Robin Oakley

Goodwood is Ascot without the vulgarity, Aintree without the spray tans

It just needs to keep its sponsors under slightly better control

Goodwood is Ascot without the vulgarity, Aintree without the spray tans
Text settings

If I get to choose where to spend my last day on earth it will probably be at Glorious Goodwood. Goodwood is Ascot without the added vulgarity, Aintree without the spray tans, a garden party spiced up with some of the most ruthlessly competitive sport you can hope to watch. The Dash at Epsom apart, the five and six furlong races at Goodwood are the fastest you are likely to see horses running anywhere.

It was all about speed, too, when the mighty Kingman prevailed in the mile-long Sussex Stakes duel with Toronado. Champion jockey Richard Hughes had his game plan ready for Kingman’s rider James Doyle. He aimed to kick on first off a slow pace and steal a length or two in the hope that Kingman wouldn’t respond fast enough to catch him. In what became a two-furlong race after a dawdle, Hughes executed the tactics perfectly — only for Kingman to whoosh past him like Lewis Hamilton with his trousers on fire. Said Hughes: ‘I don’t think I have ever gone faster on a horse during a Group 1 race and it was an exceptional performer who beat me.’

This column is in danger of becoming a sort of permanent Gregorian chant celebrating John Gosden’s qualities — surely the man must be doing something wrong  — but since I write only fortnightly I must pay tribute to his previous week’s success in winning the King George VI Stakes with Taghrooda, the heroine of our Twelve to Follow and the first filly to take the race in 38 years. John made it a third Group 1 within a week by taking Saturday’s Nassau Stakes with the Normandie Stud’s Sultanina. As he reflected in the winners’ enclosure, ‘It’s the kind of thing you don’t forget when you’re an old guy in your rocking chair.’ Moments like that explain why, after my 40 years reporting politics, Mrs Oakley gets the first look at the paper over breakfast ...provided she has handed me the sports pages first. As the American Chief Justice Earl Warren put it, ‘The sports section records people’s accomplishments. The front page just records man’s failures.’

Mind you, John Gosden has lately had  some help from his owners. It was the savvy Sheikh Hamdan al Maktoum, Taghrooda’s owner, who first thought of spurning the softer target of the Irish Oaks and taking on the boys in the King George and it was the Normandie Stud’s elegant and sagacious  Philippa Cooper who nudged her trainer into bringing Sultanina back in distance to the ten furlongs of the Nassau. If they would let her she would probably ride her horses too.

For me the Saturday Stewards’ Cup has always been as big a draw as the top-class fillies we see annually in the Nassau but this year the Saturday cavalry charge of 24 horses over six furlongs wasn’t the 175th Stewards’ Cup. It was run as the 32Red Cup, its traditional name dropped to suit a new bookmaker sponsor. Racing is a conservative sport and there was no shortage of complainants at Goodwood’s decision, me among them. Sponsors are welcome. We cannot live without them. But racing’s history is important. If all that counts is the cash flow then soon the Derby or the Oaks or the St Leger will lose their lustre and will be contested by lesser fields of lesser horses with the class animals chasing the bigger pots abroad.

But it does not have to happen. One of the most exciting races in the calendar, Sandown’s Eclipse Stakes, when the three-year-olds first take on their elders, has been sponsored by Corals for at least three decades. But it has never become the Coral Stakes: it simply became the ‘Coral Eclipse Stakes’. The bookmakers get their publicity, we racegoers retain our sense of history and everybody is happy. There is a lesson there for Goodwood when they are drawing up next year’s sponsorship agreements. Give it any prefix you like to fetch in the money, but bring back the Stewards’ Cup.

The hoo-ha over the race’s name deprived the winning trainer, Newmarket’s equable Robert Cowell, of some of the credit he deserved for spotting and developing the potential of the impressive winner Intrinsic, bought out of Sir Michael Stoute’s yard for 62,000 guineas. Robert Cowell doesn’t mind if some typecast him as a sprinter specialist and he clearly has a gift for developing speedsters. ‘We don’t race our horses at home,’ he told me, ‘we let them do their racing on the track.’ And what does he look for at the sales? ‘A nice big burly horse with a sprinting pedigree.’ He makes it sound so simple: if only it were.

Looking at future Goodwood sprints don’t forget the name either of fourth season trainer David Griffiths who won the Group 2 King George Stakes on the Friday with Take Cover. With just 22 horses in his Bawtry yard the former Ian Balding apprentice, forced to give up riding after breaking his neck, has handled Take Cover with considerable skill. He will win more races with him for sure.