Royal Ascot: Showman Stradivarius plays tune to treasure for the ages

The Times, Friday 19 June

It is a scene already seared into the memory. After all the doubts, Stradivarius is asked to dig deep into the rain-soaked Ascot turf and his answer catches your breath in wonder. 

Not one length, not two, but six, seven, eight, nine, and finally ten long lengths clear as he passes the post with his Gold Cup rivals struggling home like routed cavalry.  Napoleon was ruling Europe in 1807 when Ascot’s most famous race was first run but in the two full centuries since, no horse has ever taken it apart as Stradivarius did under Frankie Dettori yesterday. 

The doubts intensified the emotion. The rain had produced the most testing turf that the sturdy little chestnut had encountered since he began with a hopeful fifth in a little event at Nottingham in October 2016. True, the ground had been officially soft when he had been a mere length winner of this race last year, but this surface seemed to be of a quite different order. “If he was Muhammed Ali,” John Gosden said in the morning, “it would be ‘rope-a-dope’ not ‘float like a butterfly.’” John loves his sporting metaphors, but if ‘rope a dope’hardly described it, what Stradivarius meted out was just as brutal as anything Ali ever did to Foreman. 

Concerns about the holding ground were compounded by the six-year old’s very apparent enthusiasm in the preliminaries. No matter that his seven rivals were all colts or geldings, at the sight of any of them Stradivarius immediately hollered a greeting and displayed his manliness in anticipation of his future role in the breeding shed. Five seasons, 20 races and two Ascot Gold Cups into his stellar career, was he still prepared to buckle down on the track?

Top horses on the flat have such fleeting careers that they rarely engage the affection of the public in the way that Red Rum, Desert Orchid or now Tiger Roll have done over jumps. But Stradivarius was winning The Queens Vase at Royal Ascot quickly followed by the Goodwood Cup ack in 2017, so this is his fourth year in the public consciousness. Desert Orchid was only five years in the spotlight when he faced his great moment of rain-soaked doubt before that Cheltenham Gold Cup of 1989. As Dettori cantered a now concentrating Stradivarius to the Ascot start you wondered if he would need to dig as deep as ‘Dessie’ did. 

It is great when you get to know their characters. Desert Orchid was the hardest of warriors and would chase you out of the box if he felt like it. Stradivarius is the cocky little showman not entirely dissimilar to the black-haired gentleman perched above his flaxen mane. But a showman who delivers. Time after time he has pulled a seemingly difficult situation out of the fire. This could be one time too much.

It takes four and a half minutes to gallop the two and a half miles of the Gold Cup distance  –  plenty long enough for fevered worries to grow. Nayef Road bowled off in front accompanied by Withold who had won both the Northumberland Plate and The Cesarewitch from the front. Steady 14 second furlongs dropped to 12 as the field tanked down the hill, and on the long climb back towards the straight the eye scanned for trouble. 

Stradivarius looked cosy enough some five lengths off the leaders but behind him it was the much-touted Technician whose jockey was already pumping in distress. Coming to the turn Nayef Road was still strong but as Dettori stalked him he twice looked round to be sure that the grey Technician was the spent force he seemed. So that just left what is usually the hard bit but now suddenly looked impossibly, deceptively easy.

Nayef Road was driving, Withold was weakening, Cross Counter was attacking along the inner, but at the two-furlong pole, Stradivarius appeared outside them with Dettori’s hands still tight on the reins. “I had everybody covered by the four,” said the jockey,“but was surprised that I didn’t have anyone to challenge me. It is always a scary moment when you get to the furlong marker whether you will pick up or not, but he did and stretched away.”

Away and away. For a second it looked as if Nayef Road might have something more as Mark Johnston’s so often do, but then his neck angled out with weariness and he, like the rest of the pack, was a beaten horse hardly able to sustain a gallop as Stradivarius sprinted into history. Dettori has now won eight Gold Cups and says he will remember this one in his rocking chair but Gosden’s appreciation was even finer.

“We are very proud to have won the race three times and it is great for the owner-breeder Bjorn Nielsen”, he said of the man who currently owns Derby favourite English King.  “He is passionate about his breeding and broodmares. He has been trying to breed a Derby winner, but he has got a very good Gold Cup horse. For him, it is profoundly fulfilling for him as much as it is for us – it is a pity he can’t be here today. We have been on the phone quite a lot before the race and already talked after the race.”
“Stradivarius is quite a character,” the trainer added. “I must change my aftershave, as he got quite coltish whilst I was saddling him. I must have overdone the aftershave or something. He is quite a noisy character and he was having a shout and play out there – he does think life is a bit of fun and when you win races like this, I suppose it is.”

The racing season started late but Stradivarius has already played us the finest of tunes. Best of all there is fun with him up ahead all the way to a possible tilt at stablemate Enable in the Arc. Next season he may be enjoying his fun in other areas, but for now he has given us that simplest and loveliest of things – a moment of memory that will keep for the ages.

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