It was very much a game of two halves, with the first two days bathed in summer sunshine and the second two ravaged by rain and wind. But when the final whistle blew, the consensus of opinion was that York’s Ebor Festival had been an end-to-end thriller.
Sorry about the footballing metaphors. It seems that not even the Olympics can camouflage the start of a new season. But you know what I mean. Certainly you will if you spent a day or four on the Knavesmire last week, lapping up some of the best entertainment Team GB Racing can deliver.
The trendy riposte to those who object to turning the sport into an artificial singing and dancing circus for the alcohol-fuelled masses is that racing should be fun. Well, if York’s meeting wasn’t fun, packing in as it did top-class, competitive racing, on a majestic racecourse, among sensibly-sized crowds that created a pleasant and comfortable atmosphere, then I don’t what is.
It definitely seemed to float the boats of Irish owners Aidan ‘Red’ Shiels and friends, judging by their wild celebrations after HEARTBREAK CITY’S runaway romp in the Ebor itself. Celebrations that even surpassed those the previous day of another owner, Clive Washbourn, who let rip with abandon when his juvenile colt, CONTRAPPOSTO, flew home to snatch second in the big £60,000 Convivial Maiden as a 50/1 shot.
Fun for those whose passion for racing runs as deep as Shiels’s and Washbourn’s equates to revelling in the kind of performances and storylines that emerged from York’s showpiece festival. Here’s my potted day-by-day review, complete with a handful of horses to follow:
DAY ONE (WEDNESDAY)
When the Ebor Festival was washed out by heavy rain in 2008, Juddmonte International Day became the first of four to be abandoned. This time round, the day belonged to POSTPONED, authoritative winner of the near £1 million Group One.
Roger Varian’s 5yo dismissed doubts not only about the wellbeing and form of the yard’s string, but also, and more significantly, the horse’s dubious record over 10f. One of the rare astute uses of a pacemaker, coupled with an eminently sensible ride by the brilliant Andrea Atzeni, put the fears to bed as Postponed made full use of his stamina to stride clear from the 3f pole.
A tilt at the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, for which he would surely have gone close last season but for owner Sheikh Mohammed Obaid’s fall-out with previous trainer Luca Cumani, is the logical next step. However, the outcome was also a welcome shot in the arm for the increasingly maligned King George, with the 2015 winner of Ascot’s great race beating into second this year’s winner, HIGHLAND REEL.
The opening day also featured, albeit in a sub-standard Great Voltigeur Stakes, a similarly convincing performance by IDAHO, particularly as he was only just ready after a break and was given a lot to do in rear. As we identified after the Derby, the son of Galileo is a class act, although I wouldn’t be certain that he’ll appreciate the extra 2f of the St Leger, for which he is now a short favourite. His style of running, his turn of speed and his pedigree all point to his optimum trip being 12f or even 10f.
THREE TO FOLLOW: Mutakkayef, Oceane, La Casa Tarifa.
DAY TWO (THURSDAY)
A swathe of well-fanced horses obliged during the week. But a notable exception was the 2yo Frankel filly, FAIR EVA, turned over at 4/11 in the 6f Lowther Stakes. Excuses abounded, but not from seasoned trainer Roger Charlton, who kept a cool head and wisely suggested that she was simply beaten by a speedier offspring of the great horse and is more of a miler than a sprinter. In fact, the winner, QUEEN KINDLY, looked special, and the runner-up, ROLY POLY, is improving rapidly too.
Improvement is also the key word belonging to SEVENTH HEAVEN, who powered to victory in the Yorkshire Oaks, swamping two top-notch rivals, FOUND and QUEEN’S TRUST, who were travelling much more sweetly. Aidan O’Brien’s filly has stepped up dramatically for hold-up tactics and galloping tracks.
THREE TO FOLLOW: Mustashry, Abingdon, Jadaayil.
DAY THREE (FRIDAY)
As the rain clouds hovered, punters were faced with their worst guessing-game nightmare, particularly for a fiendishly competitive renewal of the Coolmore Nunthorpe. In the end, enough rain soaked one of the fastest 5f tracks in the country to allow MECCA’S ANGEL to treat us to a textbook display of polished sprinting. When sold to the breeding sheds at the end of the season, the 5yo grey will surely fetch a fee of seven figures.
Not for the first or last time during the meeting, the runner-up ran a blinder as well, especially as LIMATO was tackling the minimum trip for the first time.
Half an hour earlier, what a delight it was too to see NEMORALIA back in the winner’s enclosure. If ever there was a Group One heroine in waiting, Jeremy Noseda’s filly is it.
THREE TO FOLLOW: Rivet, Via Serendipity, Another Touch.
DAY FOUR (SATURDAY)
Contrary to public myth, most of Irish handler Tony Martin’s UK plots and raids do NOT succeed. But this one did, with knobs on, as 5lb claimer Adam McNamara was showered with glowing praise for steering home HEARTBREAK CITY in the Ebor.
The 6yo dual-purpose gelding had to share the limelight, however, with Gimcrack winner BLUE POINT, who laughed at criticism of his defeat at Goodwood. Yes, he’d been a beaten odds-on shot on the Downs, but only in a massive step-up in class against the best UK-trained juvenile seen so far this season, MEHMAS.
THREE TO FOLLOW: a real shame that Sandown’s Solario day clashed with York. Hope that, as a result, you didn’t miss the eyecatching runs of Persuasive, South Seas and Cartmell Cleave.
Skelton’s gold medal caps the most colourful of life-stories
All kinds of sports received a boost via Team GB’s record-breaking heroics at the Rio Olympics. And thankfully, racing didn’t miss out, courtesy of Nick Skelton, father of Jumps trainer Dan and jockey Harry, who strode to a glorious gold medal. As a youngster in the mid-1970s and early 1980s, I remember watching Skelton as a rookie rider, under the wing of Ted Edgar, when showjumping was shown on primetime TV by the BBC. His tear-jerking achievement in Brazil, made all the more remarkable by his well-documented broken neck and hip replacement, caps the most colourful of life-stories both on and off horseback. I loved how he deflected credit to his admirable mount, the 13-year-old Big Star. But I will love even more the updated version of his superb autobiography, ‘Only Falls And Horses’.