The Times, 19th June 2021
In sport, action is better than talk. Oisin Murphy, the champion jockey, is the sweetest talker in the game but even he could not bend the truth that his ride Dragon Symbol had hampered Frankie Dettori and the American flyer Campanelle enough to have the photo-finish result reversed in the stewards room. A race later, Murphy and Alcohol Free were all action as they took the Coronation Stakes and a later winner made him top of the Ascot table.
Putting reverses behind you is essential to a champion and Murphy kept his cool as the fiery filly fought him in the early stages, and then his natural balance and silky hands got Alcohol Free to settle and conserve her energy as the German challenger Novemba led the field towards the turn. German horses are renowned for handling the tough conditions that torrential rain had produced yesterday and she soon had most of her rivals in trouble.
Dettori was the first to attack on Pretty Gorgeous but as Novemba saw them off you could see Murphy pulling a set of goggles down and asking Alcohol Free to get serious. The bay took a few strides to find a winning gear and in those moments we remembered our doubts about her staying a full mile, especially in these conditions. Then the hooves really engaged the Ascot turf and Novemba was swept aside to flag back into fourth as Snow Lantern and Mother Earth took second and third.
The mauve and light blue silks of the owner Jeff Smith were winning at Royal Ascot for the tenth time since the brilliant Chief Singer won the St James’s Palace in 1984, when Smith’s snow-white locks were bushy black. He is the most understated of men but the Rolls-Royce brain with which he has made such a success in business has brought huge benefit to racing, be it in administration, charity or owning horses in which he has had contrasting champions such as the super sprinter Lochsong and the favourite stayer Persian Punch. His smile as he left the podium was one of “ye of little faith”.
Lochsong was a quite brilliant winner of the King’s Stand here in 1994 but Persian Punch’s heart-stirring career ended in tragedy on this course ten years later. No surprise then when there was sadness among Smith’s smile afterwards.
“Yes, it’s very emotional,” he said. “With this filly we felt very unlucky when she was fifth in the 1000 Guineas and trained her especially for this race. What a delivery. The plan was executed to perfection.”
Few can doubt the trainer Andrew Balding at the moment. Alcohol Free was his third winner of the meeting, which had started with Berkshire Shadow winning the Coventry Stakes on the opening day under Murphy and was continued with the impressive Sandrine in yesterday’s Albany Stakes ridden by David Probert.
Sometimes Murphy can almost irritate with his effusiveness but any sport, let alone one as often disparaged as racing, would be touched by the tributes to the horse and people who had helped put his earlier setback behind him.
“Alcohol Free is not easy, she’s a real pain,” he said of the filly who had unceremoniously unseated him as he rode back in triumph before being caught by her beaming groom Cassia Cooper. “Cassia is brilliant with her in the mornings. She can rear up without warning, rush off as you turn in but she’s so talented. Andrew has had three winners at Royal Ascot, it is brilliant for him and for all the team at Kingsclere. I am glad I was able to steer her.”
Steering had been the problem in the Commonwealth Cup 40 minutes earlier when Murphy had brought Dragon Symbol up to tackle Campanelle, who had won the Queen Mary at last year’s Royal Ascot but had not been seen since failing to stay the mile at the Breeders’ Cup in November. At six furlongs, Campanelle and Dettori seemed to have another victory in hand until Dragon Symbol came to take them.
There is no doubt that, as Murphy so eloquently insisted, it looked as if the colt had the measure of the filly but it is equally true that Murphy’s mount then carried Campanelle almost halfway across the course before beating her by a head. Dettori did not need to have spent years in legal chambers to make the case that his filly’s chance had been seriously compromised. The only angst is that this took the stewards ten minutes to reach the conclusion.
The reasons for the delay come from an admirable, if at times aggravating, search for fairness which at times smacks of overreaction to the bad old days when results would be changed with little explanation. Now there are not just endless replays but both jockeys putting their case in full courtroom drama. It is not a courtroom decision, it is a field of play.
At Hollywood Park in 1984 there was a contentious finish to the first Breeders’ Cup Classic. The two jockeys were summoned to a microphone beside the track. Both were asked to give one brief statement, then the stewards looked at the film. In half the time of yesterday, the result was through.
You can spend too long at the talk.