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Eclipse report

It had been a while since Sheikh Mohammed’s Godolphin operation had won the Coral-Eclipse.  Twelve years had run under the bridge between Refuse To Bend’s win in 2004 and yesterday afternoon, when Hawkbill lined up in Sandown’s flagship event, the lone Godolphin representative.  And, in a display of class and courage and tactical guile under William Buick, the Charlie Appleby-trained colt bridged the 12-year gap, seeing off the Aidan O’Brien-trained The Gurkha in a thriller.

Hawkbill was not among the original entries for yesterday’s race.  He did not merit an entry at the entry stage.  The Kitten’s Joy colt started off this season on a rating of 98, far removed from Eclipses and Group 1 contests, and he was allowed go off at 14/1 for a listed race at Newmarket on his seasonal bow. 

But he has surprised connections all season.  After he won that listed race, and followed up by landing the Group 3 Tercentenary Stakes at Royal Ascot – beating the better-fancied Godolphin horse Prize Money into second place – connections saw enough potential in him to come up with the £30,000 supplementary entry fee that was needed to put him into yesterday’s race at Monday’s five-day entry stage.

“Sheikh Mohammed was very keen that we supplement this horse,” said Godolphin’s chief executive John Ferguson.  “And I’m delighted for him.  “It’s a big day today.  It’s a great team effort.”

The weather dominated the preamble to yesterday’s race during the week, as the tide of support for the soft ground horses ebbed and flowed with each passing day.  The rains fell at the start of the week and the ante post money came for The Gurkha and Hawkbill and My Dream Boat, all three proven on soft ground.  As it dried midweek, fast ground horse Time Test was backed.  Then it rained again on Friday night and early yesterday afternoon, and that was all in Hawkbill’s favour. 

Unsurprisingly, it was Time Test’s stable companion Countermeasure who took the field along through the early stages of the race, with William Buick adopted a nice position just behind him on Hawkbill.  The Godolphin colt is a free-going sort who was always likely to be suited by Sandown, a track at which it can be difficult to make ground from the rear.

Pat Dobbs on Countermeasure took the field wide down the back straight, racing on the best of the ground towards the far side, before wheeling around the home turn with the pack snapping at his heels.  It was obvious, however, from early in the home straight that Hawkbill and The Gurkha were travelling best of the pursuers.

Time Test came under pressure on the far side and My Dream Boat came under pressure in behind, as Hawkbill and The Gurkha made their ground on either side of the leader in a pincer-like movement before they settled down to fight out the finish.

For a few strides, you couldn’t call it.  The Gurkha on the near side under Ryan Moore, Hawkbill and William Buick on the far side.  It looked as if the Irish horse was gaining the upper hand at the furlong pole, at which point he traded at 1/9 in-running, but Hawkbill stretched his neck out willingly on the far side, wrested the lead back for himself deep inside the final furlong, and kept on all the way to the line to get home by a half a length.

“Winning these big races is very important,” said Buick.  “He is a lovely horse.  He has grown up physically this year, and he has grown up mentally.  His whole demeanour has changed.”

It was a timely fillip for Buick, who starts a 30-day spell on the sidelines today for a suspension picked up for his ride in the Prix de Diane in France on 19th June, and for his actions afterwards, for which he subsequently expressed his contrition.

“It was a great call by the whole team to supplement him,” said the rider.   “This horse’s future is very bright.  He has shown all the attributes of a great racehorse today.”

Hawkbill is obviously a hugely improved horse now, but there is still no telling how high he could go.  He has now won his last six races, his last two last season and now four this season and, although his improved form has been with some ease in the ground, we may not have got to the bottom of him yet. 

John Ferguson was in no hurry to decide on the colt’s next target.

“There’s no hurry,” he said.  “He has a great future ahead of him.  It’s going to be really enjoyable now, deciding where to go.”

He is so good over 10 furlongs, and there is such a comprehensive programme of top 10-furlong races, that there is no pressing need to step up in trip.  Races like the Juddmonte International, the Irish Champion Stakes and the Champion Stakes are surely on his radar.

Aidan O’Brien, whose The Gurkha ran such a valiant race, was characteristically magnanimous in defeat.

“The Gurkha is a pacey horse,” he said.  “We have always viewed him as a fast Galileo.  When the rains came, it made it a test of stamina and he probably just got tired in the last half-furlong.  We can talk about the Sussex Stakes now, it was our original thought after Ascot, so the lads will have a chat about it and will decide.”

Should The Gurkha now be targeted at the Glorious Goodwood showpiece, that would bring up a re-match with his St James’s Palace Stakes conqueror Galileo Gold, and that would surely be another for the Duel on the Downs series.


© The Sunday Times,  3rd June 2016