Something Vaguely Noble about Golden Horn…

Sunday supplement on a Monday

By Tony Stafford

When Frankie Dettori rode all those years for Godolphin, the one place which seemed to bring out the best of his abilities was Longchamp. Yesterday in a potentially pressure-cooker atmosphere, he produced a ride on Golden Horn which showed that when fully motivated, he remains one of the best jockeys of all time.

The build-up to the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe 2015 was all about Treve, winner the last twice and now going for a record third win in France’s greatest race. Dettori, who, once signed by Al Shaqab in the late summer of 2013, would have been on the Criquette Head-trained heroine in the big race that October but for an untimely fall going out to ride in a mickey mouse race at Nottingham a couple of weeks earlier.

He’d already been on Treve when she won the Prix Vermeille on her fourth career start, taking over from Thierry Jarnet. Fit again the next spring, Frankie was on board for defeats at odds on, first narrowly behind the warrior Cirrus des Aigles in the Ganay and then when third to John Gosden’s filly The Fugue in the Prince of Wales Stakes at Royal Ascot.

The fast ground at Ascot that day was the major factor attributed to her defeat, but it also gave Criquette wriggle room to engineer the replacement of Dettori in favour of the filly’s original partner.

So when the Arc came around last autumn, Frankie was a gloomy-looking figure on Coolmore’s Ruler of the World in the ruck as Jarnet (in whom Al Shaqab had just bought a controlling stake) and France’s two top racing stars, Treve and Criquette, secured a spectacular second win, by two lengths from Flintshire.

That success happened more than a week before Golden Horn’s narrow debut win at Nottingham over Storm the Stars, overcoming inexperience against his once-raced rival who was to figure well among this season’s major middle-distance races and win the Great Voltigeur from Bondi Beach.

In one of those quirks of good fortune which have usually accompanied Dettori, his relative inaction before the new season when it was decided he would not be on the Al Shaqab French horses came in his favour. It meant he could ride work regularly for John Gosden, his main employer two decades ago before Godolphin came calling. Ironically, the Gosden opening happened because William Buick, the stable jockey at Clarehaven since the end of his apprentice days with Andrew Balding, was signing for Godolphin, along with James Doyle.

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Buick, buoyed by a massive financial deal, a spectacular winter in Dubai for his new bosses and the daily domestic requirements of Charlie Appleby’s stable, was never going to be as readily available to Gosden as had previously been the case.

So Frankie got the ride and I remember a friend coming back to me at the Craven meeting, saying: “Frankie likes this horse” without its registering too much before the colt’s nice win in the Feilden Stakes. The perception quickly changed after the Dante, which brought an emphatic defeat of better-fancied stable-mate Jack Hobbs, with Buick back on as Dettori partnered the Epsom-bound favourite.

Dettori would never again doubt Golden Horn. Before almost every one of the embryo champion’s subsequent races, there were delicate questions which, without the cool-headed approach of the trainer and the pioneering spirit passed down through generations of diamond and gold prospectors since those days in South Africa to Anthony Oppenheimer, could easily have been answered differently.

In an earlier era, in my formative years following racing, there was a horse called Vaguely Noble, a three-year-old who in ability terms was right up there, not far behind the likes of Sea-Bird, the 1965 winner of the Arc from the best international field ever assembled for the great race.

Vaguely Noble was foaled in the same year as Sea-Bird’s Derby and Arc wins, but unlike that brilliant horse was never entered for any Classic races. His breeder, Major Lionel Holliday, had died in the year of his foaling. Until this morning I was under the misapprehension it was the fact of the major’s death that disqualified the horse from running in the Derby as had been the case in the 19th Century at any rate. But further research (looked at Google!) suggests it was the son’s lack of confidence in Vaguely Noble’s sire Vienna, a decent racehorse but ordinary stallion, that made the Derby an unlikely target.

In the event, Brook Holliday won two nice juvenile races with him, the Sandwich Stakes at Ascot by 12 lengths and then the Observer Gold Cup (now Racing Post Trophy), by seven lengths both in soft going. With the Derby already closed and death duties to pay on his late father’s estate, Holliday reluctantly decided to sell and was rewarded with a then world record 136,000gns from the American owner and breast-enhancer, Dr Robert Franklin.

In the spirit of “two are always better than one”, the scalpel-brandisher sold a half to Nelson Bunker Hunt, the man who tried to corner the silver bullion market and almost went skint. Vaguely Noble raced in Nelson’s colours and they sent him to Sea-Bird’s trainer, Etienne Pollet, who prepared the colt to win four of the his remaining five races.

After successes in the Prix de Guiche and Prix du Lys, it was quite a shock when he was only third in the Grand Prix du Saint-Cloud, but he won his prep for the Arc and in the big race did a Sea-Bird demolition job on another stellar field beating the Vincent O’Brien-trained and Lester Piggott-ridden Sir Ivor, who had been so impressive in that year’s Derby.

As a stallion Vaguely Noble produced one of the best mares in history in Dahlia and from the same crop, Nobiliary, the only filly since 1916 to be placed in the Derby in which she was a three-length second to Grundy. In the final race of her career she had Dahlia well back as she won the Washington DC International. Dahlia stayed in training for two more seasons and collected many big races.

Derby winner Empery and top class colt Gay Mecene were also products of Vaguely Noble.

I digress into that history merely to illustrate how good fortune can shape a horse’s career. Golden Horn came along at a time when horses could be supplemented for many major races. Both in the Derby and the Arc a tight decision had to be made. In the case of Epsom, it was primarily whether the colt would get a mile and a half. Many called it a no-brainer, but had Golden Horn not coped with the gradients or failed to stay, the no-brainer would have been anything but.

Then when the Arc came along, the main worry would have been the fear of soft ground or worse but as Longchamp bathed in warm autumn sunshine over the past week, Gosden and Oppenheimer were again in no-brainer territory and Gosden had the happy situation of being able to reserve Jack Hobbs for other ambitions.

The Derby winner had already coped with the drop back to ten furlongs for the Eclipse, which he won with a front-running master-class from Dettori, but his sole defeat, by the filly Arabian Queen in the Juddmonte, took away the “unbeaten” tag and its accompanying implications where a stud career is concerned. Then there was the Curragh bumping episode when once again the fates (stewards) intervened on the right side for Golden Horn.

Yesterday, Flintshire again finished a two-length second. New Bay, like Flintshire trained by Andre Fabre and the French Derby winner, was third with Treve only fourth. She was warm before the start, pretty hot in the race and very probably inconvenienced by the fast ground.

Treve is truly a wonderful filly, but it is interesting that only once did she stray further away than the twenty miles to Paris in an eleven-race career – for that Ascot flop which ended Frankie’s brief association. Golden Horn has been on a series of longish lorry rides to races in the UK, and then to Ireland and France, usually coming out smiling and on top of the pile.

Frankie’s amazing initial wide trajectory from the high draw in the stalls set the pattern. His prominent position left little doubt that by now the stamina question was long gone. This was one of racing’s great days and performances, and reminiscent in many ways of Sea the Stars (also by Cape Cross). Knowing Mr Oppenheimer (actually I don’t), I reckon it’s a certainty that he and his great horse will be on the plane to Keeneland for the Turf to conclude a truly great career, masterfully handled by Big John. Then it’s stud under the Darley management. Watch out Coolmore!


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