Donn's Articles » Yeats


If equine achievements were human awards, the Ascot Gold Cup would be the Nobel Prize for stamina, and the quadruped Yeats would be going in search of his fourth on Thursday. Never before has it been done. Strange for a prime number, an odd number, but there is a sense of symmetry around the number three, a sense of completeness. Three strikes, three kings, three persons. Three places on the podium, three musketeers, three wishes. When Brazil won the Jules Rimet Trophy three times, they kept it. When you score three goals, you take the match ball home with you. We have everyday words for three: trio, triumvirate, hat-trick, triad, trinity. We don’t really bother with words for four. There is a sense of awkwardness around any word prefixed by quad.

The reality is, we don’t have much call for foursomes, not in racing anyway. With the notable exception of Golden Miller, history tells us that a hat-trick of wins has been sufficient for an indelible link to be forged between great horses and great races: Cottage Rake, Arkle, Hatton’s Grace, See You Then, Istabraq, Best Mate. It doesn’t happen on the flat so much that horses can make a top class race their own, possibly because the three-year-olds are busy competing in Classics which they can only – with the obvious exception of the Irish St Leger these days – win once, possibly because the lure of the breeding shed is such that careers on the flat are generally shorter. The Dermot Weld-trained stalwart Vinnie Roe won his fourth Irish St Leger in 2004, and it took us a long time to get our heads around that one.

Since the Ascot Gold Cup was first run in 1807, only once prior to last year had any horse won it three times. That was the Francois Boutin-trained Sagaro, who won it each year from 1975 to 1977. Top class stayers have come and gone in the interim, Ardross, Gildoran, Kayf Tara, Sadeem, Classic Cliché, but none of them managed to complete a hat-trick. Even the great Le Moss could only win it twice.

There is something about the top class stayer. Ask for a simple explanation of the difference between flat and National Hunt, and you will be told that the flat is all about speed whereas National Hunt is about stamina. But there is an aura about these high class stayers on the flat, an admiration for them that would not be out of place in National Hunt speak. Ardross and Le Moss were giants of their era. Persian Punch and Sergeant Cecil and Royal Rebel and Double Trigger were the gladiators of a more recent age. The courage and tenacity that will be required to win the Ascot Gold Cup on Thursday are qualities that tend to tug at our senses of appreciation and affection more than the raw brute speed that will be on display in the King’s Stand Stakes on Tuesday. That’s what makes the Ascot Gold Cup – a Group 1 race run over two and a half miles, a rarity – such a spectacle.

But don’t think for a second that Yeats is devoid of speed. Indeed, when the Top Ville mare Lyndonville was covered by Sadler’s Wells, the hope was that the resultant foal would be a Derby winner, not a Cup horse. It looked good for a long time. Yeats won his maiden, his sole start as a juvenile in 2003, then won the Ballysax Stakes on his first run as a three-year-old, and followed up by winning the Derrinstown Stud Derby Trial. Three of the four previous winners of the Derrinstown had won the Epsom Derby, all four had won the Irish Derby. Unsurprisingly, Yeats was made ante post favourite for the Epsom Derby after his Derrinstown win, but injury intervened and he didn’t race again that season. The following year, he went and won the Coronation Cup on his second start, over the same course and distance as the Derby for which he should have started favourite 364 days previously.

2006 was the year that Yeats contested his first Ascot Gold Cup. Strange to think now, but there was a question mark over his stamina for two and a half miles then. He had started joint favourite for the Irish St Leger the previous September over a mile and three quarters, and he had come up short. This was his seasonal debut, he was up against a couple of proven stayers in Reefscape and Distinction, and they sent him off the 7/1 fourth favourite. His backers never had a moment’s anxiety. Kieren Fallon sent him on early in the home straight, no stamina doubts, and he came home on his own.

Since that day, Yeats has won 10 of his 15 races. As well as his three Ascot Gold Cups, he has won two Goodwood Cups, an Irish St Leger, and a Prix Royal-Oak. His soundness and his resolution at the age of eight is testament – if further testament were needed – to the horse sense of Aidan O’Brien and all those around Yeats at Ballydoyle. And there is no under-estimating how much Yeats means to the team. Last year, O’Brien had a glittering Royal Ascot, a meeting so successful that even the trainer must have been tempted to put his pioneer pin in his breast pocket and have a glass of champagne. Haradasun won the Queen Anne, Duke Of Marmalade won the Prince of Wales’s Stakes, Henrythenavigator won the St James’s Palace, Macarthur won the Hardwicke. All the stallion-making races were won by the right horses. Yet O’Brien singled out Yeats as his crowning moment of the week.

“I didn’t really think it could happen,” he said then. “It’s incredible. He really is the horse with the largest heart and lungs I have ever been associated with, and I mean physically.”

It was easy to believe him. The master of Ballydoyle doesn’t do metaphors.

It is not going to be easy for Yeats on Thursday, however. His preparation has been far from flawless. He was well beaten on his only run to date this season, in the Vintage Crop Stakes at Navan in April, producing by far the worst performance figure of his career. In mitigation, the ground was really soft that day, and it was his seasonal debut, so it is easy to forgive him that. Significantly, the vibes from the yard have been positive in the last few days.

The stats are against him also. As well as the fact that he is venturing into the unknown, bidding to become the first horse ever to win the race four times, his age is an issue. Before last year, only one seven-year-old since the war had won the Ascot Gold Cup. Yeats emulated Drum Taps by winning the race last year as a veteran. This year he is eight. Not easy.

John Butler Yeats reputedly once said: “Some day I will be remembered as the father of a great poet, and the poet is Jack.” His father got one leg of the double wrong. It was William Butler who achieved household-name status and became the first Irishman to receive a Nobel Prize for literature. However, it was Jack after whom Sue Magnier named her horse.

On Thursday, it could be Jack Yeats who is the toast of Ascot.

© The Sunday Times, 14th June 2009