Michael Tabor has seen many amazing and unexpected things – more positive than negative – in his long association with horse racing around the globe, but I’d be willing to wager that the one-time King of the Punters would never have expected to see his colours carried in a race in Saudi Arabia, writes Tony Stafford. That happened (twice) on Saturday night in Riyadh and Maximum Security came out on top while sporting them in the world’s richest-ever horse race.
His friends in London could only marvel – “Typical Michael!” they said – when his Thunder Gulch won the Kentucky Derby as a near 25-1 shot coincidentally 25 year ago. That win was the forerunner to Tabor’s teaming up with John Magnier at Coolmore Stud, and Thunder Gulch stood throughout his stallion career at Ashford Stud, Coolmore’s Kentucky breeding arm, albeit without ever producing anything near his own eminence.
Now his friends back home are no longer shocked with anything achieved by the Coolmore triumvirate – Derrick Smith, like Tabor a former London-based bookmaker, was the latest addition - and he has shared in the last six (since Pour Moi in 2011) of the eight Epsom Derby wins for the team.
As time has gone on, M V Magnier, John’s son, has been increasingly visible, at the sales especially. He was the on-site presence on Saturday after Maximum Security came with a sustained run up the straight at the King Abdulaziz racecourse near Riyadh to win the inaugural Saudi Cup over nine furlongs of the dirt course. Modest and measured as ever, he embodies the Coolmore reserve in the face of their coruscating triumphs.
To say that recent events on the world stage have made for tensions in western countries’ attitudes to the Kingdom is an under-statement, but KSA (as it likes to be known) has hit on the idea of using sporting events to counter that negativity.
Whether it works or not is questionable but the fact that last year, by paying a handful of top golfers massive appearance fees (far beyond the actual winner’s prize) for a Saudi golf tournament, they did persuade them to come. One or two, indeed, didn’t make the cut for the last two days of the tournament, but never mind, they came and had a lucrative little jolly.
They certainly came from all around the world for the Saudi Cup with its world record prize fund of £15million – yes that WAS sterling! – easily outstripping previous record holders the Breeders’ Cup Classic, the Pegasus (briefly) and the Dubai World Cup where you might expect some of Saturday’s principals to reappear.
Whether four weeks would be deemed sufficient for Maximum Security to go again must be doubtful. He had a tough enough race in chasing down early leader and old rival Mucho Gusto up the straight and, once getting past the weaving-around leader, he then had to resist the vigorously-ridden US mare Midnight Bisou in the final half-furlong.
The riders of three of the first four home were given suspensions, all for whip offences. Mike Smith on the runner-up, had 60 per cent of his share of the £2.6million second prize docked for hitting her 14 times (maximum ten) as she came from last to almost winning in the straight. Oisin Murphy, on the gallant third Benbatl, got a couple of days, but can shrug off whatever sanction he got when partnering the same horse in the World Cup.
The versatile six-year-old, a recent convert to dirt racing, will now assuredly go as Saeed Bin Suroor’s main chance of a tenth winner of his country’s principal race. The Americans will again provide the biggest threat to a home winner as they have ever since the great Cigar, trained by Bill Mott, was the first of their 11 victors in the inaugural running in 1996. American-trained horses filled four of the first five places, confirming that dirt is their playground.
The path to a Saudi win for the Tabor colours – Aidan O’Brien’s globe-trotting mare Magic Wand was the other, filling ninth spot and collecting an acceptable-enough £225,000 for her efforts – needed some understanding from Gary and Mary West, the breeders and, thereto, outright owners of the colt.
They had suffered the ultimate penalty back on the first Saturday in May last year when Maximum Security was “taken down” after crossing the line first in the Derby for an incident on the home turn when jockey Luis Saez was deemed to have caused significant interference. He was placed officially 17th of the 19 runners and the Wests’ mood at their misfortunate could hardly have been improved
when he failed when a 1-20 shot next time in a Monmouth Park Listed race. They could easily have dumped the jockey as a result and the new owners were wise enough to leave well alone.
Happily, consecutive wins in the Grade 1 Haskell back at Monmouth, a Grade 3 at Belmont and finally the Grade 1 Cigar Mile were enough to clinch the champion three-year-old colt Eclipse Award for the Jason Servis-trained colt. Coolmore stepped in for a half share, making it three recent “winners” of the Kentucky Derby to stand at Ashford. He will follow in the steps of American Pharoah (2015) and Justify (2018), the only Triple Crown winners since Affirmed in 1978.
New Year’s Day, Maximum Security’s sire, is a son of Sheikh Mohammed’s Street Cry, most famed for siring 37-time winner Winx. New Year’s Day raced only three times, all as a juvenile, winning the last two, a Del Mar maiden race and then the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. In that race he beat Coolmore-owned Havana, previously unbeaten and sporting the Tabor colours.
There was a link to Justify in Saturday’s big race. Gronkowski, the mount of Frankie Dettori and running for Phoenix Thoroughbred III and Khalid bin Mishref, sent over from his present base in Dubai, met Justify in the Belmont Stakes, the final outing in a six-race unbeaten career for the latter. Previously with Jeremy Noseda he was being prepped for the Kentucky Derby and won four consecutive all-weather races for the now-retired (but no doubt probably to return) Newmarket trainer.
I’m pretty sure that the last of them was a win-and-you’re-in qualifier, but in the end Phoenix fell out with Noseda and switched Gronkowski to top US trainer Chad Brown. He didn’t take up the Derby engagement, but Brown aimed him at the Belmont and he finished a one-length second to Justify who retired as the only ever unbeaten Triple Crown winner among the 13 possessors of that distinction. Even Secretariat lost five times!
Noseda’s former wife Sally is a sister to Lady Cecil and also trainers Rae and Richard Guest. The family is largely based around Newmarket but Richard has been based for many years in the North, riding the winner of the Grand National for Durham-based Norman Mason, and then training from a yard in Yorkshire. This week comes news that he is coming to town to join his siblings, effectively as private trainer to construction businessman Simon Lockyer, who most recently had his team with Shaun Keightley.