Newbury is as fair a test for a racehorse as you can get with its galloping track and a wide-open finishing straight that minimises hard-luck stories. It also gets the little things right: in contrast to the skimpy offerings from places such as Kempton Park, last Saturday’s racecard was a model, containing details in colour of runners at other meetings, a feature with jockey Jason Watson and good historical detail about past winners of the featured Lockinge Stakes. Several bars, like the Wine Cellar in the Hampshire Stand, had become cashless, cutting tedious queues; mobile charging units were available; and a friend staying for the weekend who had left his prepurchased ticket at home in Surrey was treated with total charm, not grim-eyed suspicion, by the Newbury staff who sorted out a replacement.
The Lockinge Stakes, now sponsored by Qatar’s Al Shaqab, has long been one of my favourites, partly because it is a race for four-year-olds and upwards and so has some of jump-racing’s appeal. The contestants have been on the racecourse long enough for us to get to know them. The racecard reminded us that the Lockinge Stakes had been won by such as the Queen’s Pall Mall, Brigadier Gerard, Hawk Wing and Frankel. My own favourite among past winners was the powerful Cheveley Park filly Russian Rhythm, the 1,000 Guineas winner who won the Lockinge in 2004 in what was her last race before being retired to stud. And it was Russian Rhythm’s trainer Sir Michael Stoute, fittingly, who won this year’s thrilling race with Hamdan Al Maktoum’s six-year-old Mustashry, ridden by Jim Crowley, ahead of the popular filly Laurens and Accidental Agent.
If the turnover in Flat horses, so many rushed off to stud or obscurity as mere adolescents after their three-year-old careers, disappoints some, we cannot complain about continuity on the trainer front. By common assent there is no finer trainer of older horses, no more patient ironer-out of equine wrinkles than Sir Michael, who has held a licence since 1972 and for whom Mustashry was his eighth winner of the race beginning with Scottish Reel in 1986 and continuing with Safawan, Soviet Line (twice), Medicean, Russian Rhythm and Peeress. The Newmarket maestro, who appears to be carrying a little less condition himself this year, showed a fine turn of foot heading out of the winners’ enclosure as an eager media pack scrambled after him for the thoughts of a man who is never comfortable blowing his own trumpet. He was typically quick to divert praise to others. He praised especially Mustashry’s groom Jade Ransley who has looked after the horse since he walked into the yard and who was, in a nice touch, given her own chance to brandish the trophy her charge had won. ‘He has his own quirks and is his own person,’ Jade declared of the burly Mustashry. ‘He’s quite soft and definitely a girl’s man.’
Encouragingly, we may see all the Lockinge first three renewing battle in the Queen Anne Stakes at Royal Ascot. Laurens’s trainer Karl Burke insisted she would come on for her race and would head there. So will Accidental Agent, trained by Eve Johnson Houghton, who did this column a huge favour by winning last year’s Queen Anne at 33–1 as one of our Twelve to Follow. Eve had made no secret, before the Lockinge, of the fact that Accidental Agent, bred by her mother Gaie, would be better with this contest under his belt after he disappointed later last season. Bone chips, which had affected him, have been dealt with and after the Lockinge she couldn’t have been happier. ‘He needed that. He didn’t get a dream run and when he came to win his race he just went “Aargh!”. If he runs like that again he’s got another Group One in him.’ When I confessed that Accidental Agent was my favourite horse she declared: ‘Mine too. There have been a lot of doubters but he’s our superstar so we’re thrilled.’
Make a note, too, of two more performances on Lockinge day. Charlie Hills is becoming something of a speed king, having already had some very fast horses like Battaash through his hands. In Khaadem he surely has another top-class sprinter to go to war with. Roger Charlton’s top-weighted Headman, too, could scarcely have been more impressive in winning the Al Zubarah London Gold Cup over ten furlongs. He won’t tackle any further for now, but his trainer, who has now had four entries in the key race for emerging three-year-olds and won it four times, says the huge son of Kingman will be ‘a better horse in September and possibly an even better one next May’.
Of this year’s Twelve, three have run so far. El Astronaute was tried in a class above him, while both Spanish City and Rawdaa have been beaten by just a neck. Currently I agree with Nobel Laureate Niels Bohr, who once declared: ‘It is very hard to predict, especially the future.’