29 July 2007

On the course and off it the key is not to panic. Johnny Murtagh never looked like it as he held on to Dylan Thomas until destroying his opponents in this 57th King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes. Ascot should take note.

All the way until the much-heralded new stand was completed on time and on budget last year, Her Majesty’s own racecourse had built a public esteem almost equal to that of Tony Blair in the early years. Then a combination of disgruntled Royal Enclosure customers last June and squeezed-out regulars this time set a tide of negativity which swelled alarmingly as this year’s King George field lacked both strength in depth and any representatives of the three-year-old generation. Doubters should have watched Murtagh and Dylan Thomas.

A small field was never going to trap the Ballydoyle team into a false-paced tactical affair and as the gates opened Dylan Thomas’ stable companion Scorpion jumped off into what was at first a tentative and then a gathering gallop. Scorpion is some pacemaker being himself the winner of the St Leger and the Grand Prix de Paris, and being able to deploy such talent is a huge and well-used asset.

As Kinane stoked Scorpion up to beat off Prince Flori and Maraahel around the final turn, Murtagh could cruise Dylan Thomas up from the back to keep Dettori locked away on Laverock. Swinging in Murtagh had a lot of horse beneath him. The panic option is to loose him at the lead and hope you can last home. Murtagh has been in the big-time too long. His fingers tightened on the reins and Dylan Thomas took the chance to fill both his lungs and resolution.

There had been concern as to his attitudes in his two defeats this season, no matter that they came from the Eclipse winner Notnowcato and the German-bred star Manduro, now officially rated as the world’s best active racehorse. But as Maraahel took over from a weakening Prince Flori at the two-furlong marker, Murtagh gathered the big horse beneath him and with 300 yards to run fairly launched him at the winning line. Dylan Thomas is tall and long, and in full stride he is more of an awesome rather than beautiful sight. He was awesome now.

For a moment behind him Richard Hughes looked to have a real challenge to deliver on Youmzain but Dylan Thomas’ raking stride kept devouring the ground and gallantly though Youmzain kept on, he was four lengths behind at the post with another three and a half back to Maraahel.

Murtagh had not sat on Dylan Thomas since finishing a close third in last year’s Derby at Epsom. “He is a lot more experienced now,” the jockey said afterwards, “he is a great mover and as I could see I had them covered round the turn, I took a good hold of him and I could feel himself really fill up with air. When I asked him he really took off. He has to be a contender in all the big races.”

Like Murtagh, trainer Aidan O’Brien was winning the King George for the second time and can now consider all the top options for his colt including a return match in the Arc de Triomphe with Manduro, his conqueror at Royal Ascot. Time was when the Ballydoyle stable were famous for winning these big races with three-year-olds and then rushing them off to stud. Now O’Brien is in the extraordinary position of being able to leave his Irish Derby winner Soldier of Fortune back in his box in Tipperary while surveying the racing scene from the top of the trainers’ table in both Britain and Ireland.

This dominance is partly thanks to the current underperformance of the great Godolphin operation whose high standards demand a better horse than Laverock to carry those famous royal blue silks on this great occasion. Much angst and effort is being spent in trying to get their ship back under full steam and the performances of their two stars Ramonti and Rio de la Plata at Goodwood will be more than especially awaited.

Meanwhile Ascot should take as big a breath as Dylan Thomas did on the final turn. Their feature race may have lost its sponsor and some 5,000 of a hoped-for 30,000 crowd, but it was won in brilliant sunshine by the third best horse in the universe in one of the most remarkable temples ever built to celebrate the game. Of course racegoers have not quite found their way round many plusses and assorted weaknesses but to start hankering back to the old slab of concrete and the infamous tunnel is to wish our way back to the age of steam.

Ascot, like racing as a whole, have to accentuate the positive. This remains a great place and the King George its greatest race. There’s nothing that bright, tough, intelligent, informed marketing cannot fix. Be a Dylan, not a Doubting Thomas.

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