SUNDAY TIMES SPORT, 28 July 2019
At the line it made your hair tingle. Ascot has seen good days, great days and then the afternoon when Enable and Crystal Ocean locked strides in the King George & QE II in the summer of 2019.
A mare and a colt, two five-year-olds, two five hundred kilo products of 300 years of selective breeding delivering what they were destined for, the most powerful, most thrilling to watch form of athletics on the planet. Enable and her rider Frankie Dettori have now gone three seasons unbeaten on both sides of the Atlantic and won 11 races, 9 of them – like yesterday’s – at Group One level. But it takes two to make a horse race and how proud his connections must be of Crystal Ocean.
He has never been out of the frame in sixteen races and in this event last year was inched out of it by the same neck margin as Enable defeated him in a duel almost as uplifting as yesterday’s. That time he committed for home two out only to be worn down in the last 75 yards by his stable companion Poet’s Word ridden by James Doyle who was this time the man sending him for the line.
At that moment swinging off the final turn it was Doyle not Dettori who had steered the smoother passage, whose elbows had stayed still for longest and who seemed to have had the most horse beneath him. Enable, drawn furthest out of the eleven runner initially broke with the pace but after being kept wide by Hunting Horn, one of three stable mates of the Derby winner Anthony Van Dyck, opted to pull back as an extremely rapid gallop was set by Norway and Magic Wand two other of Anthony Van Dyck’s ‘domestiques’.
So much so that climbing the Ascot hill we were treated to the unaccustomed sight of Enable being a long way back in the field and then as she followed Crystal Ocean up towards the leaders fearing that the smooth long striding, neck extended power of her rival would prove her undoing. For what was at stake here was more than just a horse race, it was a precious sense of invincibility. Ever since Dettori had been teamed up with her Enable had found a way of winning. Sometimes brilliantly as in the Oaks and in this race in 2017, sometimes gutsily as in the Arc and The Breeders Cup last year. She and he had claims to be the most complete horse and jockey combination of all time. But she had to win again. And it was going to be difficult.
Great duels are the heartbeat of horse racing’s attraction. Last year’s Poet’s Word – Crystal Ocean battle was a cracker and the best ever was In 1975 when the Guineas dual Derby winner Grundy finally thrust his flashy chestnut face behind the hard grinding bay Bustino, the previous year’s St Leger winner, who had two blazing pacemakers to aid him. But this, in several ways, was even better. For Grundy was still only a three-year-old and Pat Eddery was still early in his brilliant and long lasting career. Now we had a mare with three seasons worth of memories to defend and the most famous jockey of modern times on board the horse he describes as the best he has ever ridden. For them, but most of all for us, there was a lot on the line.
Running towards the last quarter mile Crystal Ocean swept away the ‘domestiques’ as if he was the ‘maillot jaune’ and Enable was clearly digging very deep to get alongside. Crystal Ocean’s neck was set very straight and Jason Weaver beside me shouted “he’s got her beat”.
But she wasn’t. Dettori’s whip was swinging in his left hand and just once it cracked upon her powerful quarters. She was ahead. Crystal Ocean rallied. The commentary crescendoed and we were not sure until right on the line. She had done it. Not with staggering brilliance but with a sense of purpose that had seen Dettori put his whip down 100 yards out and only pump the reins at her in the certainty of what was beneath.
The whole arena was alight. There was a Cup Final feel as he came back to do his customary flying dismount and for once this most showman of jockeys did not need to add. “I’m exhausted emotionally,” he said. “Wow. She obviously very good but she’s also very brave. I’m lost for words.”
But we should not be because she and her connections need the tributes. John Gosden was winning for the fourth time a race his father won with Aggressor when John was just a boy of nine. Gosden and his team’s handling of their athlete’s mind and muscle will forever stand as a textbook of their trade but we must not let familiarity dim respect for Dettori.
He is 48 now, 32 years on from his opening winner and 24 winners from winning this for the first of now six occasions in 1995 which itself was three years before Roger Federer won Junior Wimbledon. Yet he has not been without his demons nor disasters and only fellow jockey Ray Cochrane saved him after a plane crash. And you could say that only John Gosden saved his career which was in danger of terminal slump after his Godolphin exit, drugs bust and confidence loss in 2012 and 2013.
Yet he’s back in this greatest of Indian Summers adding to us the memory of those two horses stretching so bravely, so willingly to the line as the excitement prickled beneath the scalp. A big brave colt finally being outrun by an even braver mare. It was one of racing’s finest hours.