22 June 2008

Legends were made and legends looked on. Aidan O’Brien and Johnny Murtagh took their partnership to new heights, the Queen had her first two-year-old winner at the Royal meeting since 1957, former point-to-pointer John Best saddled Kingsgate Native to win the Golden Jubilee at 33-1 and looking on was Edwin Moses, the greatest 400 metre hurdler in history. He liked what he saw.

There can be no greater compliment to O’Brien and Murtagh’s achievement this week than to say that they are beginning to evoke the cool invincibility once associated with Moses, the still lean, tall, dark-glassed figure under the top hat yesterday. A furlong out in the Hardwicke Stakes, Murtagh and Macarthur were still a length down on the still strong-galloping leader, Multidimensional. They could not win but somehow you knew they would.

That’s the way it is with champions. They have fashioned their mind and muscles to a pitch where winning is the only true fulfilment. The separate elements that brought Henrythenavigator, Hardasun, Duke of Marmalade, Yeats, Macarthur and finally Honolulu through this week suggest the Ballydoyle team really are upping their game in the way Moses did two decades ago.

Henrythenavigator was this year’s dual Guineas winner cutting down his field. Hardasun was a hardened Australian champion being reconditioned for Ascot’s straight mile. Duke of Marmalade is on a ruthless roll as a class middle-distance horse showing the benefits of maturity. Yeats was a seven-year-old colossus breaking the hearts of the opposition in a third Ascot Gold Cup. Macarthur was the talented four-year-old finally stepping out of the shadow of his Derby-winning brother Motivator. Honolulu was an able horse whose mind needed making up for him. Six very different horses, six very separate riding and training challenges and Macarthur’s not the least of them.

Macarthur does not possess any antelope-heeled acceleration or even superhorse power. But he has been trained to run. Afterwards O’Brien did his usual extra-polite tributes to all concerned without ever quite concealing the hawk-eyed energy and alertness which are the essence of his genius. Murtagh was a touch more direct. “You can see how I am really enjoying my job,” he said, clear-eyed and steady-faced compared to the tortured look of some earlier times. “I am riding some wonderful horses, working with brilliant people and I am very grateful for it.”

There was a shine about Murtagh and O’Brien this week. There always is about those who crack the Ascot challenge and the warmest cheer of all was reserved for someone who first scored when Choir Boy wore the Royal scarlet and purple colours in the Hunt Cup in the Coronation Year of 1953. Yesterday, the Queen’s home-bred colt Free Agent had swept from last to first to win the opening Chesham Stakes and his owner now stood in the winner’s circle with a beam to her face that only a stone heart would not share.

When Pall Mall was the last two-year-old to win at Royal Ascot for her back in 1957, Her Majesty was to end the season as leading owner for the second time in four years. With only four victories so far this season there is no chance of that now, but Free Agent is the symbol of a resurgence in the Royal fortunes which could even extend to the by-no-means impossible thought of next year’s Derby. He has talent, he has the staying genes in his pedigree and he would have the will of a whole nation behind him. This owner, above all, deserves to dream.

John Mayne, owner of 33-1 Golden Jubilee winner Kingsgate Native, hopes he will never wake up. The horse which trainer John Best bought for only 20,000 gns has already won more than £400,000 in his six races to date and the sustained power with which he outran War Artist, Sir Gerry and the Australian hero Takeover Target suggests the story is far from over. He was mature enough as a two-year-old to repay connections’ enterprise by beating his elders in the Nunthorpe. He is now together enough to show that yesterday was no fluke and that his starting price was almost an insult to his trainer.

For out on the North Downs near Maidstone, John Best has been developing a very singular training system, which in 2006 saw the diminutive Rising Cross run second in the Oaks and only on Tuesday saw the two-year-old Flashmans Papers come winging home at Royal Ascot at 100-1.

“We do our own thing,” he said in elation afterwards. “Look after them well, take a lot of trouble and keep aiming for the heights.” Edwin Moses could not have said it better.

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