Having spent most of my life among politicians I guess I have become unaccustomed to candour. The only example I remember was the Danish prime minister I interviewed for CNN before his country’s referendum on joining the euro. ‘Prime Minister, the trouble with referendums is that people often don’t answer the question. They vote on the popularity of the person asking it. Are you popular enough to win this referendum?’ ‘Probably not’, Poul Nyrup Rasmussen replied — and was proved correct when the Danes voted to stay out.
In racing too we have all grown used to jockeys and trainers making excuses. ‘The ground didn’t suit him’, ‘He was short of a gallop’, ‘I was cut up round the bend’. On winners who have had to dig deep to get out of trouble they will pretend that was always the race plan. How refreshing, then, at Goodwood last Saturday, to talk to Oisin Murphy and Harry Bentley after two of the more remarkable rides in recent weeks. Fresh from winning the Group 1 Juddmonte International at York’s Ebor Festival, Oisin was brimful of confidence riding Beat The Bank, Andrew Balding’s 11-8 favourite for the Celebration Mile. But his mount was not travelling with his usual fluency and Oisin was niggling and pushing him four furlongs out. Trapped wide on the bend he had to re-pass at least three horses in the final 50 yards to prevail in a blanket finish with three lengths covering the field of eight. Victory was a tribute to the horse’s courage and the determination of an on-fire jockey. Had Oisin believed two furlongs out that he could win? Frankly no, replied the candid jockey, who went on to explain: ‘I was never comfortable but he’s so tough, one of those with the character to win when things don’t go right.’
For my money Goodwood is the toughest course in the country for jockeys. At the Festival meeting a month before, even riders as good as the prolific Northern-based Danny Tudhope and the ultra-experienced Gerald Mosse managed to get themselves trapped in traffic with nowhere to go and the winning post looming in the short straight. I asked Oisin what he sees as the key to the Sussex track. ‘In Group races if you are on a horse that’s got speed it’s not difficult, but in handicaps you’ve either got to be up with the pace (at the front of the field) or be at the back. In the middle of the pack it’s easy to get trapped and find yourself with traffic issues.’ His point was amply demonstrated in the Class 2 handicap when Adam Kirby’s mount Flaming Spear, the 4-1 joint favourite, dwelt at the start and was left to race at the tail of the field. Kirby didn’t try to work his way through the pack but waited in the rear on a horse he knew had gears. Two furlongs out he moved to the wide outside of the field and passed the lot to win going away. ‘A great jockey sits and waits,’ said Flaming Spear’s thankful trainer Dean Ivory after their impressive victory. ‘He got a nice clear run and when you’ve got a horse who can accelerate that’s what you want. You can’t do it in fits and starts.’
The performance which had the crowd really gasping though was Harry Bentley’s effort on Antonia de Vega who was made 5-2 joint favourite despite the fact she was running in a Group 3 race on only the second outing of her life. With only four furlongs of the 7f race gone, Harry was already pushing the Ralph Beckett-trained filly with seemingly little response. Two furlongs out most of us were ready to tear up our tickets but suddenly Harry’s efforts got a response. Antonia de Vega passed four horses in the final furlong and got her nose in front just 50 yards from the line when she seemed to be travelling twice as fast as the others. Told: ‘You looked cooked three furlongs out’, Harry didn’t pretend: ‘I felt the same. I wasn’t confident how I was travelling. I didn’t feel like I was on a winner. But they’d gone a strong pace, they tired in front and at last the penny dropped with her. She learned a lot first time and she’s learned again.’
The ever-polite and thoughtful Bentley rides Goodwood as well as anyone — he is a local boy who went to school only 15 minutes from the course and now he is partnering most of the horses from Ralph Becket’s ever-classier yard, he should not be long in breaking into the Top Ten. They should certainly win some good races at a mile with the gorgeous-looking Antonia de Vega. The other lesson of the day is that at the moment you have to take a look at almost anything Andrew Balding sends to the races. He had two winners at Goodwood that day, another at York and one more at Windsor’s evening meeting. He also scored on Friday with Baccarat, one of our Twelve to Follow.