By Tony Stafford
On Saturday morning, I was driven up to Doncaster full of hope that Great Hall would make the frame in the Ladbrokes St Leger. Despite weakening in the closing stages, excused by jockey Kieren Fallon as being in part due to his relative inexperience and probably unsuitable ground, the consensus was that he showed plenty for Raymond Tooth to look forward to.
What goes without saying though is that surely it is time to embrace Joseph O’Brien for what he has become, a remarkable young man and an extremely talented jockey.
Being Aidan O’Brien’s son, almost six feet tall and the man selected to ride the Coolmore horses by the age of barely 19, as he was when partnering Camelot to victory in the Investec Derby at Epsom, he deserved far better response than the media was prepared to give him.
Move on another year and a bit, after Camelot’s failed Triple Crown when beaten in last year’s St Leger was in many parts explained as a Joseph blunder, where in fact it was a function of Camelot’s not quite matching the hype which had attempted to equate him to Frankel. Here, Joseph at 20 is streets ahead of the field as he approaches a second successive Irish jockeys’ championship and now was returning to Doncaster as the ultra-confident agent to Leading Light’s emphatic success.
For a few moments, as Fallon brought Great Hall up the rail two from home into a closing third, the impossible seemed almost likely. Before the race he’d told us that Wayne Lordan had nominated middle of the track as the favoured ground, but circumstances forced him to stay near the rail as he attempted to pass two Godolphin horses simultaneously.
But in the end, it was two bits of Classic form, as exhibited by Oaks winner Talent, and Derby third Galileo Rock that earned the places and added a solid look to the final English Classic of 2013. Aiden’s a master; his elder son is bordering on greatness and with the likelihood that the long-anticipated ballooning of his weight just around 9st is being fended off in the George Baker fashion, he could be here for a long time. If not, he’ll make a fair assistant trainer at Ballydoyle.
As to Aidan, what more can you say? Leading Light made it four in a row, having shown enough speed in the spring to win at 10 furlongs, then the stamina for all-the-way triumph in the two-mile Queen’s Vase at Ascot. What to do in the 12 weeks between Ascot and Doncaster? Just prepare him for the big day and the grin on Derrick Smith’s face as he did his characteristic lead-in on Saturday, had an air of inevitability about it.
It was also probably inevitable that Manchester United would get a penalty (which even their media mates believed in error) and at the same time have the opposing Crystal Palace reduced by one at Old Trafford while Arsenal’s defensive qualities were again questioned when their early lead at Sunderland was chalked out by the third penalty they’ve conceded in only four games. That one too was questionable.
What is without question is that United, City, Chelsea, Tottenham and Liverpool, worthy candidates for this most open of Premier League title races, will wonder just how the concerted, may we say conspiratorial, efforts to deny Arsenal any of the important targets their at the time under-fire manager Arsene Wenger had targeted with the £70 million cash he had at his disposal, had failed to prevent Mesut Ozil signing on deadline day.
Some of the wailing, especially from Tottenham’s chairman, and the “bad value” comments of their manager smacked of frustration. At the same time, the idiotic “how will he fit in?” sentiments showed just how unimaginative most football journalists are. If you’re that good, you could play right back and make a fist of it. Watching Saturday’s virus-affected performance, at Sunderland of all places, suggested to many that Ozil will be footballer of the year. I’ve rarely seen a player so instantly take control of a ball, however it’s played to him, and instinctively know where he’ll put it.
I was wrong about backing Great Hall for the St Leger, but I know I’m right about Arsenal. Considering the difficulties that the three accepted top clubs will encounter under their new managers – and they’ve all dropped unexpected points already – the 10-1 about the most stable club in the country is amazingly generous.
On Saturday, when many of their players had been away playing two international games, and others were unfit to play partly or entirely because of those exertions, they overcame a trip that in the recent past would have tested them far more seriously than this. Mertesacker, previously a joke object in the media, has – like John Terry – overcome his limitations as the assets of reading the game and engendering a team spirit have developed. He was missing with a worse version of Ozil’s sickness. He’ll be back quickly though.
Giroud, the centre-forward who they reckoned not good enough, made it four from four, each time the first goal in the game, with another sure finish. Arsenal won despite being without long or medium-term absentees Podolski, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Sanogo (their freebie French import), Rosicky, Arteta, Cazorla and Diaby (as usual). No strength in depth? I’m going in again – what happened to that no-punting pledge?