Stradivarius falls short in bid for historic fourth Ascot Gold Cup

The Times, 17th June 2021

Traffic in-running hampered Frankie Dettori’s mount as Subjectivist went on to win the famous race

The king is not dead but the young pretender has grabbed the crown and will take a lot of dethroning. Subjectivist took this Gold Cup field apart by kicking clear round the final turn, and although Stradivarius threaded his way through heavy traffic there was a touch of world weariness as he got no closer than fourth.

When a great horse is taken down and an odds-on favourite is beaten, the concentration focuses too soon on fading powers or jockey error.

True, Frankie Dettori found himself almost impossibly trapped back on the inside and Stradivarius had seemed uncharacteristically quiet beforehand, but let’s give credit to the winner and to the evergreen Joe Fanning, who will turn 51 in September, three months before his superstar rival.

Subjectivist won by five clear lengths from the grey Irish mare Princess Zoe, with Spanish Mission half a length away in third and Stradivarius almost two more lengths adrift.

Even with the sweetest of runs it is hard to believe that Stradivarius could ever have pegged back the latest equine hero developed up Middleham Moor by the restless Scottish record-breaker that is Mark Johnston.

Subjectivist’s climb to this peak should not be a surprise, but the route has not been a soft or always smooth one. This is his 17th race in only his third season. He ran seven times as a two-year-old, eight last year, climaxing in glorious but mud-soaked victory in the French St Leger.

But there have also been some dud performances, notably in our own classic at Doncaster, and while Subjectivist started this year with his best performance over two miles in Dubai, that was back in March, and since then things have not been perfect.

“The preparation was not smooth,” Johnston said afterwards. “Forty-five minutes after his race in Dubai he was stood on his stable on one leg and we thought it was really serious, and then last week he fell over in Middleham, scraping his knees.

“The only positive I could take was that Attraction [the great classic-winning mare he trained 15 years ago] did the same before winning the Queen Mary. We will now look at the Goodwood Cup and keep an eye on the winter in Dubai and Saudi [Arabia], given the money on offer. But the No 1 thing will be to work back from this next year.”

It was the greatest moment of the four-year-old Subjectivist’s career, a fourth Gold Cup for Johnston, and a third grade one success for Fanning, but an absolute career peak among the 3,000 winners that the Dublin-born jockey has ridden since he started over here in 1988.

Afterwards Johnston paid tribute to Fanning’s judgment of pace. The clock in the jockey’s head always had Subjectivist close to the leader, Amhran Na Bhfiann, with the alarm set for commitment once that horse weakened before the final turn. The genius in that simplicity was confirmed with a very rapid time of 4min 20.28sec for the 2½-mile journey.

As Subjectivist was led in, Fanning’s fellow jockeys came out to applaud him in spontaneous salute to their colleague’s talent and character, and he paid tribute in typically understated fashion.

“He’s a very straightforward horse, very uncomplicated, and he did all the hard work,” Fanning said, of the elegant bay with whom he had just shared such moments. “I just let horses find their comfort zone. Subjectivist can be a little keen but with every race he’s getting more relaxed. I always say to Mark that it’s better letting him jump off and find his rhythm.”

If there had been concerns about Subjectivist they came before the race, not during it. In the paddock he was a picture of nervous energy close to breaking point, dancing on his toes, with Johnston’s powerful son Charlie clearly at his limit as he clamped down on the bridle. This was a colt ready to run. The worry was how much readiness was straining away.

Behind him Stradivarius was uncharacteristically, perhaps ominously, quiet. He gave only one of his usual stallion hollers as he walked into the arena and then plodded round in such a stolid police horse way that you noticed something as unremarkable as the lengthy white hair on his heels.

However, considering to what lengths the Stradivarius team went to keep him away from Princess Zoe, it was unfortunate that as the race developed Dettori found himself trapped alongside the Irish lady.

For a good two miles he was flank-to-flank with the mare. Of course they were in mid-race, and it may be fanciful, but Stradivarius’s head was certainly hooked out sideways right next to the mare, and there was an unusual sluggishness about his final response.

It certainly did not do Princess Zoe any harm. From the same unenviable position she ran the race of her life as a crowning achievement for her trainer, Tony Mullins, since she came from Germany at the beginning of last year.

A few years back there was a movement to decry these staying races. This showed just how good the best can be.

We have seen great days with Stradivarius. There was plenty of honour in the luckless run, but we finally have to admit we have seen the best of him.

What a star he has been, but now all hail Subjectivist.

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