19 June 2005

Royal Ascot wanted people to travel but this was ridiculous. Cape of Good Hope, the winning horse in yesterday’s big race, had not just pottered up to York from leafy Berkshire, he had flown all the way from Hong Kong after trips to Japan and Australia in between.

His record-time victory in the six-furlong Golden Jubilee Stakes set a glorious seal on what, after a few teething troubles, had become just about the greatest racing Festival ever run. The weather was unkind in the first two days, the rain-skidded ground so slippery that Tuesday became close to abandonment, but the sun lit up the Knavesmire and Yorkshire truly took Royal Ascot to its heart. As the huge and happy crowd gathered for a mass sing song with three triumphant renderings of Land of Hope and Glory at the close of play, you knew that the White Rose County had made this five-day celebration all its own.

Acres of newsprint have been wasted on fashion jibes and much patronising nonsense about events north of Watford as if York had not, with its Ebor Meeting, held one of the great events of the season for well over a century now. In truth, the one worry had always been not the traffic, the hotels, nor the crowds, but how the track would stand up to the hundreds of pounding hooves that five days of racing brings. If the weather is wet the Knavesmire reverts to bog, if hot it bakes out like a road. This week it started slippery and ended hard, chewed, and lightning fast. Come to think of it, a pretty exact metaphor for Cape of Good Hope.

For it was four seasons and some 34 races ago that David Oughton bought what was the then three-year-old Cape of Good Hope from David Elsworth to campaign back in Hong Kong. Oughton had exported himself there in 1987, thereby ending a grafting small trainer’s existence in Sussex to become one of the adornments of the Far East’s showpiece racing colony. He has won all Hong Kong’s major races but Cape of Good Hope caps the lot.

Because, (and was a horse ever better named?) this was a traveller’s triumph. Cape of Good Hope may have won three of his first four starts at Sha Tin but from that day to this he has been winnerless in Southern China not for lack of speed or application but because he breathed the same air as the sprint phenomenon Silent Witness. Ten times he has struggled in the superstar’s wake. By last spring Oughton thought Cape of Good Hope should look further afield. Within 12 months the gelding has twice circled the globe and now has this triumph to crown it all.

Not content with coming over to be placed twice at last year’s Royal Ascot and then running fourth in the July Cup at Newmarket, he has been back to Hong Kong for four more unavailing cracks at Silent Witness interrupted by a good third in Japan, another third followed by a thrilling victory in Australia and then a close fourth in the King’s Stand Stakes here on Tuesday as part of the most aptly titled Global Sprint Challenge. Cape of Good Hope is “tough” with a capital “T” and as the 15 runners cracked out of the stalls yesterday he had to prove it once again.

For to his left the American horse Mighty Beau rocketed out with the early speed for which his compatriots are so rightly renowned, while over to the right the wing-heeled Galeota had his group stretched from the very start. They were clocking 43 mph after a furlong, a full 44 in mid race, the sort of gallop which normally leaves the leaders weakening and vulnerable; not these leaders.

On, on Galeota came with Cape of Good Hope tacking across towards him and only the favourite Balmont closing out of the pursuing pack. With a furlong to run the three-year-old Galeota and young Ryan Moore still just held the advantage but Cape of Good Hope had not crossed the continents, nor Mick Kinane got re-routed from the late withdrawal Somnus, to fail this historic chance. The pace may have dropped below 40 mph but the intensity never flagged. There was only a head in it, but somehow there was always going to be the one result.

“It is a very, very special day,” said an immaculate but clearly moved Oughton afterwards, “I have never had a winner at Royal Ascot and this seems to be the best Royal Ascot of all.” Kinane, already successful four times at the meeting, went on to make it six and be champion jockey at the Festival for a fifth time when he rode Notable Guest to victory in the Duke of Edinburgh Stakes and once again put Sir Michael Stoute top of the trainers’ category.

The Golden Jubilee winning time of 1 min 8.58 secs was a record for York’s six furlongs, although it only just survived the hour when favourite Iffraaj scorched up the same track in 1 min 8.74 secs to run out an impressive winner of the Wokingham Stakes. If that normally so difficult race panned out predictably, the Hardwicke Stakes proved very different when the previously disappointing Bandari hit home decisively from his owner’s better-fancied Maraahel with the hot favourite Doyen trailing in a weary- looking fifth.

Bandari had run no sort of race at Epsom last time and was understandably rejected by Richard Hills in favour of the progressive Maraahel. But he is the sort of colt who is very hard to pass if he gets the lead and settles into a rhythm. He settled here and, hard though Maraahel tried, he was never going to take the leader. Racing is about strength on the day. Long may it remain so.

Doyen looked awesome before and during his triumph in last year’s King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes. But he appeared light behind the saddle in the paddock yesterday and out on the course he ran no sort of race at all. His connections will have to think again about his future. The same need never be said about Royal Ascot at York. They had this one chance and how gloriously they took it.

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