Six seasons Stradivarius has been with us, the last five as a headline maker, and every race over a distance that saps the stamina and for many horses, the will. Others of Stradivarius peer group are already into their third or fourth season of the sultan’s life at stud but while the bonny chestnut has all the right equipment and, from the sound of him of a training morning, plenty of the necessary intentions, at York on Thursday he was the model of a focused racehorse both before the race as well as in it.

It was not always thus and there have been occasions when his demeanour in the paddock made one wonder if it was to the stallion’s game that he would rather head. In search for the answer, I pursued him and his groom Surinder Parmar and John Gosden’s ubiquitous Tony Proctor, as they led the seven year old off to the washdown.

These are the sweetest most privileged of moments. I watched Crisp in this position, shattered after trying to give Red Rum almost two stone in the Grand National, Shergar after the King George, Motivator at Epsom. But this was every bit as good; the shirt sleeved Surinder finding it difficult to keep the smile off his face as he held Stadivarius’ bridle,  blue suited Tony Proctor taking the hose to cool down his athlete as he has done so often with Enable, Golden Fleece and all the other Gosden stars.

It seemed right to compliment the pair for keeping Stradivarius so calm beforehand. Characteristically Tony would have none of it. “We have learnt how to handle him,” he said, “the trick is to never allow him to have a horse in front to get excited about. We are just doing our job.” Maybe, but to the grateful delight of all of us.

Yet for all this the most significant racing event of the week may not have happened at York but yesterday at Sandown when the Queen’s Reach For The Moon won the Solario Stakes under Frankie Dettori to raise the prospect of a royal runner in next year’s Derby. He is by the Derby winner Sea The Stars and is in the uniquely experienced hands of John and Thady Gosden’s, Stradivarius team at Newmarket. He is pretty feisty and his half-brother had to be gelded, but if Reach For The Moon keeps the lid on, we really might see the Queen with a major chance of winning this Platinum Jubilee Derby. Just imagine.

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