In the second race of a heart-stirring Qipco Champions Day at Ascot the unthink-able happened: on Britain’s favourite stayer Stradivarius, winner of his previous ten races, the King of Ascot Frankie Dettori got beaten. In fact, in going down by just a nose to Aidan O’Brien’s St Leger winner Kew Gardens on heavy ground that blunted his ability to quicken, Stradivarius probably ran as well as he has ever done. Trainer John Gosden and owner Bjorn Nielsen had thought of pulling him out of the contest on such soft ground but they sportingly took the view that, ‘It is Champions Day and you let the day down if you don’t run Stradivarius.’ No insult to Kew Gardens, who proved once again that his sire Galileo’s progeny never give up the fight, but fortunately horses don’t think as we do and the best moment of a fabulous racing day for me was when John Gosden told us later that Stradivarius thought he had won anyway, having come back with the trademark neigh he utters after his victories.
Frankie himself admitted to feeling sour after the defeat but that uncharacteristic emotion didn’t last long. In the very next race his mount Star Catcher, the winner of the Irish Oaks and the Prix Vermeille on quick ground, accelerated through the narrowest of gaps a furlong out in the Champion Fillies and Mares Stakes, then held on in the mud to beat O’Brien’s Delphinia by a short head. It was a sublime piece of riding by the crowd’s favourite and an unforgettable display of courage by Star Catcher. You can’t do it without the horse and she was clearly as determined as Frankie to get and keep her head in front. Star Catcher’s win notched up another remarkable record for her jockey, giving him the 250th Group One victory he had expected to clinch on Enable when she was run out of a third successive Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe victory by Waldgeist. The landmark could not have been achieved in greater style.
No wonder John Gosden, who has in his time put up the likes of Lester Piggott and Yves Saint-Martin, says that Frankie is the best jockey he has ever legged up. Asked about the stress and strain of his own role in preparing the horses, the invariably unruffled Gosden put it succinctly: ‘You have to remain calm and collected for the horses — you’re no damned good if you are jumping around and being neurotic. When you start saddling them, they feel your nerves and that’s no good to them. You need to be calm.’ We already knew that Prince Khalid Abdullah is keeping the great Enable in training: the good news on Champions Day was that owner Anthony Oppenheimer will race on with Star Catcher too as will Bjorn Nielsen with Stradivarius. Let us hope ‘the lads’ at Coolmore — John Magnier, Derrick Smith and Michael Tabor — do the same with Kew Gardens and with Magical, hailed as ‘the ultimate racehorse’ by Aidan O’Brien after she had won the Qipco Champion Stakes on her ninth outing of the season.
Now 48, Frankie Dettori paces himself carefully, concentrating on the big meetings and the best horses. But one day, though hopefully not for a few seasons yet, the best known name in racing will hang up his saddle and we will be looking for others to head up racing’s engagement with the media. The presentation at Ascot of the prize for this year’s Champion Jockey to Oisin Murphy gave us a glimpse of what that future may look like.
Oisin has been in a saddle since he was four, rode out for Aidan O’Brien for a few months at 16 and was apprenticed in 2012 to the Andrew Balding yard, which has produced so many talented young riders. There is a fine line between the necessary confidence and youthful cockiness and in his early days some older jockeys felt that Murphy, the champion apprentice in 2014, crossed it too often. That is often the way with emerging talent. Now, however, you hear nothing but good about the 24-year-old Oisin Murphy. He has shown formidable application and discipline this year in winning the championship previously held by Silvestre de Sousa, who occupies the next peg in the weighing room.
Lesser known trainers tell you how impressed they are that the workaholic Murphy still finds time to come and ride work for them as he bounds up the opportunity ladder. Other young riders will confess their admiration for the work he puts into studying form and for how his deliberately acquired experience riding in Japan has brought Oisin opportunities in riding horses like their star Deirdre. What may prove vital, though, for racing’s future is that the new champion jockey is one of the most courteous and articulate riders in the weighing room when he encounters a scribe with open notebook or a member of the public seeking an autograph or a selfie. Seniors, please note.