Before this year’s Shergar Cup meeting all I had seen of Australian flat jockey Mark Zahra was a memorably painful picture of him at Flemington racecourse on Melbourne Cup day some years ago, his red and white colours almost obliterated beneath the half-tonne bulk of War Story, an accident in which he could well have suffered far worse injuries than the broken leg and wrist he sustained. After his five Ascot rides last Saturday British racegoers knew a lot more about him. He not only finished second to the crowd’s idol Hayley Turner in the contest for the silver saddle awarded to the rider with the most points, he took the ‘ride of the day’ award too for his effort in the Dubai Duty Free Shergar Cup Challenge, getting up in the last strides in the 1m 4f contest on the James Given-trained Indianapolis. Said Zahra after coming late to score by a half length: ‘I took a leaf out of Jamie Spencer’s book, but I reckon he would have left it for another 100 metres! The trainer told me this horse is a bit quirky and not to get there too early, but also not to get there too late!’ That’s trainers for you, always making it easy.
The popular Hayley, with mum, dad, sister and granny in attendance, won two races on Eddystone Rock and Sapa Inca and was second on Pass The Vino, comprehensively demolishing the revived calls for women riders to be given a weight allowance. For most racing aficionados one of the best features of the ‘team event’ Shergar Cup is the chance to see international star riders and they did not disappoint. As well as Mark Zahra’s efforts, Hong Kong’s Vincent Ho rode coolly to win on Marcus Tregoning’s Power of Darkness and Filip Minarik of the Czech Republic, who rides mostly in Germany, prevailed in a tight four-horse finish to the opening sprint on Andrew Balding’s Stone of Destiny on his very first ride in Britain. Ascot may not pose quite as many problems as Epsom or Goodwood but it is not an easy course to ride and the inimitable Jamie Spencer reminded us all what a master he is of the track with a characteristic last-to-first swoop to win the concluding sprint on Victory Day.
It isn’t quite racing as the purists know it, but the Shergar Cup now firmly holds its place in the calendar as racing’s best family day out. Sadly the post-race concert featuring Jessie J, Tinie Tempah & DJ Charlsey and Go West had to be cancelled because of the gale-force winds. The Ascot authorities immediately announced that all ticket purchasers would be refunded half the price of their tickets. Good for them. But their action raises a wider question for the increasing number of racecourses which stage concerts after the racing to boost their attendances, often raising their entry prices on those days. Fine. But there are many regular racegoers who want only to watch the four-legged entertainment on the track and who will leave immediately after or even just before the last race. It is time that racecourses gave them a fair deal either by offering tickets separating out the racing and the musical entertainment or by giving those who leave before the post-race gigs a refund as they go. Ascot’s gesture seems to suggest that 50 per cent would be appropriate.
Unfortunately the publishing calendar dictated that there was no Turf column last week after the latest Qatar Glorious Goodwood. That could scarcely have offered better entertainment. Sadly, thanks to an injury sustained in winning the Sussex Stakes, Too Darn Hot won’t race again, but he went out in a blaze of glory. Other happy memories will be the third successive victory for the blisteringly fast Battaash in the King George Qatar Stakes and the commanding Stewards Cup victory for Khaadem (a ‘watch-out-for’ tip in this column), both of them trained by the talented and ever-approachable Charlie Hills. Then there was the eighth victory of the season for King’s Advice, trained by Mark Johnston, helping to clinch the trainer’s 13th Leading Trainer award at the meeting; the first ever Goodwood success for a Japanese-trained horse when Deirdre landed the Nassau Stakes; and the third successive Goodwood Cup for Stradivarius, trained by John Gosden and ridden by Frankie Dettori. Gosden also trained the impressive long-striding Enbihaar to win the Lillie Langtry Stakes, giving us a welcome Goodwood Festival victory for our Twelve to Follow.
But perhaps the most important win of the week was the fairy tale story of Khadijah Mellah’s victory on Haverland, in the charity race, the Magnolia Cup. The national media went to town on the teenager, who learned to ride at the Ebony Horse Club in Brixton and first sat on a racehorse only in April, because the gutsy A-level student was the first Muslim woman to ride and win a race wearing a hijab. Delighted by the emotional scenes which followed, one Goodwood official acknowledged ‘something has changed’. Racing has not always been noted for its inclusivity, and so he was right — it has.