27 July 2008

Was it a case of Duke of Marmalade digging deep or of Papal Bull giving it away? Amidst the well-merited euphoria of the winner’s effort in victory comes the exasperation of the loser’s quirky talent in defeat. Duke of Marmalade landed the odds tenaciously in this 58th King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes but the story was as much how Papal Bull had his moment and threw it away.

It was ever thus and the reason that Duke of Marmalade’s name was already inscribed on Ascot’s new oaken board of honour last night is because he has the toughness to match his talent. What’s more, this season’s true fulfilment of his early promise was only achieved after battling through six consecutive Group One races last campaign with surgical screws pinching in a leg from an operation as a two-year-old. When trainer Aidan O’Brien dips his head and says, “he’s a real horse”, he’s talking as much about character as class.

In three consecutive races at Longchamp, The Curragh and Ascot, this fine-looking bay colt with the rather plain but honest head has swept through to take a top event under control. The reason he was odds-on yesterday was that almost everyone thought he was a certainty to do it again. When Johnny Murtagh pulled him out and stormed impressively past Lucarno and the Ballydoyle pacemaking team, everyone thought it was over. The beauty of racing is that things are rarely as simple as that.

Indeed, it was not the predicted challengers who threatened to spoil the story. Second favourite Youmzain fell out of the stalls and never seemed entirely happy. But he has been a real warrior for Mick Channon and his team. This was his 10th consecutive race in Group One grade and the £91,000 he got for battling on to be an albeit distant third, takes his earnings to over £1.3 million through his four-season career.

With Youmzain missing it was Lucarno, tugging Jimmy Fortune firmly up behind the pacemaking Red Rock Canyon, who seemed the likely threat and the idea that Papal Bull would have a significant role seemed entirely unlikely when he was squeezed up against the rails to plum last along the back straight. It is the perversity of some equine psyche that this was probably the making of him.

Because all Olivier Peslier was then hoping for was to have something to deliver at the finish. As Duke of Marmalade stretched his long powerful stride out and drew clear on the inside rail a roar went up to hail a horse attempting to be ranked up alongside the great listing which runs from Supreme Court to Dylan Thomas. What we now expected was a coronation. What we got was a battle royal.

Papal Bull has always had masses of talent, and he has won six of his 17 races. But there has always been a suspicion that he was a lot better than he had yet achieved. As Peslier launched him on the outside of Duke of Marmalade that suspicion was confirmed with blazing certainty as Papal Bull cut the leader down in such style that, as they ran to the furlong pole, we could see the unthinkable truth that he had the legs of the favourite.

But if, like Peslier, you get a quirky talent to sprint for you, the trouble is that he is not likely to sprint for long. Papal Bull’s surge took him up and a whole half-length ahead of Duke of Marmalade but there were still a hundred yards to run. A hundred yards too many if your horse thinks a bit and you have a seasoned battler on the rail against you. Murtagh summoned the Marmalade and, sorry but the metaphor is too obvious, and Papal Bull was toast.

“He is good,” said Peslier in tribute afterwards before giving a smiling shrug , “and a bit of a monkey too. Another time, I come even later. Maybe I even win.” He was entitled to be thrilled at his effort as it was nine long lengths back to Youmzain and the 2min 27.91sec for the mile and a half was only half a second outside the record and the fourth fastest time in King George history.

But of course Duke of Marmalade’s victory was yet another magnificent step in the glory path which O’Brien and Murtagh are carving through this Flat racing season. It was the 14th Group One event winner to be saddled by the Ballydoyle maestro and it is a simple tribute to Murtagh that he now matches the magic that Kieren Fallon brought to the partnership before allowing those demons back in.

BBC’s Panorama programme scheduled for Wednesday night is boasting that it will reveal unsavoury things wriggling beneath some of the stones in the racing garden. More power to their elbow if their ambition is to help the battle to keep the place clean. But yesterday their sports team showed that the games stars are worth looking at too.

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