It rarely gets better than this week’s feast at York

THE TIMES, 16 August 2021


Somehow the spectacle continues to match the setting. Who would have thought that a diversion which started 290 years ago — as much to provide post-hanging amusement for the mob as a flat field for the aristocracy to race their horses — should continue better and more civilised than ever? York’s four-day Ebor meeting opens on Wednesday with, in the Juddmonte International Stakes, what should be just about the best race run anywhere this year.

That may read like a PR blurb but the words stand up to inspection. The seven horses still engaged for the International have won a handful of classics between them and Mishriff’s astonishing successes in the Middle East this spring mean that he has earned more than £10 million for his not-entirely-impoverished owner, Prince Faisal.

At the track, the great sweeping width of the Knavesmire, just south of the ancient Roman city with the majestic Minster a looming presence, provides the fairest of turf courses and a certain northern earthiness stops the pomposity that comes when racing takes itself too seriously.

Mind you, things will be deadly serious when the gates swing open for the International. Aidan O’Brien’s Love is expected to return to the frontrunning style so successful at Royal Ascot, which should set a decent enough pace to allow the brilliantly fast but hard-pulling Alcohol Free to settle enough to conserve her doubtful stamina.

The race will take little over two minutes but the very fact of its brevity makes the distillation every bit as strong as sporting events that last for 90 minutes or, glory be, the full five days of a Test match.

Love, at her best, will stretch any rival. Alcohol Free’s competitiveness puts her in the picture if she lasts the extra quarter-mile of this ten-furlong test. So, too, does Mohaafeth’s fast-improving profile before an unlucky run last time, and if Alenquer were to score we would remember his Sandown defeat of the Derby winner Adayar in April rather than his clear defeat at Longchamp last month.

It says plenty that this year’s Irish Guineas winners, Mac Swiney and Joan Of Arc, are 16-1 and 25-1 shots respectively, and there is no doubt that the 7lb weight-for-age allowance always puts pressure on the older horses. Nonetheless I am banking on Mishriff.

Sure, St Mark’s Basilica appeared to beat him pointless at Sandown and Adayar had too many guns in the King George, but neither defeat should condemn him. The Eclipse at Sandown was his first race in three months. He was fresh, there was a small field, no pace, he pulled hard and ended in the lead as a sitting duck for the new Irish star. As for Ascot, it was a mile and a half and he looked a real threat at his best distance, a mile and a quarter, to which he returns on Wednesday.

There we have it, all that talk about one race and there are 27 more to be run across the Knavesmire this week. Thursday’s Yorkshire Oaks features Snowfall, whose English and Irish Oaks victories suggest that she may well end the season a match for anything.

Friday’s Lonsdale Cup has Frankie Dettori trying to get one last waltz out of Stradivarius, against their Goodwood Cup nemeses, Hollie Doyle and Trueshan. Two races later and a full 11 furlongs shorter, Dettori and the American rocket Golden Pal will sprint against France’s flying Suesa and Yorkshire’s pride, Winter Power, in the Nunthorpe Stakes.

All that and we haven’t even mentioned the 25-runner handicap challenge of the Ebor itself, which closes the show on Saturday and in which Fujaira Prince could well repeat last year’s win. The thoroughbred is certainly worth a shot at 16-1.

It was in 1839 that Dick Turpin took his last jump on the Knavesmire and, given that there has not been a hanging there for 210 years, I trust false predictions will be forgiven. For this has long been a friendly and inclusive place. Witness the memory of the firm hand that was on my shoulder as I scuttled to the paddock for TV a couple of decades ago. Without fanfare the Queen was proceeding in the same direction. York remains a royal pursuit but here all racegoers are made to feel it’s their own.

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