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July Cup report

It took almost as long for the judge to determine the winner of yesterday’s Darley July Cup after the horses had crossed the winning line as it took the same horses to get from the starting stalls to the same winning line.  When the judge determined that he could call a winner, the announcement came, first number 14, Muhaarar, and rider Paul Hanagan’s face lit up.

This race had been on Muhaarar’s radar for a while.  The July Cup lure was always going to be difficult to resist after the Charlie Hills-trained colt had danced away from his rivals in the inaugural running of the Group 1 Commonwealth Cup at Royal Ascot last month.  Even in the winner’s enclosure at Royal Ascot, July Cup talk was difficult to stem.  It was the obvious next step.

That’s the thing about this racing game: it is often more about the next step than it is about the current one.

Muhaarar won the Commonwealth Cup by almost four lengths, he was one of the most impressive winners of the entire Royal Ascot meeting, but that was against his contemporaries, he beat fellow three-year-olds in the Commonwealth Cup.  The July Cup was another step up.  In the July Cup, he was swimming in the open waters of all-aged competition.

All week, Brazen Beau shared the July Cup preamble and the top of the ante post market with Muhaarar.  A dual Group 1 winner at Flemington, the Australian horse was another who was coming to Newmarket via Royal Ascot.  Runner-up in the Diamond Jubilee Stakes on the final day of the Royal meeting, there was a school of though that said that, if the Chris Waller-trained colt had been ridden closer to his rivals that day instead of out on his own on the wing, he might have finished first instead of second.

In the end, the bookmakers couldn’t split the two market rivals, sending them off the 2/1 joint favourites, but it didn’t look good for either as the runners flashed past the two-furlong pole.  At that stage, James Doyle was riding Brazen Beau along on the far side and Hanagan was hard at work on Muhaarar closer to the stands rail.

Outsider Tropics led the field as they met the rising ground, and he looked certain to hold on as he led by almost a length with no more than 100 yards to run, trading at less than 1/4 in-running.  However, Hanagan conjured a power-packed finish from Muharrar, and Sheikh Hamdan’s colt stretched his neck out and surged forward to get up and win by a nose.

“I always just thought he was going to get there,” said Hanagan, who was winning his second July Cup, having bagged his first Group 1 prize in Britain in the 2012 renewal of the race on Mayson.

For Tropics and his trainer Dean Ivory, it was July Cup heartbreak once more.  Last year the trainer watched as his horse – sent off a 66/1 shot on the day – beat everything except favourite Slade Power.  Yesterday, he was shorter in the betting, but he was still a 25/1 shot, and he was foiled by just one rival again, by one rival’s nose.  Tropics is seven years old now, but he is as good as ever on this evidence and he deserves to land a Group 1 prize.

For Muhaarar, it was a second Group 1 prize, a first against his elders, and a significant step on the road to the champion sprinter’s title.

“I was worried about the track more than anything,” said trainer Charlie Hills.  “He didn’t come down the hill too well, but he’s a fighter and he galloped all the way to the line.  He’s just a very good horse.”

Bred by Shadwell Estate, Sheikh Hamdan’s colt actually started off this season as a Guineas prospect.  He broke the track record when he won the Greenham Stakes over seven furlongs at Newbury in April and, after he ran well in defeat from a wide draw in the French Guineas over a mile, the decision was taken to drop him back down to sprint distances.

In winning the July Cup, he was emulating his sire Oasis Dream, who also beat his elders in the 2003 renewal of the race as a three-year-old.  Oasis Dream dropped down in trip for his next run to win the Group 1 Nunthorpe Stakes at York over five furlongs, but Muhaarar is more likely to go up in trip again now than down.

“He’s in the Prix Maurice de Gheest (over six and a half furlongs) and the Haydock Sprint Cup (over six),” said Hills, “I think seven furlongs is no problem for him either.  And there’s Ascot at the end of the year.”

They’ll be the next steps then.

© The Sunday Times, 12th July 2015