ZINDABAD COURAGE GAINS THE DAY

23 June 2002

Mark Johnston’s tough colt fends off his rivals in a thrilling finish that caps a highly successful Royal Ascot.

IF THIS was Australia they would call it the mid-summer carnival and hold it on four days Saturday, Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday. But Jubilee year Royal Ascot is tougher than that. With five consecutive days, over 300,000 through the gates including 57,000 on this special full dress, Royal carriage Saturday, it has been the most successful race meeting in British history. How perfect that the best winner should be Zindabad.

For like Ascot this week, and indeed like his remarkable trainer Mark Johnston, this six-year-old is a horse who never flags. For this ninth win of his four-season, 23-race career was achieved in trademark fashion. Jockey Kevin Darley took Zindabad to the front and then dared the others to go past him.

Front-running over the Ascot mile and a half is physically and mentally one of harshest tests British racing has to offer. For there is much more undulation than it ever looks from a well-wined position on the stands. From the bottom turn in Swinley Bottom, the course is on the collar all the way up to the winning post. Even when that famous Ascot bell rings and the runners are swinging into the straight, they still face an upward river of grass. It’s hard if you are getting a lead, harder still if, like Zindabad and Darley, you are in front.

Except this is just the scenario that Zindabad relishes. He’s that most splendid but unfortunately not most frequent of things, a racehorse that loves to race. There are few better feelings as a jockey than having the athlete beneath you stretch his neck out and answer every push and shove and crack that you give him.

Zindabad was like that yesterday. Setting himself against the rail he pointed his head at the line and ran for it so hard that the others just could not peg him back. A furlong from home Storming Home had got to within half-a-length but the effort was too much.

As the ground levelled out for the post, Zindabad drew away again to have it by a full length with Millenary a short-head back in third and High Pitched just a neck further behind in fourth.

As Zindabad hacked away from us to pull-up, you noticed his tail set a bit high and awkward in the manner that exhausted horses sometimes do. Hurried enquiries afterwards refute such a weak-kneed suggestion. “No, he always carries like that,” said the stable’s Robyn Hall, whose red-haired presence has accompanied Zindabad as far afield as Canada and Hong Kong. “He’s just terrific to have anything to do with. And he just loves his racing.”

Zindabad’s appetite for the job is a mirror image of his trainer. If some people get like their dogs, Mark Johnston seems to be able to instil his own brand of relentless energy into far too many of his horses for it to be coincidence. Ever since he started training in 1987 he has used his knowledge as a vet and his theories on equine nutrition to develop a feed and exercise regime of is own, rather than of traditional choosing.

In consequence, his horses absorb more animal fat in their diet and stand more training. “They have,” he explains memorably, “more petrol in the tank.” It was Johnston’s fourth winner of the meeting, his 56th of the season and takes his winnings over the £1 million mark. Aidan O’Brien, thanks to his Classic successes, has almost cracked the £2 million barrier but even he has his reverses and Johannesburg’s attempt at raising the O’Brien Royal Ascot score to four proved a woeful failure.

With a full quarter-mile to run of the Golden Jubilee Stakes to travel, last year’s champion two-year-old had his head on one side in distress and finally trailed in ninth. To use the Johnston metaphor, there was no petrol in the tank. With engaging candour, O’Brien blamed himself afterwards. “I was training him in soft ground in the spring to get him ready for the Kentucky Derby and I have messed him up. We will take him home and see how he is but I think he may be running the white flag up on me.”

It takes a big man to make such a welcome admission. The truth is that training racehorses is always a guessing game, it’s just that the best of them guess right more often. John Gosden is no mean guesser but owner Sheikh Hamdan’s jockeys are not a match for him. For the Gosden-trained Malhub was deserted by Richard Hills and Willie Supple who opted for the other two Sheikh Hamdan runners in the Golden Jubilee Stakes, allowing Darley to complete a terrific double.

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Malhub has needed two breathing operations but repaid Gosden’s confidence in impressive style and now goes for the July Cup. At the line he had a length to spare over Danehurst, who ran a great race on her first outing of the season and on ground which, from the way she changed her legs twice in the last hundred yards, was plenty firm enough for her.

To think that a week ago, the surface was so soft that there were fears the Royal carriages would get bogged down in the procession. In theory this extra day Royal Ascot was a one off in honour of the Jubilee.

But considering its huge, magnificently well-run success and the fact that they always race at Ascot this Saturday but with a much smaller “morning after the ball,” crowd, the marketing men are likely to be begging the monarch for more. For a Carnival every year.

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