Horses, of course, have more sense than to bet on people. But how much do they know about what is going on? Watching the contenders parading before the Betfair-sponsored King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, the richest race in the UK calendar, you could not miss the frothy sweat already streaming down the flanks of the Aidan O’Brien-trained Rockhampton. Had somebody already told him it was going to be his task to act as the hare out in front, making the pace for O’Brien’s other two stars, Frozen Fire and Golden Sword?
Rockhampton did his job, but it proved not to be to the benefit of Team O’Brien, who have swept up so many Ascot prizes in recent years. Instead he set things up perfectly for Sir Michael Stoute’s Conduit, the St Leger and Breeders’ Cup victor who is at his best when coming from off the pace in a strongly run race. Though he impeded his stable companion Tartan Bearer marginally, Conduit won on merit with the other Stoute entrant Ask taking third place. There were beads of sweat, too, on Sir Michael’s face after the race. But they were not the result of any anxiety during it. In the heat it could not have gone more according to plan with his threesome finishing in their expected pecking order.
Even jockey Ryan Moore, whose post-race reactions often give the average speak-your-weight machine a pretty level contest for animation, permitted himself a gentle smile as he returned to the winner’s enclosure. With his ten per cent of £445,000 riding on the choice, he had had to make his selection from the three Stoute entries, and jockeys can famously and expensively get these things wrong.
The 1–2–3 was a remarkable achievement for Team Stoute, one which will almost certainly clinch this year’s trainer’s title for Sir Michael, who trained the mighty Shergar to win a King George nearly 30 years ago. He excels with older horses and it would be lovely to see Tartan Bearer, a truly genuine and consistent performer, go on to collect the Group One he deserves.
Ascot’s quest for quality and readiness to experiment is admirable and last Saturday’s eight race card included the first race to be held there for pure-bred Arabian horses. To most British racegoers these are Cinderella events but they matter to many of those who make a vital contribution to racing’s finances.
All the dogs in Berkshire had been barking that the race was a formality for the favourite, General, full brother to a brilliant Arab racemare. But a thrilling race went instead to Nayef Al Khalidiah, trained by Jean-François Bernard, the successful trainer too when the event was run last year at Newmarket. Intriguingly Nayef al Khalidiah was partnered by the French jockey Christophe Lemaire, one of the true international stars in European racing, who had thought it worthwhile to come over just for that one ride, and in his case ten per cent of £25,000. His mount, he said, had come to the front on the bridle and had enough left to repel any rivals.
The courteous Christophe explained that riding full-bred Arabs is different from thoroughbreds in that they are smaller and a little slower. They also require a little more assistance from the saddle, he suggested, in terms of having confidence imparted to them. He imparted the full éclat to Nayef al Khalidiah. English trainers, who missed out on the chance of having Lemaire partner one of their entrants in the other races, might look more carefully at Arab race details in future.