I love Eclipse Day at Sandown, the first occasion in the year when the classy three-year-olds start taking on their elders. Over the years it has given us some great contests and added lustre to the careers of some great horses. In 1986 Dancing Brave confirmed in the Sandown feature how unlucky he had been not to win the Derby. In 2009 Sea The Stars won the race in the fastest time for 40 years as he made it one of his six Group One victories in six months. In 2000 the ever-combative Giant’s Causeway got back up to win by a head under George Duffield after being passed by Pat Eddery on Kalanisi in one of the toughest and most enthralling finishes I have ever seen.
In soggy 2007 Ryan Moore, who until then had only had a single Group One success on his CV, stole the race on Notnowcato by cutting across to a strip of drier ground near the stands rail and staying a length and a half clear as the more fancied horses — Authorized and George Washington — fought it out on the far side. This year Moore, one of the best big-race jockeys we have seen, had a point to prove on The Gurkha. At Royal Ascot he had been caught napping: he left the Aidan O’Brien-trained winner of the French Guineas too much to do in chasing the English Guineas winner Galileo Gold in the St James’s Palace Stakes. Now, once again, The Gurkha was an odds-on favourite at 4–6 as he and three others lined up against Ascot winner My Dream Boat, the consistent Time Test and Hawkbill, a son of the American sire Kitten’s Joy purchased by John Ferguson for Sheikh Mohammed at the Keeneland Sales in 2014 for $350,000.
Hawkbill, too, had figured at Royal Ascot this year, winning the Tercentenary Stakes a year after Time Test had triumphed in that race. And he had done so well since then that Sheikh Mohammed’s Godolphin team supplemented him for the Eclipse at a cost of £30,000 five days before the race. On his toes as a brave pair of grey wagtails flickered around him, Hawkbill looked the pick in the paddock and we knew from Ascot that he would not be inconvenienced by the soft ground at the Esher track while Time Test needed it firmer.
Time Test had a pacemaker, Countermeasure, in the race and Hawkbill’s jockey William Buick sat behind him most of the way before taking the lead two out. The Gurkha moved up too and briefly looked like catching him but Buick knew how much horse he had under him and the 6–1 shot dug deep to hold on by a half-length that never looked like being closed. He said afterwards that he had been content to stay close to the pacemaker knowing that on such soft ground he wouldn’t go too fast. As for Hawkbill, ‘I always knew he had a couple of gears left. He has a real fighting spirit.’ It was a clever and confident ride and John Ferguson’s first words, when I congratulated him on the call to supplement, were, ‘We always thought he would tough it out.’ No surprise really with Hawkbill’s dam Trensa being a daughter of Giant’s Causeway. That makes it six wins in succession for a horse who just goes on improving.
His share of the £300,000 prize money will surely come in handy as holiday spending for William Buick, who is now enduring a 30-day ban after a fracas in a French race and his clash with French stewards at whom he unwisely pointed a finger while uttering the word ‘corrupt’. The Nigel Farage response to continental officials is not recommended for jockeys on the mat and a rueful Buick conceded, ‘This was probably the best-timed winner I’ve had.’
What was interesting in talking to the jockey, to trainer Charlie Appleby and to Ferguson, Sheikh Mohammed’s chief executive, was the emphasis they put on how Hawkbill has been growing up mentally as well as physically through his six victories, a side we as racegoers and punters don’t always see. Having spent the winter in Dubai ‘just fooling about’, as his jockey put it, Hawkbill , who used to get worked up by the simplest of tasks, has now very much grown into long trousers. I think he could prove to be very good, with races like the Dubai World Cup maybe on his horizon.
One more to note from the Sandown card was Kevin Ryan’s sprinter Brando, who won the Coral Charge. One of our Twelve to Follow, he was beaten only a head in the Wokingham at Ascot at 7–1. Alas on Saturday he was backed down to a measly 2–1 and when I went home congratulating myself on backing him and Hawkbill, Wimbledon had just produced the sporting quote of the week. Asked for his secret when Sam Querrey knocked out Novak Djokovic, Querrey’s coach declared simply, ‘Sometimes the blind squirrel finds the nut.’ ‘Just like you and winners, isn’t it?’ said Mrs Oakley.