Donn's Articles » British flat season

British flat season

When the runners streamed past the line in the Balmoral Handicap, the last race at Ascot yesterday, the curtain slowly came down on another British Champions’ Day.

It also marked the end of the newly-shortened Flat jockeys’ championship, and the coronation of Silvestre de Sousa as champion for the first time.  The Flat turf season still has three weeks to run, three weeks for its embers to cool, but the raging flames of the season are just red glows now and, with the tectonic plates slowly shifting towards the jumpers, this is the time to reflect.

There was no superstar to match Sea The Stars or Frankel this year, there was no controversy to match the whip-rules controversy of 2011, but there were still stars and there was still controversy.


Dettori renaissance

Frankie Dettori’s renaissance was a thread that ran through the entire season.  It was as recently as 2012 that the effervescent Italian lost his job as Godolphin’s first rider, a development that was as surprising as the ban that ensued for the use of recreational drugs.  At that point, it appeared that there may not be too many more flying dismounts.

Reality sometimes trumps fiction.  At the start of this season, William Buick left John Gosden to take up the role as one of the Godolphin riders, a position made vacant by Dettori’s departure.  That left Gosden, a former Dettori mentor, with a vacancy.

Re-enter Dettori to form an alliance with Gosden that would complement admirably his new role as Sheikh Joaan’s number one rider.  What followed was truly remarkable: an Epsom Derby, a French Oaks, a Diamond Jubilee, an Eclipse, a Prix Morny, an Irish Champion Stakes, a Middle Park Stakes, an Arc de Triomphe, and flying dismounts all over the place.

Golden run

Golden Horn was a significant contributor to the Dettori renaissance, supplying, as he did, four of the rider’s eight Group 1 wins this season, including the Derby and the Arc.

When John Gosden’s colt lined up in the Dante at York in May, he didn’t even hold a Derby entry.  He wasn’t favourite for the Dante, he wasn’t even his stable’s selected, Dettori choosing to ride his stable companion Jack Hobbs instead.  When he won the Dante as impressively as he did, talk of the Derby and of paying the supplementary entry fee was inevitable.

By the time the Derby rolled around, Golden Horn was in it and Frankie Dettori was on him.  It wasn’t the rider’s choice because, by then, Jack Hobbs had been transferred to Godolphin blue, which made him William Buick’s Derby ride.  There’s that trumping of fiction again.

What followed was quite astonishing.  Six wins in seven months, four at Group 1 level, and the blip that was his defeat in the Juddmonte International is easily forgiven.

We’re not far off Sea The Stars territory here.  A Cape Cross three-year-old colt who has won six races, a Derby, an Eclipse, an Irish Champion Stakes and a Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe among them.  The parallels with the John Oxx-trained star of 2009 are uncanny.  It looks like Golden Horn now is on track for the Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland in two weeks, when he will bid to become the first Arc winner ever to follow up in the Breeders’ Cup Turf.


Ballydoyle juveniles

The Ballydoyle juveniles Minding and Air Force Blue lit up Future Champions Weekend at Newmarket, and took up their respective positions at the top of the ante post market for the next year’s 1000 Guineas and 2000 Guineas.

Minding had been beaten by her stable companion Ballydoyle in the Group 2 Debutante Stakes at The Curragh in August, but she exacted her revenge in the Group 1 Moyglare Stud Stakes in September, and she moved forward again with an imperious display to land the Group 1 Fillies’ Mile at Newmarket last weekend.  Aidan O’Brien’s filly is one of the most exciting juvenile fillies of 2015, and her positioning at the top of the 1000 Guineas and Oaks lists is easily justified.

Air Force Blue was favourite for next year’s 2000 Guineas even before he won the Group 1 Dewhurst Stakes at Newmarket last Saturday.  His defeat of Herald The Dawn in the Group 1 National Stakes at The Curragh in September saw to that.  However, the performance that he put up in the Dewhurst was seriously impressive, both in terms of visual impression and in terms of the figures he recorded.

His main rival in the race, the Godolphin colt Emotionless, came home with a knee injury, but the manner in which the War Front colt dispatched talented and progressive rivals marked him down as a seriously talented colt.  Aidan O’Brien said afterwards that he could be the best juvenile that he has ever had, and the figures say that he might be right.


St Leger stewards

Confusion reigned over the result of the St Leger.  Simple Verse won it, then lost, then won it again.

There was a feeling of genuine surprise when the announcement was made on the day that the placings had been reversed, not because the filly didn’t interfere with Bondi Beach, but because general practice in Britain in recent times, up until that point, was to let results stand unless there was unequivocal evidence that the beaten horse would have won had the interference not taken place.  And unequivocal evidence is difficult to find on a racecourse.

There was also a general feeling of mild surprise when Ralph Beckett’s filly was reinstated as the winner at the appeal. You could have argued either case, and both parties did, hence the three-hour long appeal hearing.

You could have justified the awarding of the race to either horse, either would have been a worthy Leger winner, which is a function of the ambiguity of the rules.  Interestingly, since the start of October, there have been two instances in which British stewards have disqualified a winner because of interference caused, and that is two more than there had been in most other full months in recent times.


Jockeys’ championship

The shortening of the jockeys’ championship from seven months to five and a half meant that, in theory, jockeys could arrange to ride at the high profile and lucrative foreign meetings at this time of year without having to worry about jeopardising their chances of winning the championship.

Unfortunately for the profile of the championship, its two highest-profile protagonists, Ryan Moore and Richard Hughes, were ruled out of contention for different reason: Moore because he suffered a bad injury at Newmarket’s July meeting when well clear in the championship, Hughes because he hung up his boots concentrate on his new role as a trainer.  The three-time champ just couldn’t restrain his burning desire to be a trainer any longer.

Not that Silvestre de Sousa is not a worthy first-time champion.  He is, he has ridden his socks off this season, another rider who has re-built his career after being spurned by Godolphin.  He has ridden more winners than any other rider this season, 36 more than his closest pursuer.  Paddy Power paid those who backed de Sousa to be champion weeks ago, and he isn’t any less of a champion because the competition did not go all the way to the wire.

© The Sunday Times, 18th December 2015