16 September 2007

Belief was the best thing. Belief in the horse, belief in himself, and as Jimmy Fortune rode St Leger winner Lucarno back to a sell-out crowd at rebuilt and rejuvenated Doncaster, belief in racing itself.

The 35-year-old Fortune has had his share of setbacks since he was champion apprentice back in 1990, and four seasons ago his whole career was at risk from a back complaint demanding major surgery. But his own belief and the support of Lucarno’s trainer John Gosden has re-established him as a rider to be trusted. Some had their doubts as to whether Lucarno’s stamina would last out the mile and three quarter St Leger journey. Fortune would not heed them – and it showed.

With favourite Honolulu having three other Aidan O’Brien stablemates to aid him this was always going to be a stamina- sapping test even if pacesetter Mahler had to endure a debilitating chest thump when the starting gate failed to open at the first time of asking. Mick Kinane soon had Mahler up in front while Fortune dropped Lucarno in five places back to await events.

When the St Leger field swings into the long Doncaster straight there is still a pitiless half mile to run before the final battle is joined amid one of the lustiest roars in racing. Mahler won over two miles at Royal Ascot and he had every intention of making it hurt. One after the other the pumping of rival jockeys’ elbows began to show the strain. With a quarter-mile left even Johnny Murtagh was having to stoke on Honolulu. Only Fortune had more horse in his hand.

For all his victories, and his status as leading rider at this year’s Royal Ascot, Fortune had never won an English Classic and now he faced the eternal dilemma; go too soon and feel sap drain out of you, wait too long and find the opportunity suddenly wasted. At this historic moment in his riding life he was clinical in his execution. At the furlong pole he launched Lucarno a length and a half past Mahler. The leader hung on to claw a little back at the line where Honolulu had battled through to be third. But it had been the winning move.

“Even if there are stamina doubts,” Fortune said afterwards, “you have got to ride them as if you believe they are going to stay. This horse has a lot of courage as well as class and when I asked him he was never going to let me down. It has been a long time and when the back was bad it was very difficult,” he added about a career which began in his native Ireland some 20 years ago, “but I am now pain free and this makes everything worthwhile.”

The St Leger had also been a career-defining moment for Gosden when Shantou gave him his first English Classic success in 1996. Back then there were still some who had doubts whether the former Cambridge Athletics blue was quite as good as he had always looked and sounded since he switched to Britain from the top rank in the United States. Those doubts had long shrivelled in the memory as he paid tribute to the colt who did not run until this April but was now making his seventh race since.

“He showed talent last year but I wanted to save him,” said Gosden. “He’s done nothing but improve all season and we will now put him away and bring him back for the top mile and a half races like the Coronation Cup and the King George. But I am a big supporter of the St Leger and think it is very important not to lose the whole dimension of races like this for the breeding industry. Everyone is obsessed with precocity but we don’t want to go down that route over here.”

Gosden also paid tribute to the tall, lean, tanned figure of owner/breeder George Strawbridge beside him. “I may have had my doubts about the race but George just said ‘we’re running – that’s it’.” Strawbridge may have been born as heir to some of the Campbell’s Soup millions but has been a doer all his life. Not many people in the teeming Doncaster thousands had ridden steeplechasing in America and certainly not one of them would have doubled that with a degree at Trinity Cambridge and a PhD in Latin American History at the University of Pennsylvania.

But yesterday 69-year-old Strawbridge was bathing in the sunshine of racing history at Doncaster and the part played by what was a plain yearling among his other bloodstock at the Derry Meeting Farm back home in Unionville, Pennsylvania. George has had some great moments on and off the turf. He rode four winners of the coveted Iroqouis Steeplechase, his white silks with the green hoop were carried by European champion Selkirk and Breeders’ Cup hero Tikkanen. Yet something in his smile suggested that nothing had felt better than when Lucarno took the Leger and belief won through.

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