Contrary to established thinking, this is one of the most pleasant fortnights to go Flat racing. Received wisdom would have you believe that the period between Glorious Goodwood and York’s Ebor meeting in mid-August is a wasteland of poor racing. This is partially correct but ignores the fundamental fact that when a fallow period arrives, all the noisy, opinionated, angry, purist commentators take flight for foreign shores, leaving those of us who remain in the early August drizzle the space and freedom to enjoy our racing at a more leisurely pace. For me, it’s joyous!
This Saturday, we have the much-maligned Shergar Cup and I have long been one of its biggest fans. As a betting man, this may seem incongruous coming from me but there is more to racing than betting (at times) and although I am a long way removed from Mark Johnston’s thinking I don’t mind the occasional Saturday where betting plays second fiddle to the racing spectacle.
At Ascot this Saturday, we have some terrific stories — of lesser-known jockeys, returning-from-retirement jockeys, world-famous jockeys. And when the racing is over, more than 30,000 people – a greater number than would attend a Group 1 event like the recent King George – will go and listen to a rattling good pop concert with household names headlining the stage.
I think it’s brilliant. Maybe the vast majority of those 30,000 folk — largely families enjoying a Saturday in the open Ascot air — will not bother coming back until next year, but maybe one or two young teenagers will head home elated, still humming the music, still thrilled that their mum turned a fiver into 35 quid with a bet, and they might just stay tuned for the Ebor when a jockey like Frankie Dettori pops up on the radio.
The angry folk won’t be watching the Shergar Cup, they’ll be chuntering about the dumbing down of our sport from their Tuscan holiday homes. They’re welcome to chunter but I will be there with a few of my neighbours who barely know their Frankie from their Frankel, and I reckon they’ll wake up on Sunday morning feeling better about the sport than they did beforehand.
Last week was a stellar time for favourite-backers at Goodwood with — when I tried totting them up – 15 races going to favourites or joint favourites. There were many highlights but — with the greatest of respect to The Gurkha, Minding, Franklin D and Take Cover — my memories will focus on Big Orange’s successful defence of the Goodwood Cup and the thrilling Stewards’ Cup win of Andrew Balding’s Lightning Spear.
Balding is a well-liked man who burst onto the stage about a decade ago, when his filly Casual Look won the Oaks. He would probably not claim to be in the top tier of the training ranks — occupied by Messrs Stoute, Gosden, O’Brien and few others — but is undoubtedly a bright man with an acute eye for training decent horses.
Those with longer memories than me point to the potential similarities with the great sprinter Lochsong and, although I think it’s unfair on Balding to have that tag applied to his Goodwood star, there seems little doubt that she will deserve her place in some late Summer Group sprints and should be dismissed at peril.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the distance spectrum, there can be few more likeable horses in training than Michael Bell’s Big Orange. In the States, they largely breed for speed and races beyond a mile and a half are disregarded as poor relations. Happily, here in the UK, the racing public love a stayer as much, if not more, than any other type of thoroughbred. The likes of Persian Punch, Yeats and Double Trigger will all resonate with a public who find affection for the honesty of staying racehorses easy to sustain.
Big Orange is not the best-looking horse, nor has he even been labelled “quick” but he is honest and he has the neck of a giraffe that seems to extend in the final furlong when his jockey asks him to go and win a race. It is a sight to warm the heart and last Thursday Big Orange did it again to lift the Goodwood roofs. Long may we cherish our staying heroes.
I confess that until a few months ago I knew next to nothing about New Zealand-born jockey James McDonald. He has travelled over from his permanent base in Australia for the past three seasons but without really registering on the Richter Scale of super talent.
Twelve months ago, he returned Down Under having won 70-odd thousand quid in prize money. This weekend, he flew back home having bagged the best part of a million. Not only is McDonald hugely likeable — and I thoroughly enjoyed a chat with him at Goodwood on Saturday where his modesty and genuine sense of pride and excitement shone through — he is also brilliant in the saddle.
He took the Lennox Stakes on Dutch Connection under an inspired ride, and won the Northumberland Plate last month. His exploits on Newmarket’s July Course, however, are what we will remember most fondly, with his judgement of pace giving the air of one who grew up on the Heath.
He looks classy in the saddle, he can ride from off the pace à la Spencer or up with the pace à la Dettori, and he leaves us wanting more. He is the newly crowned Sydney Champion Jockey and from what I have seen this summer, he’d have a decent tilt at being champion jockey anywhere in the world if he were to be given the chance. Come back soon, Mr McDonald!