SUNDAY TIMES SPORT, 20 October 2019
Billy Connolly is not instantly associated with Ascot but those fainthearts who feared a debacle of a Champions Day when recent downpours produced heavy ground and a 33-1 shock result in the first race should have listened to a wonderful radio interview he gave last week. “I hate pessimists,” said ‘The Big Yin’, “they are a luxury you can’t afford as you have nowhere else to go.”
The doomsayers were duly dismissed with a series of wonderful performances and stirring finishes which fully justified all the efforts to make this day much more sunshine than showers. True the star turn Stradivarius got turned over in the stayers race but future events are likely to show that being beaten by just a nose by last year’s St Leger winner Kew Gardens with the third horse a fully five lengths away was no disgrace in any ground.
In any case only 40 minutes later Frankie was admitting that he had gone from crying to smiling after inching the filly Star Catcher past Delphinia in the British Champion Fillies and Mares. “I am still a bit sour about Stradivarius,” he said, “but the ground is a lot worse than we thought and this filly is lovely. She has won me the Irish Oaks and the Vermeile and now given me my 250th Group 1 winner.”
Delphinia was trained by Aidan O’Brien whose first jockey Ryan Moore had been despatched to Sydney where the stable’s top sprinter Ten Sovereign’s finished plum last in the £7m Everest. Moore’s luckless trip opened the door for Aidan’s hugely tall but similarly talented son Donnacha to step in on Kew Gardens and again mastermind affairs when the super tough Magical kept the battling Addeyb and the rest of the field at bay in the Champion Stakes.
At six foot it had been assumed that Donnacha’s career would need to be cut short just as his older brother Joseph’s was for the same oversize reasons. But if his body and mind can stand the strain there is no doubt that he has both the skill set and the judgment to handle the biggest of occasions. The sideways replay view of a jockey driving a horse in a finish can be a brutal witness but yesterday’s image was of a body clamped tight and compulsive into the horse’s stride as only a fit and classy rider can do.
This was the eighth run and fifth victory of Magical’s season. Three of her defeats have been behind Enable, the most recent just 13 days ago when she was first to attack in that great attrition of a finish in the Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp. “Magical is the most unbelievable mare I have ever seen,” said Aidan O’Brien afterwards before suggesting she will be off to America for the Breeders Cup. “Her mind is incredible. Every morning she wakes up with a total clean sheet. She just takes it on the chin and says ‘what do you want to me to do today’. She is the ultimate racehorse – that is what she is.”
But the final story of the day must go to King Of Change’s decisive victory in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes both for the judgement of his trainer Richard Hannon and for the unpretentious excellence of his jockey Sean Levey.
After King Of Change’s fine second to Magna Carta in the 2000 Guineas, Hannon decided that the last thing this big bay colt needed were tough races on hard ground during the summer and so gave the horse a break until returning with a smooth success at Sandown. King Of Change was 66-1 at Newmarket and only 12-1 yesterday but would have been shorter if we had listened to Hannon beforehand. “I thought he would win or go very close”, said the trainer, “I took myself off to watch because if they don’t win you have that 30 seconds when it’s awful and I was ready for the disappointment. The odd day it doesn’t come, and it will be a shorter winter after a day like that.”
This was the biggest success of 30 year-old Levey’s ninth season at Hannon’s Wiltshire success and with 60 winners and more than £1.8 million, it is already the best season of his career. He previously hit the headlines when winning last year’s 1000 Guineas for Hannon on the filly Billesdon Brook, but the sporting side of that achievement was drowned by concentration on the twin facts that Billesdon Brook’s starting price and the fact that as Sean had an Irish father and a Swazi mother he could be billed as “the first black jockey to win a classic.”
In Swaziland Sean’s father had careers as jockey, trainer and boxing promoter, but the family decamped to Ireland and Sean swapped childhood next to the game park with an apprenticeship with Aidan O’Brien. He doesn’t like to get over complicated either about his riding or his ethnicity. “Back in Swaziland,” he likes to say in his engaging Tipperary tones, “they think I am white.” Billy Connolly would have liked that.