In the end it was the finish not the star turn that stirred the blood. Derby winner Golden Horn may have defected for fear of the rain soaked ground, but the duel which climaxed in Postponed finishing a pixel clear of Eagle Top was as thrilling as anything seen up this famous Ascot turf since Grundy nailed Bustino in that epic duel for this race back in 1975.
To add further relish, Golden Horn’s rider Frankie Dettori was switched to Eagle Top and his final, seemingly race-clinching surge was answered in skill and intensity by young Andrea Atzeni who was also a replacement jockey on Postponed. In his case it was because the owner had been dissatisfied with the ride the colt received in his previous race when regular pilot Adam Kirby got into a bumping match with – guess who – Eagle Top and Frankie Dettori. The closing stages were so intense that both jockeys got bans for excessive use of the whip, 4 days for Dettori, 6 for Andrea, but even that could not put a cloud on what is surely a world first; the finish being fought out between two Sardinians, both 44 year old Frankie and 24 Andrea hailing from that Meditteranean Isle.
It was an uplifting sequel to the much deflating announcement of Golden Horn’s non participation earlier in the afternoon. Trainer John Gosden had walked the full mile and a half course and it was hard to argue with his explanation that 35 mm of rain and the 12 inches that his stick went into the yielding turf at Swinley Bottom could give his Derby and Eclipse winner an unnecessarily tough task.
John is not only a master of his craft but is as skilled a communicator as ever tied a saddle to a thoroughbred, but with a final time of 2m 31.25 secs being faster than Danedream on officially “good to soft” three years ago, it was still difficult to escape the truth that the race needed the horse more than the horse needed the race. Golden Horn proved his stamina in the Derby, he is now fresh to pitch for the Juddmonte at York and the Irish Champion Stakes before probably, ground permitting, closing out his career here in October in the QIPCO Champion Stakes before earning squillions a year in the sultan’s life at stud.
But that is just racing’s business side. To deserve its place in the public pantheon it has to deliver when it asks the world to look in and, thank the now sunny heavens, that’s what this running of the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth II Stakes did from the moments the gates wacked open until we were left holding our breath as the judge pored over the photo finish. It was as it ought to be.
With both Flintshire and The Corsican also out because of the officially “soft” going, it was a mere seven strong field but any fears that this might produce a slow gallop were resolved when Gosden’s other runner Romsdal jumped off and led the runners in full stride down towards the turn furthest from us watchers in the stand. At Royal Ascot, it had been Snow Sky who had dominated at a slow pace and induced the bumping match behind him that did for both Eagle Top and Postponed. Now Snow Sky was only an attendant second with Postponed poised to his outside in third and Dettori way back on the inside with only the canny old former hurdler Clever Cookie behind him.
To make a flat race work for the beholder you need the tactics and the task to be clear some way from home and this was exactly what happened as the field swung up round the final furlong with those last three uphill furlongs ahead of him. William Buick, fresh from riding the first two winners on the card and indeed this very race on Nathaniel four years ago, hurled Romsdal forward with everything in his locker. Snow Sky attacked with him but was soon broken on the wheel and it was Postponed and the yellow silks of Atzeni that had the legs of the leader.
But where was Dettori ? The eye scanned back and there was the familiar little figure clamped close behind the mane as Eagle Top began to reel in the leader. At the two furlong pole he was a good three lengths down, at the furlong post he still had well over a length to make up, but there was an inevitability about the momentum as Frankie lifted his chestnut partner to surely chin his rival on the line.
It is 20 years since he rode the first of his four “King George” winners and in this mood, in this remarkable resurgence of his career and his renewed link with trainer John Gosden, he had seemed to have conjured another masterpiece. But it was not to be that simple. In the dying strides Atzeni and Postponed would not be denied and so the story was one of the younger Sardinian having the greatest victory of his brief career and of how a fine horse and, in Luca Cumani, a now senior trainer got a victory they so well deserved.
66 year old Cumani is now in his 40th year as a Newmarket trainer. It has been a remarkable and international career with two Epsom Derbies and major winners around the globe. But, although second three times, he has never won this race and indeed has not won a Group One race in Britain for ten years. Yesterday showed the Italian has not lost his touch and we can all look forward to Postponed and Eagle Top renewing rivalry in the Arc de Triomphe in Paris this October. Come to think of it Luca hasn’t won the Arc either.
In this space 40 years ago I described Grundy’s epic duel with Bustino as “the hardest, most implacable, most moving flat race that I have ever seen.” Postponed v Western Top may not have quite been their equal – but the blood still stirred.