Emerging talent is strongest threat to Stradivarius’ reign

The Times, 17th June 2021

Flat racing often gets too excited about flashes in the pan but there is nothing flash about grinding 2½ miles round the Gold Cup course at Ascot. Mind you, Stradivarius and Frankie Dettori are pretty flash, but their glitter has been mostly solid gold.

Not that this guarantees anything today. While at 50 Dettori gets older and wiser, at seven Stradivarius gets older and the lure of his next career at stud will grow stronger, which may finally affect his actual race performance. Princess Zoe, the only mare in the race, will be only three places away from him in the stalls and you can be sure that Dettori will avoid “Strad” getting anywhere near her beforehand.

Stradivarius won the first of his three Gold Cups in 2018 and ended his unbeaten season with another brilliant victory on this course in October that year. Three hours later his contemporary and stable companion Cracksman closed his career with an awesome performance in the Champion Stakes. Today Cracksman is resting after his third busy season at stud. Good job Stradivarius does not read the papers.

The great thing about this little chestnut is that he still appears to enjoy winning as much as we do watching him and Dettori deliver. His seasonal return, on this track in April, had all his trademark swagger and banished fears that the unhappy experiences of his two defeats on heavy ground at the end of last season had left a mark. For while most stayers are sluggers who grind down the opposition, Stradivarius has a finishing kick that Dettori has finessed into one of the most potent and pleasing weapons ever seen on the racetrack.

April’s comeback was typical. While the other horses committed to the line, Dettori crouched menacingly behind them before finally pressing his little partner to quicken up with that familiar, slightly upright set of the neck and that neat and powerful extra bite in the stride.

Winning a fourth Gold Cup today would equal the record of the much more powerfully built Yeats a full decade ago and worries about Stradivarius’s stallion tendencies are eased by the memories of Yeats being led away from that final winners’ circle still whinnying as if on the way to the covering shed. And Yeats was a year older than today’s contender.

Whatever happens I am not likely to risk the sort of TV jokey disparagement given to the 1995 Gold Cup winner Double Trigger when he ran badly early in the 1998 season at Sandown as a seven-year-old. Stung by my presumption, the owner Ron Huggins challenged me to go up to Middleham Moor and test things in the saddle. With undimmed but well-mannered power, Double Trigger duly stretched my arms to the limit on the gallop and then got to a neck of Kayf Tara in that year’s Gold Cup. So it is more likely that it will be emerging talent than excess testosterone that does for Stradivarius.

Choosing this is difficult as most will be tackling this 2½-mile distance for the first time. Aidan O’Brien runs a trio of four-year-olds including last year’s Irish and English Derby winners, Santiago and Serpentine, and his son Donnacha runs a promising outsider in Emperor Of The Sun.

But none of them appeals as much as Trueshan or Subjectivist, either of whom would add another rich chapter to the race history which trots all the way back to 1807. Trueshan would be yet another extraordinary milestone in the rise and rise of Hollie Doyle, one of which was his rout of an admittedly bogged-down and end-of-season weary Stradivarius on a very soggy Ascot track on Champions Day.

Subjectivist would be a fourth Gold Cup for Double Trigger’s trainer Mark Johnston and the greatest victory yet of that diminutive late achiever Joe Fanning, at 8st almost as light as Doyle and 26 years her senior, being three months older even than Dettori.

Trueshan is a tough old gelding but will need the thunderstorms to provide going a lot easier than yesterday’s. He is an admirably focused five-year-old but it is hard to believe that he could match the class and sustained speed Subjectivist showed when he won over two miles in Dubai in the spring. Speculation beforehand is one of the pleasures of a big race and this year gives us every hope that if Stradivarius is to be toppled, it will require a race to remember.

Because of their longer careers, and because they provide a full 4½ minutes of racing time, great Gold Cup winners can attract a popularity extending out beyond the racing bubble. Stradivarius, with his winning sprints, has done it complete with Frankie factor, and while it will not be flash, if Fanning and Subjectivist fix things, they will be on their way.

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