Robin Oakley

The turf | 4 August 2016

An intriguing theory attempts to explain why altitude may have played a role in Mark Johnston’s remarkable record

The turf | 4 August 2016
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Sometimes the labels people give themselves are more than mere braggadocio. Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali if you must) really was ‘The Greatest’. For me Tina Turner’s exultant ‘Simply the Best’ was never bettered in its genre, and Glorious Goodwood manages year after year to live up to the name it has happily exploited since it was coined by an alliteratively minded journalist before the second world war. Sponsorship does not always improve things but the additional funds now provided by Qatar have only enhanced Goodwood’s appeal. Their funding means, for example, that the Sussex Stakes, the first clash of the year between the top three-year-old milers and their elders, is now the third richest race in Britain after the Derby at Epsom and the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot.

Of course the downland backdrop helps: watching racing at the most beautiful course in the world amid lightly wrapped fillies competing with a sporting breeze does add to the attraction, except on days like last Thursday when the sea fret comes in sideways and the commentator struggles with only two furlongs in clear view. But for me the extra ingredient is Good-humoured Goodwood. Staff wish you a good day as if they really mean it and everyone seems to have an extra minute to share a memory or anecdote. So many things contributed to this year’s rich tapestry. For a start, there was the sight of those two Goodwood titans Mark Johnston and Sir Michael Stoute beaming over multiple victories. Shortly after Paul Hanagan had weaved his way through an equine thicket to deliver Sir Michael’s Thikriyaat, the victor in a Group Three mile ahead of his stable companion Forge, I stooped to retrieve a Tote betting ticket that appeared to have dropped at the great trainer’s feet. Glancing down as I handed it over, I realised my mistake and apologised. It was only for a tenner on a horse that finished second. Just not his style. Thikriyaat though, his trainer noted, ‘is a big playboy. Every race he has improved. Racing is making a man of him.’ There is clearly more to come.

Sir Michael, who began training in 1972, now has 75 Goodwood Festival winners on his record. Mark Johnston has produced his 70 Festival winners only since 1988 and my friend John Reid, the former leading jockey, offered an intriguing theory about Mark’s remarkable Goodwood record. When John was riding in Spain he noted that horses trained at higher levels seemed to do particularly well when competing on courses down at sea level. Horses trained atop Mark’s precipice in Middleham, he mused, could be like Mexico-trained athletes who descend to compete at the Olympics.

Other memories that will linger from last week include John Gosden describing a hair-rising ride round the Goodwood motor-racing track with Frankie Dettori at the wheel. ‘I’ll take that one on the inside,’ yelled the excited Italian of the McLaren in front of them. ‘Oh, no you won’t,’ said the trainer. ‘That’s my wife Rachel driving it.’ As indeed she was — in bare feet, having kicked off her inappropriate shoes.

There was the electrifying burst of speed from the stalls, which sent Take Cover clear of his field at the start of the King George V Stakes, never to be headed. He should be running in America. There was Hoof It’s assistant trainer praising the ride by young Nathan Evans when the veteran sprinter won the Stewards’ Cup consolation race only to add of his rider: ‘If only he could pass his driving test.’ The 19-year-old can pick his way through a speedy field on the racetrack but has failed his driving theory nine times.

In a week that had bookmakers reaching for the smelling salts, the Stewards’ Cup favourite Dancing Star won thrillingly for Jeff Smith, owner of the famous Lochsong, the last filly to take the race back in 1972, and for popular trainer Andrew Balding. Not only was Dancing Star shouted home by an army of punters, so were handicap winner Franklin D and Goodwood Cup winner Big Orange, both trained at Newmarket by Michael Bell.

Said rider Jamie Spencer admiringly of the large-framed Big Orange after they had taken the Cup for a second year running, ‘If it didn’t sound rude I’d say he’s like a National Hunt horse, a bumper. But the stronger he gets the more pace he gets.’ Next year keep an eye out, too, for any Goodwood entrant from French trainer François Rohaut. Last year his only runner won at 33–1. On the strength of that I took 20–1 in the morning on his Al Jazi in the L’Ormarins Queen’s Plate. She started at 12–1 and came home a clear winner. Afterwards M. Rohaut told me, ‘When we win a race we like to try to win again.’ Al Jazi, he said, looked altogether different after he had left her in Deauville for three weeks. But then so would most of us after three weeks in Deauville.