Donn's Articles » Juddmonte Match

Juddmonte Match

There was a point, about a furlong and a half from home in the Juddmonte International at York on Tuesday, when it looked like Sea The Stars was not going to get to Mastercraftsman. Johnny Murtagh had eased Mastercraftsman through the gap that had presented itself between his two pace-setting stable companions, Set Sail and Georgebernardshaw, a furlong earlier, and Kinane on the favourite had followed him through. It was a brave move by Kinane. The safer course of action would have been to have gone around, but that wasn’t the shortest course, he would have used up vital energy in so doing, and it was energy that he may have needed to overhaul the Ballydoyle colt a furlong later.

Kinane was outnumbered, and he knew that he wouldn’t be in receipt of any favours from Colm O’Donoghue or Seamie Heffernan. It’s not team tactics, it’s just race riding. It got tight enough as he moved through the gap, and if Sea The Stars hadn’t managed to get his withers in between the closing doors just as Mastercraftsman exited, the elevator may have gone up without him. As it was, he got there easily, but he also got there too early. Sea The Stars is a horse who doesn’t do a great deal when he gets to the front. It is part of what makes him so good, he only does enough to win, keeps a little for himself, doesn’t dig so deeply into his as yet unquantifiable depths of reserves so as to make recovery an issue. In five Group race wins to date, he has never won by more than two lengths.

After squeezing him a little to go through the gap, Kinane eased off the accelerator – not yet – but just as he did Murtagh kicked on. Suddenly the two-furlong pole was flashing past and the champion had two lengths to find on the quickening leader. The fact that he was able to find them, and another one to surge past, gave the superlatives-seekers more headaches. There is nothing this horse cannot do.

Mastercraftsman is a high class competitor, a top class miler who gave every indication that he would improve for stepping up to 10 furlongs. According to Racing Post Ratings, his performance on Tuesday in defeat was the best of his life, better than his Irish Guineas win, better than his St James’s Palace Stakes win. If Sea The Stars hadn’t been in the race, he would have broken the track record on his own. He is a horse in a hundred thousand; he was just unlucky on the day to come up against a horse in a million.

Michael Kinane said afterwards that – scary thought – John Oxx had left a little bit to work on with Sea The Stars with the Irish Champion Stakes at Leopardstown on 5th September in mind. All things being equal, Irish Derby hero Fame And Glory will be waiting for him there. So will everybody with even a tangential interest in racing.

Just as Ballydoyle’s Juddmonte International plan on Tuesday was mirrored exactly by actuality until 200 yards from the line, their Totesport Ebor plan on Wednesday was in tatters before they had gone 200 yards. Changingoftheguard had been all the rage for the Ebor for quite some time. As big as 10/1 in the ante post markets when betting opened on the race, he was backed down to 4/1 ante post before declaration time on Monday, and down again to 15/8 favourite on the day. That’s as short as they get in 20-runner handicaps.

The son of Montjeu threw his head in the air as the stalls opened. It wasn’t dangerous, it wasn’t really anything out of the ordinary, but the timing was disastrous, and it meant that every other horse had left the gate before the Ballydoyle one. Suddenly, the 15/8 shot had to pass all 19 of his rivals and, in a heartbeat, he was a 4/1 or a 5/1 shot again.

Murtagh made as much progress along the rail as he could without forsaking too much ground, but space is rarely in plentiful supply in a £200,000 handicap. When they turned into the straight, he hoped that they would swing wide and progress down the centre of the track. If they had, he could have made his ground on the far side when he wanted, there is enough time in York’s four and a half furlong home straight to move through a field, but they didn’t. Ryan Moore on Warringah stuck to the inside rail, limpet-like, and the rest followed, sheep-like.

While Murtagh was ducking and weaving his way through the field on the inside, young Gary Carroll was asking his mare, Sesenta, to progress up the centre of the track. Sesenta progressed unimpeded under a strong drive from Carroll, as Changingoftheguard made his painstaking way through a maze of horses. Both arrived at the line almost upsides, another Irish one-two, but it was the Willie Mullins-trained mare who stuck her pint-sized nose in front. If she was any smaller, she would surely have been in Dingle two weeks ago, not at York on Wednesday.

If this was a red letter day for that good National Hunt trainer Willie Mullins, it was the best day by far in the short career of Gary Carroll, at least four or five times better than the best previous day, according to the jockey himself. The son of former champion apprentice Raymond, and the grandson of Cheltenham Festival-winning jockey Frankie, is no longer the best-kept Irish secret since the spice burger – this win blew that one right out of the water – but it is certain that the 5lb claim of which Mullins so cannily availed on Wednesday will not be a part of the teenage sensation’s armoury for very much longer.

Or at least he was a teenage sensation. He turned 20 yesterday.

© The Sunday Times, 23rd August 2009