Robin Oakley

The turf | 29 September 2016

In one of the key indicators of future form, the two-year-old stormed to victory in a stiff headwind

The turf | 29 September 2016
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There are few more compulsive reads in racing than the Kingsley Klarion, the in-house journal of Mark Johnston’s Middleham racing operation, which runs under the slightly ambiguous slogan ‘Always trying’. It is ambiguous not because anyone doubts that every Johnston runner is out on the racecourse striving to be first past the post but because the combatirobin ove Johnston is never short of an opinion, and sometimes those opinions have other senior figures in racing spitting feathers. Once of an opinion, he does not mind whose patience he tries.

Last Saturday Mark produced what was for me the training performance of the season when, in a stiff wind, his 25-1 shot The Last Lion won the Group One Juddmonte Middle Park Stakes, one of the key autumn indicators of next season’s likely stars. It was no fluke: The Last Lion won strictly on merit, leading all the way to beat the Gimcrack winner Blue Point. They don’t stock much cotton wool at Kingsley House Stables: what was remarkable was that this was the two-year-old’s tenth race in a season that began with his victory in the Brocklesby Stakes at Doncaster, the first of the season’s meaningful tests for quality two-year-olds. In only one of those ten contests, when he was third, has The Last Lion finished out of the first two.

I rushed to congratulate the beaming trainer after the race, and there was, true to form, a Johnston theory to complement the success. When I remarked what an achievement it was to lead all the way in such a headwind, a phenomenon that had seemingly explained the failure of other front-runners on the day, he countered, ‘That’s a debate I’ve been having with several of my owners who want horses tucked in behind to protect them in such conditions. Think of it this way: if you’ve two big trucks going down the motorway and the one behind wants to pull out at the end and overtake, he’s not only got to produce the acceleration to pass, he’s got to do it just as he meets the headwind.’ A fair point. So was Mark’s insistence that we should never pigeonhole a horse too soon. Just because he’d won the Brocklesby in a bog, many had assumed The Last Lion was a soft-ground horse while Newmarket’s ‘good to firm’ on Saturday was what Aidan O’Brien described almost wistfully as ‘proper Flat racing ground’.

John Brown, co-owner of The Last Lion with Megan Dennis and the former chairman of bookmakers William Hill, hadn’t expected their horse to win. ‘I thought it would need the favourite to fall and bring down two others to give us a chance — and I thought he wanted it soft,’ he declared, before adding, ‘I always felt that God had a leaning towards bookmakers.’ He revealed that The Last Lion hardly has a gallop at home. ‘He does all his fast work on the racecourse.’ John Brown is no softie. His mentor as a bookmaker told him, ‘If they slap one cheek don’t turn the other or they’ll knock your bloody head off,’ and his own favourite motto was, ‘The first time you think you know more than the professional punter, you’re skint.’ But clearly he loves The Last Lion to bits.

There were many enjoyable aspects to The Last Lion’s victory, not least the small each-way saver in which your columnist had indulged while expecting Blue Point and Mehmas, the second and third, to be contesting first place. Another was that, to general surprise, it was a first Group One victory for the veteran jockey Joe Fanning. The ultra-dependable Fanning, who has nine times had a century of winners in a season and scored in plenty of Group Twos and Threes, finally made it to the top level on his 46th birthday. Uncomplainingly, Joe has often brought along the youngsters only to be supplanted in the saddle by a fashionable big name on championship race days: it was good to see his loyalty rewarded and how pleased Mark was to reward it.

Racing at headquarters is never dull and there were plenty more pleasures. Curiously, Irish maestro Aidan O’Brien had never won a Middle Park Stakes. When the headwind did for the American tornado Lady Aurelia, who ran out of gas after five furlongs of scintillating speed, there was Aidan in the winner’s enclosure, having had the first two home with Brave Anna and Roly Poly, bobbing his head in that slightly deferential way he has when shaking the hands of those proffering congratulations, rather like a vicar with the departing congregation after Sunday service.

Also much appreciated were Brian Meehan and jockey Jimmy Fortune after comfortably winning the 31-horse cavalry charge of the Cambridgeshire with Spark Plug. When Spark Plug fell in Ascot’s Royal Hunt Cup last year, Fortune’s injuries cost him two months out of the saddle and the shaken Spark Plug completely lost his form. His victory was the culmination of a year’s patient work by a yard that knows how to look after the good ones.