York’s enjoyable Ebor Festival nails the myth about this year’s 3yos

Frankie Dettori salutes the York crowd after victory on Poet's Society to make Mark Johnston (centre) the winningmost trainer in British racing history. (PHOTO BY: James Hardisty)

I have been making the annual pilgrimage to York’s Ebor Festival since the late 1980s, and I never fail to be gripped by its charms.

This is racing not only at its best, but at its purest. Unfettered by needless hype. Untroubled by gimmicky, musical sideshows.

Spectators in a happy mood during the Ebor Festival at York last week (PHOTO BY: James Hardisty)

Expertly presented by a course that puts the horse and the customer first and understands the importance of seriously hefty prize money.

Last week’s renewal was characteristically enjoyable, topped and tailed as it was by sprint handicap winners, EL ASTRONAUTE and EEH BAH GUM, two of nine winners of the 25 races, appropriately trained in Yorkshire.

The individual training feats of John Gosden and Mark Johnston enriched the enjoyment as they chased the millions and the records. Not to mention the riding feats of the irrepressible Frankie Dettori, who topped the jockey charts with five winners, all highly relevant ones. Indeed the only disappointment was the failure of the big-gun shootout between sprinting aces BATTAASH and BLUE POINT to materialise.

Few facets of the meeting gave as much pleasure as the comprehensive nailing of the myth that this year’s Classic generation is not up to scratch.

All smiles from Mark Johnston after he broke the record at York last week for the number of winners by a British trainer. (PHOTO BY: James Hardisty)

About seven weeks ago, someone, somewhere decreed that the 3yos were no good. Prematurely, Ridiculously. And as so often happens within racing, the self-appointed experts, including some of of the industry’s respected scribes and pundits, jumped on the bandwagon and peddled the same nonsense.

Since then, ROARING LION has landed the Coral-Eclipse. A 3yo. ALPHA CENTUARI has been crowned queen of the milers. A 3yo. And US NAVY FLAG has pocketed the summer’s big sprinting prize, the Darley July Cup. A 3yo.

Now York has revelled in the performances of a trio of 3yos, the selfsame ROARING LION (Juddmonte International), SEA OF CLASS (Yorkshire Oaks) and LAH TI DAR (Galtres Stakes), who stamped themselves as three of the season’s most exciting talents.

Gosden’s grey Roaring Lion has made remarkable progress since he was dismissed last autumn by one of those so-called experts on the Racing Post’s ‘Monday Jury’ page as not having much scope or appeal for the future. Indeed he has made remarkable progress since he was thrashed by more than nine lengths on his seasonal debut at Newmarket’s Craven Meeting, albeit by the subsequent Derby hero, MASAR.

What has brought out the best in him is discovering his ideal trip. A bit like 7f, which lies between sprinting distances and 1m, 10f is considered a specialist’s trip, sitting as it does between the Classic distances of 1m and 12f. And a bit like SIR DANCEALOT and EXPERT EYE (another York winner and another 3yo), who have excelled over seven this term, Roaring Lion is tailormade for the ten. It suits his cruising speed. It suits his potent turn of foot.

There was a time when 10f was thought likely to be Sea Of Class’s optimum trip too. But her last-to-first Oaks double at The Curragh and here on the Knavesmire has put paid to that. Few can convince me she wouldn’t have won the Epsom version too had not trainer William Haggas exercised caution over her shortage of the requisite experience, having not raced as a juvenile.

I say ‘few’ because those close to Lah Ti Dar might be able to persuade me that their filly would have prevailed on the Surrey Downs. She was, of course, favourite for the Classic when ruled out by injury a week before the race, and her stunning display in routing an albeit ordinary Galtres field suggests she must have gone close to justifying that status.

Maybe we will be given a better idea of who would have taken the Epsom race when the pair duel in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe in October. Given the excellent record of fillies in Europe’s premier contest, both will have their legions of supporters.

With the likes of ENABLE and CRACKSMAN waiting in the wings, the Arc is developing into a mmonster race and one that looks almost certain to be plundered by a British raider, unless Andre Fabre’s WALDGEIST can at last fulfil the potential he has always promised.

Among those raiders, I wouldn’t be in a rush to rule out POET’S WORD, despite his defeat in the Juddmonte at York. Yes, jockey James Doyle got locked in traffic trouble, but Sir Michael Stoute’s 5yo also looked a shade flat after his considerable exertions in winning the King George at Ascot only 25 days earlier. Freshened up, he could make his current Arc price of 10/1 look huge.

Connections of Lah Ti Dar have all but ruled out a tilt at the William Hill St Leger en route to Longchamp, which should pave the way for KEW GARDENS to land the Doncaster Classic on Saturday, September 15. Indeed I would go as far as to say Aidan O’Brien’s colt is nailed on and represents one of the bets of the season.

Despite defeat, he ran a blinder in a red-hot Great Voltigeur Stakes at York, giving weight away to Godolphin’s admirable front two, OLD PERSIAN and CROSS COUNTER. After a minor setback that forced him to miss the King George, Kew Gardens was given a quiet ride from the rear by Ryan Moore, but is already proven over the Leger trip and allies class to stamina.

Not for the first time this season, O’Brien was upstaged by some of his UK counterparts at York. But many of his charges still performed well, most notably the 2yo filly FAIRYLAND, who landed the Lowther Stakes in one of two desperately tight photos during the week (the other barely splitting ALPHA DELPHINI and MABS CROSS in the Coolmore Nunthorpe). O’Brien deserves massive credit for fielding such a strong team considering the bug that has ravaged the yard this summer and the shameful enthusiasm in some parts of the media for his subsequent declining win-ratio on these shores.

There was a time when Mark Johnston’s slim pickings at York were also the subject of close scrutiny. So how ironic that the Knavesmire’s most prestigious meeting was the venue for his record-breaking 4,194th career winner, surpasssing the previous all-time high of Richard Hannon snr.

I must stay I couldn’t get as excited as some by the achievement. In my view, far too much emphasis is placed on quantity, over quality, within racing. It manifests itself too over Jumps via Dan and Harry Skelton, who churn out the winners at low-grade tracks in low-grade races but are struggling to produce many top-level animals. And it is the reason why the Flat jockeys’ championship is now so devalued, given its emphasis on the willingness to travel to all corners of the country, at all times of the day, to take rides, rather than ability in the saddle.

Nevertheless, winners pay the bills, keep staff in jobs and make the game worthwhile for owners, so who can argue with the likes of Johnston delivering such goods year after year? Few punters can read him, nor his apparent policy of run-and-be-damned, while many critics accuse him of failing to make the most of promising 2yos as they progress, the latest example being ELARQAM, who has not gone forward since finishing fourth in the Qipco 2,000 Guineas.

But a record of 100 winners or more in a season no fewer than 25 times is some effort. And let’s face it, there is no template for training success. If there were, we would surely all be following that of Mr Gosden, whose tally of winners stands at a mere 2,762 in comparison to Johnston but whose tally of top-notch horses and big-race wins dwarfs that of the Scotsman.

What a week it was for the amiable and erudite 67-year-old. Launched by Roaring Lion’s success and wrapped up by a one-two in the Sky Bet Ebor Handicap, courtesy of MUNTAHAA and WEEKENDER. The Ebor will be worth £1 million next year but, no matter, Gosden has already trousered that after STRADIVARIUS completed the four-timer required to land the inaugural Weatherbys Hamilton Stayers’ Bonus.

The tenacious chestnut was only workmanlike in winning the Lonsdale Cup and is almost certainly due a rest. But the achievement spoke volumes of Gosden and confirmed, if we didn’t already know, what a colossus of the sport he has become.

At a track where racing dates back to Roman times, and in a city, Eboracum, steeped in Roman history, the Colossus of Gosden stood tall.

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