5 May 2002

Team tactics spot-on as Manchester United’s manager wins some silverware in the 2,000 Guineas

On the racetrack Sir Alex Ferguson has got a title and it has got nothing to do with Manchester United. He is the guy with the red and white colours who part-owns the 2,000 Guineas winner Rock of Gibraltar. Who wants to go to see two other teams in the FA Cup final when you can lead in your first Classic hero at Newmarket?

It is only four years since the red silks with the white stars were first seen on this racetrack, carried, successfully of course, by a little two-year-old called Queensland Star, named after a vessel Ferguson’s father helped to build in the Clyde shipyards.

No entry into ownership has paid such quick dividends for the whole racing game and it is supremely appropriate that the perfectly named Rock of Gibraltar should embody just those qualities of courage and excellence which Ferguson instils into the teams he sends out.

The handsome light bay colt, trained at Ballydoyle by Aidan O’Brien, has now won six of his eight races. He was second once and in his only other run was completely boxed in at last year’s Royal Ascot meeting, which was eye-catching enough for Ferguson to take a share in ownership. In contrast to some two-year-olds who spend their first season in the gentlest of rehearsals, Rock of Gibraltar was campaigned in racing’s premier league, winning both the Gimcrack and the Dewhurst in England, the Grand Criterium in France and the Railway Stakes in his native Ireland beating yesterday’s runner-up, his stable companion Hawk Wing.

But most important of all, to continue (and finish) the football metaphors, Rock of Gibraltar benefited from a late tactical change of plan as important as any Manchester United team-talk. For when the draw was published on Thursday, Rock of Gibraltar’s allocation of 22 of 22 – the wide outside – seemed to be a definite disadvantage, while Hawk Wing’s number 10 stall appeared perfect.

Yet as the thunder showers stayed away and the winds dried the ground, the turf on the far side of the track, which had been used a fortnight ago at the Craven Meeting, baked out much quicker than the lush, as yet unused grass on the near-side rails. Walking it yesterday morning the difference was obvious, a deep carpet on the rail, an open, harder, faster, albeit slightly chewed surface on the far side. But it took the Handicap, the sprint run 40 minutes before the Guineas, to ram it home. The heavily-backed winner, Marsad, ran hard and straight up the far rail.

“After I had seen that,” said Rock of Gibraltar’s rider Johnny Murtagh, “I was sure that we had to go across, and I talked to Aidan about it.” For Ferguson, you note, there is the luxury of being responsibility free. He loves to experience the pressures his trainer and jockey have to take, but it is not his job to shoulder it. But, as with football, changing shape means switching focus. For Jamie Spencer on Hawk Wing, backed right down to 6-4 favourite, what had seemed to be a perfect stall now became a coffin box.

For this quickly became not one race but two. Rock of Gibraltar’s group, led by Redback, Twilight Blues and Parasol drifting across to the far rails; Hawk Wing’s headed by Naheef, King of Happiness and Ho Choi coming up the deeper carpet on the stands’ rail. In the 21st century this “two races in one” ought to be addressed. It is noble to try to give horses so much space to run but in truth they need little more than the width of the stalls at the start. If they had, Hawk Wing would have won.

But he did not. Three furlongs out Jamie Spencer’s dark blue silks could be seen ominously still on Hawk Wing, his massive, long-striding partner. On the far rails Murtagh was already looking purposeful on Rock of Gibraltar but lateral calculations would show that his group already had the advantage. By the time Spencer launched Hawk Wing past his near-side rivals, the difference was all too obvious. Hawk Wing had his close rivals beaten pointless, the trouble was that other race on the other side.

I was standing on the far side by the furlong pole. As Hawk Wing hit the front he momentarily faltered as he faced the uphill finish and got hit by the roar of the crowd. Close to us, Murtagh urged Rock of Gibraltar forward. On Hawk Wing, Spencer angled over, trying to eat up his stablemate’s advantage. Hawk Wing responded in a way that now sees him as 3-1 Derby favourite. But there is only one winning post and Rock of Gibraltar got there first. By a neck, a very expensive neck.

The rest of the season will put this form into perspective, will tell us if Hawk Wing is the champion he looks. But yesterday at least one thing was set in stone. A 60-year-old from Glasgow has long since made himself a football legend, but from the smile on Sir Alex Ferguson’s face you have to guess that his entry into racing folklore has given a pleasure almost as sweet. And with not a tea cup thrown.

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