I don’t know who coined the old racing saying ‘The only person who remembers who came second is the guy who came second’ but he was wrong. What draws us aficionados to racetracks on blazing summer afternoons when we would be better off in a swimming pool, or on soggy winter days when sensible folk are curled up in front of the fire watching a DVD, is the prospect of a memorable race, an eyeball-to-eyeball clash of skills and determination between two finely honed athletes with the final outcome in doubt until the very last moment.
Racing in 2018 gave us plenty to celebrate. Needing only one winner at Royal Ascot to pass Sir Henry Cecil’s record of 76 winners there, Sir Michael Stoute produced four. Mark Johnston became the winningmost trainer of all time when his total reached 4,194. Davy Russell, once sacked over the most famous cup of tea in racing by mega-owner Michael O’Leary, became the oldest-ever Irish champion jump jockey at 38 and won the Grand National on O’Leary’s popular Tiger Roll, once described by his owner as ‘a little rat of a thing’.
Charlie Appleby, who is the kind of guy everybody would like to live next door to, has risen through the ranks at Godolphin from work-rider and horse traveller to being the trainer who finally gave Sheikh Mohammed the Derby victory he has yearned for with Masar. He won him 12 Group Ones and a Melbourne Cup into the bargain with Cross Counter. Oisin Murphy, No. 1 jockey for Qatar Racing, confirmed the flowering of his talents by collecting nine Group Ones, four of them on Roaring Lion. Once resented in the weighing room as a sharp-elbowed upstart, Murphy will have been almost equally pleased to have been chosen as the Flat Jockey of the Year by his fellow jockeys.
The statistics and awards will eventually fade. What we will not forget are the races: Tiger Roll had been six lengths clear in the Grand National, but with the crowd willing him home after the last fence his stride was shortening with every yard as Pleasant Company, ridden by the 21-year-old David Mullins, strove to overhaul him. A yard after the post he did so, but Russell’s guile and Tiger Roll’s courage earned them victory by a head.
The Cheltenham Gold Cup in March became a magnificent duel between Nicky Henderson’s Might Bite, ridden by Nico de Boinville, and Colin Tizzard’s Native River, ridden by champion jockey Richard Johnson. The other 13 horses might as well have joined the spectators in the stands. Native River, a proven stayer who had won a Welsh Grand National, led over the first with Might Bite on his shoulder, where he stayed. Their quality jumping all the way through took lengths out of the others and setting out on the second circuit it was clear the pair had the race between them. With Native River in a lovely rhythm, Johnson let him get on with it, saying later: ‘The worst thing I could have done was to start telling him what to do, getting in his way.’ De Boinville was content to sit quiet down the hill before the final rise to the winning post. Both were where they wanted to be. Half the crowd thought Might Bite would be unleashed to use his speed, the other half reckoned Native River had the stamina to withstand him. Two fences out the pair flew over it together and at that point Johnson asked Native River for more, knowing, as he put it, that ‘the hill was my friend’. The duellists met the last fence together on the same stride. But suddenly, as they hit the rise and softer ground, De Boinville felt his mount falter: ‘A couple of strides after the fence I knew it was gone.’ At last a gap opened between the two and an enthralling race was over.
The Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, in which two English fillies, Enable and Sea of Class, finished first and second, was a very different contest. Khalid Abdullah’s Enable, trained by the maestro John Gosden, had looked invincible when winning the race under Frankie Dettori in 2017, but she had suffered a knee injury and another unrevealed setback in training. Her only prep race had been on the Kempton sand a month before the Arc. Sea of Class, trained by William Haggas, had shown electric finishing speed in the Irish Oaks but was drawn hopelessly wide in stall 15. Jockey James Doyle could only drop her out at the back and pray for racing room to develop.
Dettori took Enable to the front more than a furlong from home but was nursing her home at the end. Doyle, having woven skilfully through the traffic, was closing fast on the accelerating Sea of Class but got there a fraction too late and Enable held on by a short neck. Both jockeys had ridden a brilliant race: the joy is that both fillies remain in training, so could be meeting again to battle it out this autumn.