The Newbury race day that finally for me switched the focus of racing from the jumpers to the sleek equine whippets racing on the Flat was appropriately devoted to the emergency services. Sadly, they are a vitally needed accompaniment to the training and riding of horses. Only in horse racing and motor racing are the participants followed by an ambulance, and accidents don’t just happen on the course. Many a Lambourn lad out on the gallops with a shattered leg or a lung-puncturing set of broken ribs has been only too grateful to see looming out of the sky the choppers and crew of the Thames Valley and Chiltern air ambulances which were on view last Saturday.
Their presence reminded me of John Oaksey’s memorable trip around the Aintree fences aboard a helicopter. Trying to impart to the TV audience a horse’s eye view of the obstacles, he kept urging the pilot to fly lower until finally the exasperated man at the controls restored some perspective by telling him, ‘If one of your bloody horses hits an obstacle you’ll be carried away in a nice comfortable ambulance. If we touch one, they’ll scrape us off with a trowel!’
It is too early in the season to be betting but there were some useful lessons for the season ahead. James Given, who won a Listed race at Ripon with the four-year-old Dandino the same day, took the Group Three Dubai Duty Free with the six-year-old Indian Days, who beat good horses despite carrying a penalty and should go on to win top races this season, possibly starting in Singapore. But the second, Mikael Magnusson’s Bridge of Gold, ran an interesting race for Belgian jockey Christophe Soumillon, who had hopped the Channel for the day. Up with the leaders early on he then looked one-paced in the straight only to run on again when switched to the outside and get to within a head of the winner.
Former jockey John Reid told me Bridge of Gold has been going really well on the gallops and he will be worth an interest next time out. I love the older horses and no one handles them better than Sir Michael Stoute, who won the opener with the lightly raced four-year-old Modun. He should stay further and also goes on my list.
What had really brought the crowds to Newbury, though, was the hope of being in on the early stages of a superhorse, the kind to dominate a season and generate those ‘I was there when…’ stories we all like to tell over a good lunch. Well, one unattended by Mrs Oakley anyway, who does not thrill to repetition. We were there to see Frankel, trained by the revived and venerated Henry Cecil. The last time Cecil took the Greenham Stakes and the 2000 Guineas with the same horse was with Wollow back in 1975, and last year as Frankel went through his four starts unbeaten he described him as the best two-year-old he had handled since Wollow. After the way the big Galileo colt floated clear of the opposition in a few strides in the Royal Lodge Stakes, he was installed as winter favourite for the 2000 Guineas. But many a winter favourite has failed to ‘train on’ and Cecil’s horses had been running no more than respectably so far this season, despite the Newmarket tales of Frankel outpacing local commuter trains on the gallops.
So was he still the business? Before the race Frankel looked cool and relaxed but you could see the worry on the face of his trainer who, in a dry spring, has been unable to risk the big horse’s joints on the grass gallops. As the contest began, Frankel’s pacemaker, Picture Editor, proved unequal to the challenge. He could not go fast enough for jockey Tom Queally to settle Frankel in behind. But he did then settle when Tom Queally let the reins out a notch; and once the race began in earnest there were no complaints as he accelerated to go four lengths clear of Excelebration, who was six clear of the rest.
For some who expected the impossible first time out it was not enough that Frankel didn’t sprout wings, turn somersaults in the final furlong and win by 20 lengths. But as the level-headed Queally declared, ‘Forget all the talk of beating aeroplanes and trains. He was here to beat other horses and he did. He doesn’t need to win Grands Prix, the Guineas will do.’
For me there were echoes there of Lester Piggott talking about Sir Ivor after a Classic victory: ‘I don’t know how good the others were. What I do know is that he was a lot better.’ As for Henry Cecil, he declared, ‘If you don’t get nervous you might as well pack up.’ Personally, I need no further convincing that Frankel will win the 2000 Guineas but I will wait to see if he is a Derby horse as well over the extra half mile, and there, too, Henry Cecil showed another card in his hand at Newbury. Frankel had been quiet in the parade ring, even if he had kicked out while being saddled. World Domination, Cecil’s runner in the mile maiden, neighed and whinnied his way around the paddock which lengthened his price to 3–1, but once on the track he was impressive, winning in the style of a good horse.
Cecil declared after the race that World Domination could become a Derby candidate. ‘He was far more grown-up than I had anticipated. He travelled like an old handicapper — though probably a good handicapper.’ More experience, more trials will be needed as they are feeling their way with this horse, but I noticed Ian Mongan, rider of the Cecil second string, giving World Domination a cheery pat as he left the winner’s enclosure, perhaps dreaming of a Derby ride if Tom Queally is in the race, too, on Frankel.