26 May 2002

Feisty manager only wants to talk horses after Rock of Gibraltar lands Irish Classic

Number six was the winner and Sir Alex Ferguson was there to greet him. Number six was Roy Keane’s number in the Irish World Cup squad. But this one was worn by Rock of Gibraltar and it was the Irish 2,000 Guineas that was the trophy.

Football scribes who warm their hands on tales of Ferguson’s irascibility should have seen him playing the diplomat yesterday as he was besieged by reporters and photographers on The Curragh. Sure, it is easy to smile when your horse wins its second Classic but the smile rarely left his face before, or after, the race however many times hacks or racegoers bent the questions round from horse racing to Keane.

Sir Alex seems to have embarked on a one man promotional drive for the therapy of the galloping game and after conducting an opening interview about his regret over the Keane affair, amused himself by bending the questions back to his good fortune in having a horse like Rock of Gibraltar.

“It’s one thing a lad like me from Govan getting to the top in football,” he explained, “but that was my culture, that was my specific ambition. Never in my wildest dreams could I have thought of being a winning owner at Newmarket, Longchamp and The Curragh. He is a wonderful horse, and these are wonderful people.”

Ferguson’s admiration was echoed by Aidan O’Brien even before the race. “He’s such a professional horse,” he said as he and his son, Joseph, hustled over to start the task of saddling more than half of this seven-runner field, “he has got a great mental attitude and has really thrived since the English Guineas.” Trainers before a race can be as notoriously one-eyed as boxing managers before a fight but seeing Rock of Gibraltar pace round the saddling paddock was to watch a racer ready to run.

He is not a huge animal, barely 16 hands, and was fairly dwarfed by his stable companion Century City, whose long back gives him the description of a “family horse” – room for plenty up behind. But Rock of Gibraltar has a firm sense of quality, his light bay neck set well on a sloping shoulder, and while he took the paddock ordeal cool enough, when he came out on to the track with Mick Kinane you could see the adrenalin coursing as he jig-jogged and reached hard upon the steel.

It was curbing that keenness that was most on Kinane’s mind when the gates slammed open on as cold and windy, rain-scudded afternoon as you would ever want to endure in May in County Kildare. He immediately took his partner in behind the others as the Aga Khan’s Ahsanabad and his own pacemaker Nostradamus took the field along.

“He was really very fresh early on,” Ireland’s greatest ever international jockey was to say afterwards. But the key, as with all sport, is to keep your cool. The torrential rains of the last few days had made the going heavy enough to see the first mile and a half race take 2min 46sec to run, a full 20 seconds outside the record. Such conditions can strain the class out of horses, make acceleration difficult. But not for Rock of Gibraltar.

Half-a-mile, three furlongs out, even two furlongs out, Kinane kept his horse calmly under restraint. It was well inside the final quarter-mile that he began to thread his way through.

By now Century City was putting his long back into it and for a dreadful moment it looked as if Rock of Gibraltar might get trapped between him and the tiring Ahsanabad. But Kinane knew what was beneath him.

He gently eased Rock of Gibraltar into the clear and, without even drawing his whip, urged him to stamp his authority. He wore number six but there needed to be no Roy Keane row. As he came past, Rock of Gibraltar was the very model of a determined thoroughbred, finally winning by an easy one and a half lengths from Century City with another O’Brien runner, Della Francesca, running on to be third.

Today, O’Brien sends out five of the 11-strong field for the Irish 1,000 Guineas. Kinane has picked Quarter Moon which should be a tip in itself. But Quarter Moon was behind Alasha in the English 1,000 and it will also be fascinating to see how little Gossamer gets on after looking unlucky that day. Zenda, the French 1,000 Guineas winner, turns out to make it a terrific Classic but I propose we give Gossamer another chance.

It will be a lot more competive than yesterday’s race but we left The Curragh with no sense of anti-climax. We had watched a smashing horse become the first ever runner to pull off the consecutive feat of the Grand Criterium, the Dewhurst, and then the English and Irish 2,000 double. In a week which saw the death of Dick Hern, one of the greatest ever handlers of Classic horses, it was an event to celebrate. It was, let’s say it carefully, a bit more important than the football.

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