Ginger Rogers, clever girl, did everything that Fred Astaire did — but she did it backwards. I am looking backwards in this Turf column and doing so without apologies because it was such a wonderful Ascot. The sheer delight on the Queen’s face when Estimate made her the first reigning monarch to have a winner of the Gold Cup would have made the meeting on its own. But emotions were high, too, when we had two winners from the late Sir Henry Cecil’s yard, now presided over by Lady Cecil, although triumph became tragedy when one of them, Thomas Chippendale, collapsed and died after the finishing post.
We had the milers’ race of the year, which we had been denied in the 2,000 Guineas, with Dawn Approach recovering from his Derby flop and holding off Toronado by a head in the St James’s Palace Stakes. Punters should never ignore a change of mind from Jim Bolger. Then there was the trio of winners from Sir Michael Stoute reminding us that he is back in business and an 891—1 treble confirming the top-table status of jockey James Doyle.
Rookie trainer Olly Stevens had his first Ascot winner with Extortionist and the 78-year-old Clive Brittain enjoyed his 17th with Rizeena, his joie-de-vivre ensuring that the rest of us enjoyed it, too. But the best thing for me this year was the performance of the veteran jockey Johnny Murtagh, who at 43 came out as the meeting’s champion jockey.
It may just be a last Ascot hurrah for him, not because he has lost an ounce of his talent but because he is now combining riding with training in Ireland. Johnny says that he wants to go on competing as a rider in the big international races, but as we have seen with others in the past combining the two roles is a massive strain and sooner or later something has to give.
Indeed, something has already given. Murtagh owns the Fox Covert Stables on The Curragh and he previously helped out his tenant, the trainer Tommy Carmody, while at the same time riding for John Oxx and his top owner the Aga Khan. Last year the Carmody yard sent out the 8–1 shot Ursa Major to beat the Oxx-trained Hartini, owned by the Aga, in a Group Three race. Murtagh, who was unable to ride at the time after a kick in the face, immediately collected another when the Aga Khan’s stud manager thereupon called him and sacked him from riding the Aga’s horses.
At Ascot we had a glorious showcase of Johnny Murtagh’s talents in the saddle. On the first day he rode Edward Lynam’s good sprinter Sole Power against the hot favourite, South Africa’s Shea Shea. Sole Power essentially has just one burst. On his previous run at Haydock under another jockey it had been played too soon. At Ascot the ice-cool Murtagh, told by Lynam to ‘ride him like you own him’, came with a late run timed to perfection and won it by a neck on the line.
Surprisingly Johnny Murtagh said afterwards, ‘Eddie has stuck by me. Others think I might not be at my best but I believe I am as good as I ever was. Some people think you have lost a kind of edge but hopefully today showed them I am as hungry as ever.’
The same ultra-cool timing was in evidence later that day when it was Murtagh who brought home Olly Stevens’s Extortionist in the Windsor Castle Stakes. Since Extortionist is owned by Qatar Racing, whose amiable but shrewd and decisive Sheikh Fahad Al Thani set up Stevens’s Chiddingfold yard, it seems that the keenest new force in racing still believes in Murtagh’s talent. And it was Murtagh, too, who was chosen by the experienced Champion National Hunt trainer Nicky Henderson to ride Forgotten Voice, on whom he had won the Royal Hunt Cup back in 2009, in the Wolferton Handicap. Forgotten Voice had to be switched left then right to find his way home and Murtagh used all his strength to prevail over Sheikhzayedroad by just half a length.
Murtagh also rode Lady Cecil’s Thomas Chippendale in the Group Two Hardwicke Stakes, taking him into the lead two furlongs out and then holding off the effort of Marco Botti’s Dandino, ridden by a fellow called Dettori who knows a thing or two about bringing home winners at Ascot. Admittedly he was well suited by the strong gallop but it was noticeable that poor Thomas Chippendale, who was not to survive his victory, had settled so much better in the race this time. No wonder that Edward Lynam says, ‘Johnny Murtagh is the best trainer riding.’
I hope we will see him again at Ascot as a rider as well as a trainer but Johnny Murtagh has had his battles in the past. His difficulties with keeping down his weight led him into a battle with alcoholism and despite riding 21 Group One winners in a year for Coolmore at one stage he chose to leave the most powerful operation in Ireland after only three years. There may just come a point where he decides to concentrate on the everyday job.