26 September 2004

There are many important parts of a racehorse but nothing counts half as much as the head, especially Rakti’s head. Yet with relative calm between his ears yesterday, the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Ascot was added to the big five-year-old’s already extensive honours board when he outran the game Lucky Story by half a length.

Since powering home on this course at the Royal meeting in June, Rakti has failed in the Eclipse Stakes at Sandown Park and the Irish Champion Stakes at Leopardstown through absolutely refusing to settle once the stalls had opened. Coming down two furlongs to Ascot’s mile trip ensured a faster gallop and a subsequent greater chance for jockey Philip Robinson’s brakes. But for the man closest to Rakti, the key had been turned earlier.

“It’s all in his mind,” said his groom, 45-year-old Bill McGonagle, leading his hero away afterwards. “He was upset at both Sandown and Leopardstown. He was much, much calmer today.” Bill has dealt with many good horses in the three decades since he came down from Glasgow to join Noel Murless at Newmarket, but Rakti is the horse of a lifetime and it shows.

“You would not believe it but he’s a gentle giant at home,” Bill said, washing down the great rangy bay still frisky from his exertions. “It’s just that he gets fired up at the track, lots of athletes do. Today he was ready but he was good.” If we had noticed quite how sensibly Rakti cantered down with Robinson we might have profited from what Bill already knew.

As it was Rakti’s worst moment came before the start when there was a danger of reversion to the mulishness which saw him refuse to load on his first visit to England two seasons ago. Once started he slotted into a perfect position behind the free-running Blatant who was doing Godolphin’s pacemaking duties for Refuse To Bend. On Rakti’s bad days, Robinson’s body is arched backwards like a brake parachute on a space shuttle. Yesterday he was crouched low and comparatively easy. Rakti would have power to spare.

As they came to the turn you could see that he was going to get first run on his rivals. Frankie Dettori was already working hard on Refuse To Bend on the outside while Johnny Murtagh was having a dreadfully uneasy time inside on Soviet Song. Refuse To Bend eventually coursed down to overtake Nayyir and get a respectable third at the line but Soviet Song never got any sort of rhythm and eventually had to settle for sixth.

Soviet Song’s connections felt that this was probably one race too far but the Lucky Story team were delighted at their colt’s gallant effort and Mark Johnston will now aim him for the Champion Stakes at Newmarket in which Rakti was such a revelation last year. The hero himself is more likely to go to Texas for the Breeders’ Cup Mile. “I have never seen the track,” said trainer Michael Jarvis “but while he is big he is very athletic. The key to him is having a fast pace. His mind is like an elastic band and it can snap. But today we saw what he could do.”

As Ascot now goes into 18 months of rebuilding hibernation, looking back is the danger. Even Frankie Dettori’s victory in the first on the aptly named Perfectperformance had commentators harping on the `Magnificent Seven’ of eight years ago. But the truth is that racing must always look forward and this chesnut’s true credentials will be tested again in the Racing Post Trophy next month. He will need at least another victory to be taken seriously as a classic contender.

No such cavils about the filly Playful Act who put a promising field to the sword in the Meon Valley Stud Fillies’ Mile. Maids Causeway and Dash To The Top gave her a fight but Jimmy Fortune was always in charge, while the favourite Echelon never picked up and finished eighth. Playful Act is now favourite for next year’s Oaks and will first go to Newmarket for the 1,000 Guineas. “She has got lots of class and speed as well as stamina,” said Fortune. “I would not be at all worried about Newmarket being too quick for her.”

For  Jimmy himself it is the season that is ending too soon. Sidelined with serious back surgery until late June this was his 53rd winner since the resumption. “I don’t just feel good,” he said, “I feel better than I have for 10 years. There is absolutely no pain.” Next year Fortune could be a championship contender.

There was some drizzle yesterday afternoon and more than a touch of melancholy at saying farewell to what remains the finest paddock in the whole world of racing. But even that is less than a hundred years old. Ascot is wisely investing in the new millennium. The paddock will be repositioned so that no tunnels will be needed for access, just the trees and the memories will remain. Rakti will not be the least of them.

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