By Tony Stafford
Putting aside oft-declared irritation at the much-discussed fixture log-jam this weekend, I chose Newmarket above Ascot and York and thoroughly enjoyed the afternoon. There’s usually a diversion whenever I go racing on a Saturday, but with the footballers restricted to the initial stage of their pre-season preparations, it was just the First Test to worry about.
Despite the lack of information, certainly going up to lunchtime in Cardiff, the fourth day of the Ashes proved even more emphatically in England’s favour than the first three and when the track helpfully announced Australia at 122-5 or thereabouts at around 2.30 p.m., we were left to concentrate on the live action.
It started with a lovely result for Lady Cecil with the progressive three-year-old Western Reserve carrying the Abdullah colours to an all-the-way win in the opening handicap. Since taking out her licence after husband Sir Henry died two years ago, her quiet dignity has contributed greatly to the continued efficiency at Warren Place.
Reduced numbers at the stable were inevitable, but after 26 wins from 183 domestic starts in the latter half of 2013 and 19 from 149 last year, the seven victories from 51 runners this time is more than respectable.
After the race, Jane was talking about all-weather for this dual Chelmsford winner, typically realistic rather than talking up a jump in class. Whatever the final judgment on the post-Henry days, she will be able to look back with pride on her caretaker-ship and point to three Group 1 wins for Frankel’s brother Noble Mission last year after many had branded the colt as a thinker.
Later on the card another trainer with, like Lady C, a wealth of industry experience behind him, but only six months into a training career, was also among the winners. Simon Crisford, now in his early 50’s, and with many years as Godolphin’s racing manager behind him, produced First Selection to win the high-grade nursery over five furlongs.
It was a close-run thing, but for Crisford watchers, it brought a tenth success from just 27 runners in this first season. First Selection, a 42,000gns breeze-up buy, won his first two starts before running unplaced at Royal Ascot. Here he was always close to the action and held on well in the process defying the breeding pundits who will tell you that Diktat’s produce need soft ground.
When I walked across the track mid-afternoon it was like a road – no wonder we got a two-year-old track record earlier in the meeting – but First Selection coped with conditions in the manner of a battle-hardened mature horse.
With Sheikh Mohammed apparently in the process of acquiring Warren Place, from where he had many of his best pre-Godolphin achievements, not least the fillies’ Triple Crown with Oh So Sharp before his split with Henry Cecil, speculation about who will train from there is sure to be intense.
A certain S Crisford’s name was gently whispered into my ear as a possibility. There are sillier options.
The July Cup does not always go to the champion sprinter of its year but Hamdan Al Maktoum’s Muhaarar, convincing winner of Royal Ascot’s inaugural Commonwealth Cup, made a bold statement for the three-year-olds with a last-gasp foiling of Tropics.
Muhaarar is bred for the job as a son of Oasis Dream, one of the best active Abdullah stallions while Juddmonte – impatiently no doubt - await the era of Frankel and Kingman progeny to arrive on the track. He will go to France next to try six and a half furlongs in the Maurice de Gheest and Charlie Hills believes seven furlongs is within his capabilities.
There are a number of truly great handicaps during the season and York’s John Smith’s Cup, still irrevocably the Magnet Cup in my eyes, is one of the most coveted.
There was a happy 2015 success in the race for one of the smaller, but undoubtedly over-achieving yards in Rod Millman’s West Country establishment, when Master Carpenter saw off a swarm of challengers.
It was a decade ago that Sergeant Cecil, as I seem to remember named in honour of the yet-to-be-honoured Sir Henry, started his and Rod’s surge to fame with wins in the Northumberland Plate and the Ebor. Within a year these had been supplemented by three staying Group 2’s and the Group 1 Prix du Cadran.
Millman has done it the wrong way round with four-year-old Master Carpenter, who already has a French Group 3, last season’s Prix Daphnis to his credit. Who’s to say that his trainer, only whose fifth 2015 winner this was, cannot embark on a similar upward surge with his new star?
Talking of stars, there was plenty of optimism before Ballydoyle took her place in the fillies’ maiden line-up yesterday and the emphatic way she dealt with Nemoralia in the closing stages, suggests the Moyglare may not be beyond her. Joseph O’Brien, who seems to have grown taller again, will now have a few weeks at least to get back temporarily in the number one slot while Ryan Moore awaits news of his neck injuries. Generally we sit safe in the stands with a tinge of irritation at stalls delays, but if it were not needed, the image of horses rearing and plunging in the metal structure in the manner of Ryan’s incident, indicates the bravery of these exceptional athletes.
On the wider sporting front, it seems a golf Grand Slam is almost inevitable. I turned over briefly from Cordon on BBC4 – still liking it – to the US golf and saw that Jordan Spieth, still only 21, was one behind the leader on minus 12. When I awoke, I saw that he’d ended round three of the Travellers on minus 17, after a career-best round of 61. With the Masters and US Open in the bag and Rory McIlroy out of the way, the stage is set.
In that light, he’d be chasing the example of fellow American Serena Williams, who duly got her year slam in the women’s singles yesterday. The stage today is set for an eighth Roger Federer title, but with Novak Djokovic in the way, he’ll need to be at his elegant best.
My only regret is that with the first test already tucked away, we’ll have to wait for Lord’s on Thursday for the next episode of England’s young guns against Australia’s dad’s army. Could they not abandon Monday to Wednesday?