23 May 2004

Brough Scott reports from The Curragh on a poignant victory for the late Andrew Devonshire

Could anyone dare pen a script so aristocratically bitter sweet? In the very month that the Duke of Devonshire died, his colt Bachelor Duke swept past the favourites Azamour and Grey Swallow to land the Classic race that 90 years of his racing life had denied him.

It came out of a clear blue Curragh sky, the sun golden on the gorse, the muscles rippling on the horses as the eight runners paraded for this Boylesports-sponsored Irish 2,000 Guineas. Azamour looked tall and magnificent, Grey Swallow a bit more squat and purposeful. There had been just a length between them in the English 2,000 at Newmarket. The craic was all about whether the grey could turn the tables. But the real story walked right in front of him. Bachelor Duke had been only another couple of lengths behind in our Classic and if we had only asked, his connections were very, very, hopeful of finishing in front this time.

It would seem an unlikely story. In 24 years training, James Toller had never tasted Classic success, neither had jockey Seb Sanders who was celebrating his 32nd birthday yesterday. And while Bachelor Duke had indeed run well in the Guineas and finished third in last year’s Dewhurst, he was still without a victory in a four-race career. But what he did over six furlongs on Newmarket’s summer gallop last Saturday morning convinced everyone that this was a real contender. “He was just awesome,” said Sanders, “we had older Group horses in the gallop but he worked all over them.”

But such thoughts were not common currency as Aidan O’Brien and his son Joseph watched the runners file past. The Ballydoyle pair Newton and Grand Reward did not carry mass expectation but it did not stop the perfectionist in O’Brien telling Jamie Spencer to take Grand Reward to the back of the parade for fear of the regally-bred colt (by Storm Cat out of Breeders’ Cup winner Serena’s Song) boiling over. The kettle of the race was yet to come.

When it did Grand Reward was a slightly unexpected leader accompanied by the other English challenger Leitrim House, with Azamour and Grey Swallow tracking them and Sanders planning to play Bachelor Duke last. As the field came across to the junction there was a spicy moment when Mick Kinane got temporarily blocked as he tried to push up inside Spencer, his Ballydoyle successor. But as the leaders flattened out in effort for the last two furlongs with Leitrim House cutting first from Grey Swallow, Grand Reward and the resurgent Azamour we had a horse race with no excuses.

What we didn’t realise we had was a Classic designed from heaven. For at this stage the 12-1 Bachelor Duke had hit some sort of flat spot. If Andrew, the late Duke of Devonshire was indeed looking down from the great grandstand in the sky he would have been lowering his binoculars in shrugging disappointment. “For a few yards it was a bit of a struggle,” admitted Sanders afterwards. “The others had the legs of me but I kept at him and then he really found and picked them up impressively.”

Watching on the rail a hundred yards from the line, I was to see the playing of a quite unexpected trump. The eye could pick Leitrim House and Grand Reward beginning to weaken as the green Aga Khan jacket of Kinane on Azamour closed out his expected duel with Grey Swallow. It was tough but he was getting on top. But what was this on the outside? The famous straw silks of the Devonshires, the bay horse head down and sprinting past them. At the post he had it by a clear length.

There were no excuses. How could there be? Azamour and Grey Swallow finished within half-a-length of each other in second and third with Leitrim House one-and-a-half lengths away in fourth. Bachelor Duke was the best horse on the day. He will now take on his Newmarket conqueror Haafhd in Royal Ascot’s St James’s Palace Stakes to see if he can claim to be the best miler of his generation. He is the best possible excuse for a party for an owning team who have long tried to make racing a cause for celebration. But there won’t be a dry eye when they get to the toast “To Absent Friends”.

The thoughts will be doubly poignant because it was legendary bloodstock agent Joss Collins who bought the son of Miswaki as a yearling for 125,000 Euros at Goffs Sales in Oct 2002, and he also died this year. The horse that Toller has developed with admirable phlegm has pace, class and determination. He, the late Duke and Sanders combined to win the July Cup with Compton Place at a shock 66-1 back in 1997 and as an owner Andrew had his own spar with immortality when Park Top carried nearly all before her some three decades ago. But this was the best. A Classic. This was a horse he would have thrown his hat in the air for.

He may have been a Duke, a Knight of The Garter and the caretaker at Chatsworth, but Andrew Devonshire was the most splendidly likeable, courteous, sporting-mad man. Yesterday? My, how he would have loved it.

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