Stars ready to come out to play for glittering Ebor meeting York

By Andy Stephens@StevoGG
Wed 22 Aug 2018

Racecourses are increasingly using gimmicks and music acts to get bums on seats but marketing and extras will not be required at York this week.

You cannot beat good old-fashioned horse power and there will be a stack to gets the revs running on the Knavesmire during the Welcome to Yorkshire Ebor Festival, which starts on Wednesday.

It promises to be the meeting that keeps on giving, with a glittering equine cast threaded together with a string of seductive storylines.

All bar one of the eight runners in the £1 million Juddmonte International on Wednesday have at least one Group One win on their CV, with favourite Poet’s Word seeking a rare treble after his previous wins in the Prince of Wales’s Stakes and King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes this summer.

The only other horse to pull off the hat-trick was Duke Of Marmalade, ten years ago, when York was saturated and the showpiece had to be staged at Newmarket four days later.

What should have been a memorable achievement ended in rancour because Aidan O’Brien and his jockeys were accused - and subsequently found guilty and fined - of team tactics.

 Doyle celebrates winning the King George on Poet's Word and will be seeking a third big win on him - at the expense of his Godolphin employers. (Focusonracing)
Doyle celebrates winning the King George on Poet's Word and will be seeking a third big win on him - at the expense of his Godolphin employers. (Focusonracing)

There will be no such repeat this time because Saxon Warrior, the 2,000 Guineas winner, is Coolmore’s sole representative, although the master of Ballydoyle will field four runners, including another Group One winner in Kew Gardens, in a Great Voltigeur Stakes that seems bound to have a huge bearing on next month’s St Leger.

I am not sure what you call the opposite of team tactics, but Godolphin's handling of James Doyle seems a pretty good example of it. Nobody is riding with quite as much brio as the 30-year-old, who has quickly forged a formidable partnership with Poet’s Word.

It remains utterly perplexing that Doyle, who is retained by Godolphin, is riding for UAE businessman Saeed Suhail even though Saeed Bin Suroor will saddle the best two horses in his care - Thunder Snow and Benbatl - in one of the biggest races of the season.

Doyle lost his leading role with Bin Suroor two years ago, with the trainer subsequently sticking to his policy of choosing "the best available”.

This year, that has meant him juggling 31 jockeys - but never Doyle - and, last year, 40, with the man retained by Sheikh Mohammed again surplus to requirements.

Watch our mini-documentary about Frankel's Juddmonte International win.

If there are 40 riders superior to Doyle right now, then the weighing room has never been in better shape.

A total of 68 other trainers did call upon Doyle last year, and it has been a similar story this campaign, with 55 handlers happy to employ him.

It is difficult to fathom Bin Suroor's logic, or that of the Godolphin hierarchy. Imagine managing a football club and letting your star centre forward (who you pay a decent wedge of cash) play against you in one of the most high-profile fixtures of the season.

Not only that, but Oisin Murphy, who was always going to partner Roaring Lion at York, rode Benbatl and Thunder Snow in recent workouts and, as a consequence, knows exactly what kind of shape they are in.

Such information about wellbeing and level of fitness could be crucial, whereas if Doyle had been aboard - or Will Buick, Godolphion's other retained jockey - then no secrets would have slipped out.

William Haggas has been the chief beneficiary of Doyle being overlooked - the pair combining in devastating style with the victory of Sea Of Class in the Irish Oaks.

Doyle gave the daughter of Sea The Stars one of the most daring rides of the year, coming from last to first to collar Forever Together by a neck in the final strides without using his whip, and it will be fascinating to see what tactics he employs aboard her in Thursday’s Darley Yorkshire Oaks rematch.

 Sea Of Class, right, pegs back Forever Together in the Irish Oaks at the Curragh. (PA)
Sea Of Class, right, pegs back Forever Together in the Irish Oaks at the Curragh. (PA)

Similar hold-up tactics can be hard to execute on quick ground at York - the flat nature of the track can make it easy for those at the head of affairs to keep on rolling - and there will also be a new rival in Laurens to pass.

The Karl Burke-trained filly has never quite got the credit she deserves, probably because none of her five wins have been by more than a neck, but she is a triple Group One winner with a fantastic attitude who should be suited by stepping up in distance.

It could be a classic clash - the high-class cruiser with a great turn of foot trying to overhaul the relentless, never-say-die galloper.

If the first two days somehow disappoint, then a fabulous double bill on Friday is long odds-on to deliver.

Stradivarius has dominated the staying division this year and, should he add the Weatherbys Hamilton Lonsdale Cup to earlier triumphs in the Yorkshire Cup, Gold Cup and Goodwood Cup, will land his connections a £1 million bonus offered by the sponsors.

Plenty suggested the Stayers’ Million could never be won when it was launched in the spring but Stradivarius is a general 1-2 to get the job done at the first attempt. And when you consider he has started at 4-6, 7-4 and 4-5 for his other wins, you realise the notion of the bonus being won was never quite as far-fetched as some assumed.

Watch how Battaash left his rivals reeling at Goodwood last month

An hour or so later, the emphasis will switch from stamina to speed with Battaash seeking to cement his standing as the fastest horse in the world in the Coolmore Nunthorpe Stakes.

The Charlie Hills-trained gelding put up another stunning exhibition of pace when landing the King George for a second successive year at Goodwood last month but memories linger of how he found the pre-race demands of York too much to handle 12 months ago.

If his team can keep him relaxed and happy in the build-up, then the opposition is unlikely to see which way he goes. But expect his cramped odds to lengthen if he starts to become fractious.

The Melrose, Acomb, Gimcrack and Lowther are among other highlights over the four days and, while there is no Group One action on the final day, Saturday, a pattern-class performer will almost certainly be required to land the Sky Bet Ebor.

Stratum, the hot ante-post favourite, has an official rating of 102 but is among those in danger of missing the cut for the £500,000 contest, which next year will be worth double that.

Quality control? He would be a rare victim of that at York this week.

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