MURTAGH KNOWS THE WAY WITH HENRYTHENAVIGATOR

4 May 2008

Racing may not be an exact science but the photofinish is. At the end of a magnificent sustained duel at Newmarket between two horses and jockeys straining every sinew, the machine showed that Henrythenavigator had inched out hot favourite New Approach so narrowly that the Irish colt became the first horse in all 200 runnings of the 2,000 Guineas to have scored by a verdict described as a ‘nose’.

That distance only became an official margin this season but what happened when Johnny Murtagh launched Henrythenavigator in pursuit of Kevin Manning on the front-running New Approach has been the very essence of racing’s attraction since old Charles II first had his merry way four long centuries ago. New Approach was prepared to jump off in front and dare any to have the strength, speed and courage to take it away. Only Henrythenavigator could – and only just.

When a hot favourite gets beaten the holes in the pockets immediately start the search for excuses but this was a case where defeat was nothing to do with failure. Beforehand, New Approach showed not a trace of his much-trumpeted quirkiness, standing like a sentry while he was saddled and trotting down like a drum horse, albeit one attached to his lead pony. In the race he ran straight and true up the rail and battled back so well when headed that the only controversial part of the finish is that both jockeys got suspensions for excessive use of the whip.

But just one name goes in the history books and huge credit must go to Murtagh, who quite surpassed himself in this his first Classic victory as retained rider for the mighty Aidan O’Brien stable. It’s one thing to be told, as Murtagh was, to drop your horse in and challenge late; quite another to time things so that you reach your opponent early enough to take him but not so soon that he has a chance of fighting back.

The timing is not merely a matter of pressing an accelerator. New Approach had got this field so on the stretch and Murtagh was having to grab and squeeze his partner into almost optimum effort as he closed down the leader. Already the others were struggling only for place money, Raven’s Pass’s stamina giving way to allow the 100-1 shot Stubbs Art to take third. But Murtagh was trying for the top. He got Henrythenavigator to New Approach’s quarters – now it was going to be tough.

The thoroughbred racehorse is a genetically programmed running machine but it does not know where the winning line is. Murtagh does. His driving momentum brought his colt through to go a whole neck up on his rival. As New Approach responded and the post flashed by Murtagh realised that he had only just timed it right.

O’Brien and Murtagh had won the 2,000 Guineas before with Rock of Gibraltar in 2002 but that was not in retained harness and the trainer was lavish in his praise for his jockey yesterday.

“It was a masterful ride,” Aidan O’Brien said. “He was very confident and super strong. Henrythenavigator has always been an exceptional work horse and the times he got beat last year, it was real winter ground. He will now aim for the Irish 2,000 Guineas.”

That should be a fine return match with New Approach and one only hopes that the watching Kieren Fallon can take that name as his watchword. For Murtagh too has been pursued by demons but has conquered them by the oldest, simplest if hardest method of them all. Unremitting application.

The big disappointment of the race was the Godolphin runner, Ibn Khaldun, who weakened very quickly to finish 10th. It’s a good job that Sheikh Mohammed is such a generous loser, for yesterday’s success of his great Coolmore rivals was at the expense of the horse he bought for his wife Princess Haya, who was 34 yesterday. The celebrations might have been a trifle muted.

Today sees the Godolphin team field Laureldean Gayle in the 1,000 Guineas with only a middling chance and what has become a slightly familiar tale of woe will spread around the paddocks to be silenced later in the season. Sheikh Mohammed will just hope that he won’t be greeted by the cheery well-wisher who yesterday tried to dull the frustration felt by John Dunlop at the news that his filly, Muthabara, has an infected foot and will only run if fully recovered.

“Don’t worry,” the genial wag said, “it’s all character forming.” Dunlop is a famously patient man, but not that patient. “Look,” he said, “I have been 68 years on this planet. It’s a little bit late to start forming my character now.”

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