Watching the contestants parade at Epsom for this year’s Oaks, I remembered the great D. Wayne Lukas’s pronouncement on selecting fillies: ‘She should have a head like a princess, a butt like a washerwoman and walk like a hooker.’ The John Gosden-trained Taghrooda, listed a month earlier as the first of our Twelve to Follow this season, ticked all those boxes. I doubled my bet and cheered her home nearly four lengths clear of the biggest Oaks field in 40 years.
Sheikh Hamdan al Maktoum, an owner who gives much to the sport, has had a lean few years and it was good to see another Classic success for his blue and white colours. Even better on his first Oaks ride was the first Classic success for the modest, hard-working Paul Hanagan, the former champion jockey who uprooted his family from Yorkshire when invited to succeed Richard Hills as Sheikh Hamdan’s No. 1 rider. He swapped a predictable life as Richard Fahey’s top jockey for the much trickier role of partnering Hamdan horses spread across several competing yards. Hanagan has proved himself a genuine team player and there was both respect and affection in the arm that went around Paul’s shoulders from John Gosden at the post-race press conference.
In the winner’s enclosure, I expressed my surprise to Rachel Hood — who combines her role as Mrs Gosden with being President of the Racehorse Owners Association and Newmarket’s new heritage-minded mayor — that Taghrooda’s success was John’s first in the Oaks. ‘Well, they can’t call him a rubbish trainer now,’ she grinned. It is a long time since anybody would have dreamed of doing that. One American trainer allegedly declared of the once California-based Gosden, as he awaited his first Classic success, ‘I taught him everything he knows, but not everything I know,’ but the cerebral trainer with the Roman senator’s profile and a taste for both opera and the Rolling Stones has long had a trophy cupboard stuffed with the answers to any early questions.
Along with Breeders Cup successes, John Gosden has won a Derby with Benny The Dip, a 1,000 Guineas with Lahan and no fewer than four St Legers with Shantou, Lucarno, Arctic Cosmos and Masked Marvel. We had all expected a 2,000 Guineas victory this year with Kingman, shocked on the day by the 40–1 Night of Thunder, but he soon made amends with an imperious victory in the Irish equivalent. And although he didn’t have a Derby contender to beat Australia, he did manage third with the supplemented Romsdal.
There was nearly as much pleasure in listening to John Gosden explain Taghrooda’s victory afterwards as there was in watching her perform. Paying tribute to Hanagan, he noted: ‘He did something very clever as, coming down Tattenham Corner, she got a bump that took her out and threw her on to her off-fore. You can’t go round Tattenham Corner leading on your off-fore, you completely lose your balance. He was very quick to get her back on her near-fore and that’s not easy.’ If, a few decades on, Cambridge appoints a Professorship of Racing Lore,
J. Gosden will be the ideal man to fill it.
The other man who never tires with his explanations is the extraordinary Aidan O’Brien, who with Australia’s success became the first man to train three consecutive Derby winners. He is the Johnny Wilkinson of racing, another man of quiet modesty who invariably puts the focus on the Coolmore team rather than himself and who never rests from painstaking effort to improve performance. With 20 British Classics already won, he had been telling us for months that Australia was the best he had ever handled. The victory margin at Epsom may not quite have lived up to that but it was hugely impressive. So what does make Australia special? Pace, says Aidan: ‘The way he goes from A to B so easily makes him unique. Horses who do that don’t normally get a mile and a half. To get a mile and a half like that at Epsom, every sinew in his body was going to be tested. He had to settle, quicken, handle the hurly-burly and everything but what makes him different is his natural pace.’ The £525,000 Coolmore paid for Australia already looks the biggest bargain in years.
There was much else to enjoy at Epsom this year: heartfelt British applause for France’s hero Cirrus des Aigles and his delightful trainer Corine Barande-Barbe after the Coronation Cup, an emotional first win for the popular jockey Jimmy Fortune since his wife’s tragic sudden death, a smart two-year-old victory to remind us Frankie Dettori is still around. But the most significant item in time may be three words in the Derby winner’s list of connections. Australia is owned not just by the familiar Coolmore team of Michael Tabor, Sue Magnier and Derrick Smith but also by one Teo Ah Khing. He is a key figure in the China Horse Club, which is working to introduce thoroughbred racing to mainland China. What odds, I wonder, on Aidan O’Brien one day leading in a Beijing Derby winner?