Robin Oakley

Team spirit

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Sometimes it is all about how you look at things, as was made clear to a clean-living accountant who had helped old ladies across the road, given generously to charity and even found something nice to say about George Osborne. When he shuffled off the mortal coil he found himself sharing a heavenly cloud with an old crone. Peeved when on the first cloud they passed he saw Saddam Hussein sharing a duvet with a gorgeous blonde he put in an official complaint to St Peter. ‘Ah, you just don’t get it,’ he was told. ‘He is her penance.’

I, too, may have been looking at something from the wrong angle. I was hooked by the Olympics, and not just by the extraordinary combination of talent, courage and intelligence in running that puts Mo Farah so high in the athletic pantheon. I found myself absorbed by the niceties of keirin tactics in the Velodrome and enthralled by the intricacies of the dressage arena. The biggest surprise of all was watching the double trap shooting final in which Peter Wilson won gold: I could never have imagined that I would find a shooting event on television keeping me glued to my seat by the tension of the unfolding drama. My fortnight of Olympics mania inspired me, along with an invitation from the sponsors Dubai Duty Free to their elegant Shergar Cup lunch at Ascot, to give the concept of racing as a team sport just one more go.

I have until now been a Shergar Cup sceptic. Racing to me is all about the individual. Only one horse and rider can be first past the post. The idea of having groups of jockeys dressed in the same colour competing for a team prize with points accumulated through an afternoon has seemed to me unnatural, especially with teams assembled under such gimmicky concepts as ‘Europe’, ‘The Girls’ and ‘The Rest of the World’. But on Saturday I thoroughly enjoyed it.

There was soon a link with the Olympics and the one word I grew to hate throughout them. Asked on dismounting how he felt about his first winner in Britain, the young Italian jockey Cristian Demuro duly declared it was ‘Unbelievable’, a word that I would like to see banned from the lexicon for the next four years after hearing it from just about every victorious and breathless competitor interviewed at London 2012. Victory for Demuro’s mount Desert Law provided another link: the winner was trained by Andrew Balding, whose sister Clare, whom we in the racing world like to claim as our own, was the undoubted star of the BBC’s Olympic coverage. Agreeing with our tributes, Andrew said, ‘She always did her homework. Actually she usually did mine as well.’ Asked his opinion of Demuro’s ride he reckoned he had led too soon, then added, ‘But a winning ride is always a good ride, isn’t it?’ Finding the right word is clearly a family characteristic.

Andrew regularly supports the Shergar Cup, reasoning that the kind of horses who run in its six ten-runner £30,000 handicaps spend much of their time battling in big-field Heritage handicaps elsewhere. ‘Here they get to run in a smaller field with good prize money guaranteed.’ The Shergar Cup, he noted, brings a different crowd to the racecourse and that has to be good for our sport.

William Haggas, who won another race with Sun Central, agreed that it was important for trainers to back the event. ‘My American owners love it and these are not rubbish horses. Sheikh Hamdan, too, has allowed us to run one of his.’ His trainer, incidentally, reckons Sun Central has a decent future. ‘He’s a nice horse who is going to get better. He’s got a patient owner, he needs a patient trainer.’ Another regular supporter of the Shergar Cup is Alvechurch trainer Ian Williams, who won one of the Cup races in 2011 with Ile de Re and repeated the feat with Dr Marwan Koukash’s Address Unknown in the two-mile event. Since his is a successful dual-purpose yard would we be seeing Address Unknown over hurdles come the winter? ‘No. He’s one of the Doctor’s and the Doctor has no interest in hurdling. He’ll stick to the Flat.’

Ian’s 2011 winner had been ridden by the Japanese star Yusake Take who had come all the way from Tokyo for the meeting only for Williams’s Stevie Thunder to refuse to enter the stalls in the first. Address Unknown was ridden by Germany’s leading rider Andreas Suborics and that, of course, is another key point about the Shergar Cup: it does provide us with the chance to see these international stars in action. Team racing is gimmicky and, in a sense, unnatural. It cannot be anything else. But that doesn’t stop it providing a good day out at the races. I certainly had one, although the gilt slightly rubbed off the gingerbread in the last. I was still in the placepot in the sixth and last race but had steered away from including Mince, one of this column’s ten to follow for the season, because her last appearance had been disappointing. Mince not only won the race at a tasty 6–1 in the hands of the young Hong Kong star Matthew Chadwick, she also did so in record time.