24 December 2006

Our sports writing team select the pictures that they believe tell the true story of their sport this year and justify their selections…


Much more than a horse race: as the camera shutter closed on Ouija Board and Frankie Dettori inching out Alexander Goldrun and Kevin Manning in Goodwood’s Nassau Stakes last August it caught more than the finish of the season. It encapsulated the whole history of both a sport and a species.

For the thoroughbred is the finest purpose-bred athlete on the planet. It is the fastest weight-carrying creature the world has ever seen. It remains England’s greatest gift to the animal kingdom and that gift comes courtesy of the equine breeding diversions of an aristocracy symbolised by the ancestors of the 19th Earl of Derby for whom Ouija Board carried that famous black jacket, white cap, silks at Goodwood. Phew – quite a catalogue for one camera to catch.

But the beauty is in the pure, raw, simplicity of it all. The whole of a racehorse’s genes and training are distilled into the moment when they are at ultimate stretch; the totality of a jockey’s being is flung into the final stride as the winning post flashes by. This is at its most dramatic when you don’t just get a head-to-head duel but you have it between great players in a great arena. Nothing in 2006 came greater than those last two pulsating furlongs at Goodwood in the summer.

That day Ouija Board and the Irish trained Alexander Goldrun were both five years old and already among the most successful and most travelled mares in racing history. They had won 10 Group One races and almost £5 million in prize money. Across the world Alexander Goldrun had run in six different countries, Ouija Board in seven. Kevin Manning had ridden his filly in every one of her 29 outings, Dettori was aboard “Ouija” for only the fourth time. But those are just statistics that stitch the story tighter. Three hundred yards to run and this had become one centaur against another.

Dettori had moved first, putting his mare past the pacemaker and on to the far rails with nearly three furlongs of the mile and a quarter trip left to run. Manning had settled Alexander Goldrun in last place but once he pulled her out in the straight he could feel awesome power at the end of the rein. As he swept up to Ouija Board he knew only a supercharged effort could beat him.

And that is what happened. As Alexander Goldrun powered up beside Ouija Board, Lord Derby’s mare surged with her rival in a stream of adrenalin which left the others toiling. For 300 yards the two mares raced locked together, the jockeys getting everything from every thrusting stride. First Alexander Goldrun seemed the stronger, then Ouija Board then Alexander Goldrun again.

Manning had his whip in his right hand, Dettori in his left, but with a mere five strides to go the Italian put the left hand back on the rein and clamped himself down into the mare to try and flatten her low into the line. All his life, maybe part of his trapeze-artist mother’s life, went into that extraordinary double- jointed movement, his toe, knee, thigh, torso and arms blended into the efforts of the horse beneath.

When her number was called, people said the cheers could be heard across the oceans. I was with Jamie Spencer, another Ouija Board jockey, on a charity trip in an Aids-riddled shanty town in Zambia. “Frankie’s won the Nassau in a photo,” he said looking down at his mobile. We wondered how close it was. This picture told the story. That is what an image should do.

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