Sunday Times Sport, 20 July 2019
When the Ascot starting gates clang open, Frankie Dettori clamps down and Enable leaps forward into the gallop, there’s a wider target than just winning next Saturday’s King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes. They will be bidding to keep racing on the map.
For the sporting agenda is now crowded out like never before. Most of us (and all the sports pages) have still not recovered from the split attention drama of the greatest ever Cricket and Tennis matches reaching their climax at the same time when we were confronted with Rory McIroy’s melt down and heroic fight back at Portmarnock. Earlier last Sunday Lewis Hamilton added to his legend at Silverstone and all that barely a week on from the Lionesses gallant run in the Women’s World Cup, ten days before the start of the Ashes and less than nine weeks before the Rugby World Cup kicks off in Japan. How does racing get a look in?
Of course, it was not ever thus. 120 years ago saw the birth of Sceptre, who in 1902 won all the classics bar the Derby which she only lost through a cock up by her jockey and duly trotted up in the Oaks two days later. All that, despite being owned by the maverick Bob Sievier, so desperate a punter that he started Sceptre’s three year old campaign training her himself and running her and just getting beat in the Lincoln Handicap.
Sceptre’s heroics and Sievier’s rottenness were front page news as were the exploits two years later of Pretty Polly, arguably the greatest of them all, winner of 22 of 24 races from five furlongs to two and a quarter miles. But back then horse racing was the number one sporting interest and even when football, cricket and rugby had overtaken it, the consecutive King George & Queen Elizabeth II victories of the great French mare Dahlia in the 70s were still feats to ponder. But in those days racing was still the only place for betting; now all the other sports are at it and there has to be a story to tell. Dettori says Enable – 11 wins from 12 races in England, Ireland, USA and France where this October she aims to be the first horse to win a third Arc de Triomphe – is the best he has ever ridden. On Saturday she needs to show it.
Yet victory is anything but a given. In against her and receiving an eight-pound age allowance are Aidan O’Brien’s English and Irish Derby winners, Anthony Van Dyck and Sovereign, as well as old rivals Magical and Waldgeist ready to exploit any weakness. Most of all there is fellow five-year-old Crystal Ocean recently installed above her at the very top of the Longines World Rankings follow a splendid win at Royal Ascot. But admirable racehorse though he is that Ascot success was his first at Group One level whilst Enable, won five in a row in this category as a three-year-old and has eight to her credit in all.
She ought to win but what’s wanted is a take-home-in-the-memory performance. Racing is very short on action, the Federer-Djokovic Final took all Sunday afternoon, the Cricket World Cup all day while Enable has raced a mere 28 minutes on the track. But what you are watching on the racecourse is a distillation of athleticism and history no other sport can match. Frankie Dettori’s unique balance and verve have made him not just one of the greatest jockeys but one of most complete sportsman in the firmament, and in 1998 when he first won the King George he was already two years on from his ‘Magnificent Seven’ whilst 16 year old Roger Federer was winning Junior Wimbledon.
The years with Enable involve bloodlines as old as the racecourse. She is the supreme product of 300 years of selective breeding and even has the great Sadlers Wells as her maternal grandsire and paternal grandsire – grandpa and great grand-dad the same guy, just think of that. On the racetrack she now delivers more than any mare I have ever seen and I go back to Petite Etoile whose shock defeat by the Towser Gosden trained Aggressor in 1960 remains a formative memory in Enable’s trainer John Gosden, for whose patient marshalling of her talents no praise can be too high. Just think what he would have done with Sceptre.
What makes Enable is her consistency. Other mares, most notably dual Arc winner Treve, may at times have looked more brilliant but they have lacked her ability to adapt to different tracks and different race rhythms. She needs no nursing for a late, late challenge. Dettori can place her up by the leaders and attack when he wants. “She is so great to ride,” he said at Sandown, “you have so much power beneath you. I love her.”
So now it comes down to what happens to Enable and her pilot in those two and a half hectic, hurtling minutes across the Ascot turf. It always does. Wish them well, for there’s a lot more than victory on the line.