Defeat is always difficult, doubly so when history is for the taking, and even more when it involves racing’s favourite horse and its most famous jockey. Stradivarius and Frankie Dettori failed by only one-and-a-half lengths to win a fourth Gold Cup but it will remain a story of the might-have-beens.
Stradivarius is eight now and his 34-race, 20-victory career has long established him as one of the great stayers of the modern era. Dettori is 52 in December and was already a 25-year-old superstar when he landed his Magnificent Seven on this track in 1996, when he won every race on the card. Since then, despite some spectacular dips, he has soared to global recognition and his return to his early mentor John Gosden has seemed to defy the years.
But Dettori’s inspirational brilliance has also always been tempered by the odd darker moments of the diva. This month has already brought two big-race calamities, stumbling out of the stalls on Oaks favourite Emily Upjohn and losing even more ground at the start of yesterday’s Prince Of Wales’s Stakes when failing to remove the blindfold from previous winner Lord North. He is a hot streak rider. Coming to this Gold Cup, winless so far at the meeting, things were running cold.
The peril with Stradivarius was different. Now a splendidly bullish chestnut stallion “hot streaks” mean something else. When he reached the paddock and hollered his “king of the herd greeting” to the sweltering mass of decked out racegoers, his next career seemed first to mind.
But the horse is a professional and so very much are his handlers. Holding his bridle was young Bradley Bostock, face set for the biggest day of his racing life with the horse he rides of a morning. At Stradivarius’s other side was the seasoned, blue-suited figure of Tony Proctor who we have seen in this “boxer’s second” role with many other Gosden champions, most notably wonder mare Enable.
As Stradivarius hollered, Proctor ran a firm and familiar hand on his neck. The horse got the message, strode purposely round the paddock and as Dettori brought him out in front of the buzzing and expectant stands, horse and jockey had their game face on.
At first Dettori slotted in, as planned, close behind the leaders. But as the race unfolded his position on the inside became compromised as others horses drove up outside and he ran to the bend with five in front and Ryan Moore and the favourite Kyprios boxing him in. As Kyprios set admirably after the leaders, pursued by the eventual second Mojo Star, Dettori had to pull widest of all before setting off in pursuit.
This final Stradivarius Ascot effort was a gallant one. He closed to within a length and a half of the winner but was never going to make it. Dettori disagreed saying, “He had plenty of time to get there and the younger horses had fresher legs.” From the looks exchanged by owner and trainer as he returned and Gosden’s exasperated, “Is there a reason you took him back so far?” it was clear that this opinion was not universally shared.
In all sport, confidence is a crucial and fragile thing. When Dettori is riding high he can be little short of miraculous but right then the mood was down in the sawdust. However, coming up were two heaven-sent chances to leap back up among the clouds. Two horses, both trained by Gosden and both sporting the royal silks, the newly blinkered Saga in the Britannia and then the odds-on Reach For The Moon in the Hampton Court. Saga came from an impossible position to fail by inches and then Reach For The Moon was outgunned comprehensively by the talented Claymore.
No blame could be attached to Dettori but, looking at him circling the start beforehand, the normally positive Sky Sports racing presenter Luke Harvey said that he looked “a broken man”. Give Dettori a winner and the miracles could return but he won’t need many more days like yesterday.