I saw John Ferguson in the stands at Ascot on Saturday, writes Tony Stafford. He said he wasn’t making any immediate plans, but that he’d keep me posted when he does. He should have been giving himself a big, silent, inner thumbs-up after the perceived revival of Godolphin’s fortunes – since his departure.
The irony is that the six wins for the Boys in Blue, equalling the six of Aidan O’Brien for Coolmore, were in large part of Ferguson’s making. Two home-breds, Benbatl in an outpouring of emotion for his trainer Saeed Bin Suroor after winning the Hampton Court Stakes; and Sound and Silence (Charlie Appleby) in the Windsor Castle, contributed to the score, but otherwise it was pretty much all Ferguson.
The other quartet included Ribchester, bought privately from David Armstrong and successful in the opening Queen Anne for Richard Fahey’s stable, and Barney Roy, acquired after initial promise for Richard Hannon, and now a Group 1 winner after turning 2,000 Guineas tables on Churchill.
In the handicaps, Rare Rhythm (Duke of Edinburgh), knocked down to Ferguson as a 2013 yearling for 650,000gns, was an example of Charlie Appleby’s skill, being brought back a year from his previous run in the corresponding race to win readily. Then later in the week, there was a convincing success for Atty Persse (King George V). He was a private buy from owner-breeder Bjorn Nielsen after a debut win for Roger Charlton last autumn, who prepared him for last week’s victory. It must have been great for Nielsen when another home-bred, Stradivarius, won the Queen’s Vase for him and John Gosden.
Ferguson could also point to the excellent Group 1 second places of his two recruits from Clive Cox: Profitable, second to Lady Aurelia in a brave bid to repeat last year’s King’s Stand success; and Harry Angel, who needed a flying Caravaggio to deny him and fellow Godolphin sprinter Blue Point (Appleby) in the Commonwealth Cup.
The sprawling Godolphin “empire” also of course informally extends to the satellite operations of Sheikh Mohammed’s friends such as Saeed Manana, and family members like his son Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed. Sheikh Hamdan’s Permian came back from Derby disappointment to show his Dante- winning quality for Mark Johnston in the King Edward VII over the Classic trip.
They were screaming St Leger for the next three home in that race, and here I’ll declare an interest and suggest that my friend Lew (John Lewis to you) Day can win it with Raheen House. The Brian Meehan-trained Sea The Stars colt turned for home last of 12 and had to be switched outside, but in the last furlong he was going on much the best. He was less than three lengths behind the winner in fourth, making up a conservative six lengths in the straight, and this long-striding colt will love Doncaster’s long finishing straight. He was a close fourth in the Racing Post Trophy over a mile there last autumn.
If he were mine, I’d be tempted to have a look first at the Ebor, three weeks before the St Leger where the 10lb or thereabouts of his weight-for-age concession from his elders might be enticing even from his present mark of 109. That should not change much after this, as the top four in the King Edward were rated 113, 111, 110 and 109 before the race and a tape measure could not have been any more accurate.
Coolmore’s two major reverses were Churchill, out of fettle and never looking like getting into it when a sluggish fourth to Barney Roy, and Order of St George, just too late to get to grips with the ultra-determined Big Orange in his Gold Cup repeat attempt.
They more than redressed those disappointments with three performances of supreme quality. Winter headed home yet another Ballydoyle 1-2-3 in the Coronation Stakes to add to the English and Irish 1,000 Guineas while Caravaggio’s acceleration in the Commonwealth Cup was matched the following afternoon by pocket-rocket September in the Chesham. Until, if ever, her mini-stature inhibits her development, it’s hard to see what can stop her in the major races in 2018, given her stamina-laden pedigree as a daughter of Japan’s supreme stallion Deep Impact and multiple Group 1 winning mare Pepping Fawn.
At this point, I’d like to throw a compliment to one of the O’Brien supporting cast. Roly Poly was having her 12th career start and hasn’t missed a dance since making an early start to her career as a juvenile in April last year. She ran the following month, twice in June and again in July, August and September, by which time she had three wins on the board and second places in the Lowther (Group 2) and narrowly behind stable-companion Brave Anna in the Group 1 Cheveley Park.
Instead of running again in October, she headed over the Atlantic for the Breeders’ Cup, where she was the unplaced favourite on Nov 4. Back again in April, she was over to Newmarket for the Nell Gwyn, but was unplaced, as she was next time in the French 1,000 Guineas, sixth behind Precieuse. But she was back in the frame when runner-up to Winter in Ireland and on Friday harried Precieuse for the first part of the Coronation, seeing that filly off before rallying again to deny Rhododendron the runner-up spot.
There are few more desirable qualities than honesty, in people as much as horses, and you certainly get that from all the inmates, human and equine at Kingsley House, Middleham. Ascot’s a great place to bump into people – you don’t say, Ed! – and I saw Charlie Johnston after one of the stable’s fillies won at Newmarket. In response to my “well done”, he replied, “that’s three there today, but we could do with one here”.
They duly got one in the last race and it took a supreme effort and no shortage of courage from Oriental Fox to wrest back the initiative from Thomas Hobson after Tuesday’s Ascot Stakes hero looked sure to give Willie Mullins and the Ricci’s the meeting’s traditional marathon double. To repeat his 2015 win in the race, he also needed to see off the classy pair of US Army Ranger (rated 112) and Qewy (110). The last-named won races in Australia last winter, having been re-cycled from the Bloomfields jumping team operated under John Ferguson’s hands-on supervision.
Few mid 70-year-olds can have a more hands-on role than Wilf Storey, my friend of more than 30 years. A Co Durham (just inside the Northumberland border) sheep farmer, he had careers as stallion keeper for Arthur Stephenson and cattle brander before succumbing to the love of riding of his daughters Fiona and Stella, to take out a training permit.
I’ve known him for, as, I say, more than 30 years since he bought Fiefdom and Santopadre from me, turning both into prolific winners. That caused me to get a visit from Jockey Club Security who believed that far from being trained by the unknown Wilf, they’d heard they were actually still with Rod Simpson 300 miles further south.
Having put their man right on that score – we met funnily enough at Ascot racecourse – I’ve watched as Wilf struggled with the odd decent horse and a lot of lesser ones for all those seasons, often going a whole year without a winner.
Now the yard has fewer horses, but with Stella riding out every lot, feeding, driving them to the races and leading them around when they get there, with excellent help from some local lasses, the formula seems to work. On Saturday Ardakhan made it seven wins from fifty 2017 runs and Wilf needs just one more to equal his best full seasonal tally of eight, set in 1996 and 1997 when he had three times as many horses. I’m betting on at least 10 this year, and if he gets there, nobody will deserve success more than him (and Stella). [Hear hear! Ed.]