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Super Stradivarius still a staying colossus

Flat racing has many fixed features, the racecourses remain the same, the fixture list changes only slightly, the whole travelling circus moves from track to track in an unchanged order season after season.

But the horses continually flow across the turf and off to stud in a cycle that affords us a relatively brief glimpse of the finest equine athletes before they are tasked with producing the next generation.

Bucking that trend is the beloved chestnut Stradivarius, who is in the thick of his sixth season in training having sportingly been kept in action by owner Bjorn Nielsen.

Stradivarius refused to buckle against Spanish Mission
Stradivarius refused to buckle against Spanish Mission (Nigel French/PA)

Nielsen makes up a third of the trio associated with the seven-year-old, with Frankie Dettori and John Gosden the other principal figures in the Stradivarius corner – though Gosden’s son Thady has recently been added to the Clarehaven licence.

Stradivarius’ career is one that no one has ever found good reason to end, regardless of his age and his status as an entire horse capable of becoming a sire.

He has won four Goodwood Cups, three Gold Cups, two Yorkshire Cups and now three Lonsdale Cups.

He has been beaten by a small margin and has been beaten by a longer margin and he has, without fail, dusted himself off and returned to another parade ring at another racecourse with all of the machismo of an undefeated heavyweight.

His age is not immaterial, however, and a beaten run in the Gold Cup at Ascot caused some to suspect that a changing of the guard may be afoot.

His trip to the Knavesmire, a track on which he is undefeated, was his chance to silence those suggestions and prove that there are pages yet to be turned in the Stradivarius story.

Frankie Dettori salutes the crowd as he returns aboard Stradivarius
Frankie Dettori salutes the crowd as he returns aboard Stradivarius (Nigel French/PA)

The Lonsdale Cup only attracted a field of four, with Trueshan a non-runner after the forecast rained failed to fall and produce his obligatory soft ground.

Two of those contenders were unable to trouble Stradivarius. The Grand Visir went off hard and fast but ultimately faded and Willie Mullins’ Stratum never really looked a danger.

It was Andrew Balding’s Spanish Mission that ensured the small-field affair was no walkover, throwing himself into a neck-and-neck duel with the reigning champion from the two-furlong pole to the winning post.

The naked eye could just identify Stradivarius’ white-striped face dipping across the line ahead of his opponent, and a photo finish then ensured his fist was raised by the judge and he was deemed the victor.

It was the sort of box-office finish every racing fan relishes, it was the last-gasp grit of a horse who seemed intent on proving that not only is his ability still intact, but also that his will to win is not fading in the slightest.

Jubilant scenes at York
Jubilant scenes at York (Nigel French/PA)

Dettori never attempts to conceal his emotions and this victory left the Italian at his most effusive, unsurprising perhaps considering that this partnership has been one of the defining features of the rider’s recent career.

“I just love the horse so much,” he said.

“He (Spanish Mission) passed me, I passed him, he passed me again and then on the line Stradivarius said ‘boom…I’ve won!’.

“He did it all himself, I kept him close to keep him interested as he likes to have a target, but with four runners I always knew what was going to happen.

“I had to play cat and mouse a bit with William (Buick, Spanish Mission) but when it really came down to it, he went again.

“He likes to chase one, we knew where the line was, he stuck out his neck and said ‘I’ve won this, thank you’.”

Gosden was similarly thrilled to see this stalwart of the staying division back to his brilliant best having been drawn into a tussle that required every ounce of his vim.

“Full marks to him, it was a great performance,” he said.

“He still enjoys his training, he’s very enthusiastic – a stronger-run race at his age, so he can come at them, probably suits him better.

“The horse will tell us, it’s not our decision, as long as he’s enjoying his racing and training and he’s very enthusiastic, which he is and he’s a very happy horse, he has a very good sense of humour as well, as long as you’ve got all of that then fine, we keep racing.

“The moment that seems to be fading, that’s when we stop.

“He used to sting like a butterfly and float like a bee, but he’s a little more rope a dope now!”

But the sting in the tail is evidently still present and Gosden’s willingness to discuss future entries suggests the Stradivarius era is not winding to a close just yet.

The Doncaster Cup and the Long Distance Cup on Champions Day at Ascot were both mentioned, races in which his appearance is likely to inspire the same rousing reception he enjoyed on the Knavesmire.

He may be ageing and he cannot rule the division forever, but Stradivarius remains ​the Goliath that nobody wants to see fall at the hands of David.

Stradivarius wins Lonsdale Cup thriller

Stradivarius became the first horse to win the Weatherbys Hamilton Lonsdale Cup three times when edging out Spanish Mission in a tremendous finish at York.

Five other top stayers, including Further Flight and Persian Punch, had won the race twice – and Stradivarius showed the fire still burns bright with a battling performance under his regular pilot Frankie Dettori.

Spanish Mission and William Buick made the John and Thady Gosden-trained seven-year-old fight all the way and was narrowly in front at one stage, only for Stradivarius to find that little bit extra in the dying strides to win by a head.

The paid had the Group Two stamina test to themselves after The Grand Visir had taken the four-runners into the long straight.

Stradivarius (4-6 favourite) knuckled down when it looked as though Spanish Mission might lower his colours to record his 18th victory.

Dettori and Stradivarius paraded in front of the packed stands and were given a tremendous reception all the way back to the winner’s enclosure, where the jockey gave his trademark flying dismount.

The Italian said: “When we went across the line and they announced the result there was a big roar from the crowd, an explosion.

“I love the horse so much. He’s not getting any younger, it was always going to be a messy race and I was using Richard (Kingscote on The Grand Visir) as a reference point, but when William came I had to go straight for home.

“He only does enough when he hits the front and William wouldn’t go away! He passed me, I passed him back then he passed me again – but I think he knows where the line is as he popped his head out just in time!

Frankie Dettori jumps for joy from Stradivarius
Frankie Dettori jumps for joy from Stradivarius (Nigel French/PA)

“My heart lost a few beats, I’ll be honest, but it was a tremendous horse race and the reception he got was special.”

He went on: “I didn’t want to kick too early, but I didn’t want to get jumped on either. Strad is a horse who likes a target and unfortunately we didn’t have it, so I pushed Strad close to William to make him race.

“Every time he’s run here I think he’s run below par. I feel he’s much better at Ascot, but we got the job done so I won’t criticise him.

“John, Rab (Havlin) – the whole team have done a great job with him, he’s a joy to have as he’s such a character. I’m feeling emotional.”

Gosden senior said: “It was always going to be a fascinating race, Spanish Mission put it up to him and Frankie said he was headed, then he got back and then he was headed again and he got back – it was a proper race for everyone to watch.

“He’s phenomenal, to have won four Goodwood Cups, three Gold Cups, three Lonsdales now, three Yorkshire Cups, a Doncaster Cup – all those miles of racing, never mind miles of training.

“Full marks to him, a great performance and we’ll see what we want to do next.

“He still enjoys his training, he’s very enthusiastic, a stronger-run race at his age, so he can come at them, probably suits him better.

“The horse will tell us, it’s not our decision, as long as he’s enjoying his racing and training and he’s very enthusiastic, which he is and he’s a very happy horse, he has a very good sense of humour as well – as long as you’ve got all of that then fine, we keep racing.

“The moment that seems to be fading that’s when we stop.”

Reflecting on the finish, he added: “I was just waiting for the photo finish, I’ve got it wrong before so I’ve learned to just wait.

“His enthusiasm is perfect, he won the Sagaro and if Frankie could ride the Ascot Gold Cup again he’d ride it differently, he sat too far back and he got in trouble.

“I’m not saying for one moment he’d beat the winner (Subjectivist), but my God he’d have given him a good race.

“He loves Goodwood, he loves the twists, but then there was 60 millimetres of rain the night before so that, to me, was the biggest disappointment.

“He was headed, he came back, he was headed again and he came back – that to me shows a lot of willingness.

“He’s not a horse you train, I let him train himself. If you get a great player, a great footballer and they come to your club, if you start thinking when they’re 30 or 32 that you’re going to start drilling them, they’ll tell you what to do with your management.

“It’s the same, you play with him and let him train the way he wants to.”

On immediate plans, Gosden said: “The Doncaster Cup is a possibility and there is Champions Day, I hope it’s decent ground but if it’s bottomless we might have to reroute.”

Spanish Mission (left) went down fighting
Spanish Mission (left) went down fighting (Nigel French/PA)

Anna Lisa Balding, assistant trainer to her husband Andrew, was proud of the runner-up.

She said: “He’s run a hell of a race and I actually thought we’d won when he went ahead. I thought we’d got him, but we didn’t.

“Someone just said to me to have a good race you need two good horses and he had it everywhere bar the line.

“We’ll stick to Plan A, Australia here we come (for the Melbourne Cup) and let’s hope he does his stuff out there.

“It will mean two weeks in a hotel probably so I’m not sure who’ll be putting their hand up for that trip!”

Lonsdale hat-trick in Stradivarius’ sights at York

Stradivarius bids to prove the fire still burns bright by bagging a third victory in the Weatherbys Hamilton Lonsdale Cup at York.

Having been beaten on four of his last five starts, the great stayer has lost the aura of invincibility he had a couple of seasons ago, but trainer John Gosden is confident he retains plenty of enthusiasm for racing.

As well as having three Gold Cups, four Goodwood Cups, a couple of Yorkshire Cups and a Doncaster Cup in the bag, Stradivarius landed successive renewals of the Lonsdale in 2018 and 2019 – victories which saw him plunder the Weatherbys Hamilton Stayers’ Million.

While that lucrative bonus is no longer on offer, the seven-year-old will undoubtedly bring the house down if he can make it five from five on the Knavesmire under Frankie Dettori on Friday.

“We’re going to York, a track he knows well, on ground he likes,” said Gosden.

“He’s in great form. We’re very aware that he’s not as young as he used to be, but then neither is the trainer or the jockey!

“If he runs well then I’m happy to have a look at the Doncaster Cup, then you can see how you want to play it.

“He’s still enjoying his training, is enthusiastic as ever, but I’m taking it one race at a time.”

Stradivarius has been off the track since finishing fourth in his bid for another Gold Cup at Royal Ascot in June, having since missed Goodwood on account of unsuitable ground.

Alan King’s proven mud lover Trueshan, on the other hand, sidestepped the Gold Cup before providing his trainer with a first top-level success on the Flat in the Goodwood Cup.

Hollie Doyle and Trueshan after winning the Goodwood Cup
Hollie Doyle and Trueshan after winning the Goodwood Cup (John Walton/PA)

The five-year-old would have carried a 3lb penalty for that success, but of more concern for King was the drying ground and with rain failing to materialise the decision was ultimately made to take him out.

Spanish Mission won the Yorkshire Cup in May before finishing third in the Gold Cup and missing Goodwood.

Spanish Mission winning this year's Yorkshire Cup
Spanish Mission winning this year’s Yorkshire Cup (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

Andrew Balding is hoping the rain stays away ahead of his bid for glory in another Qipco British Champions Series contest.

“The weather forecast looks good for Spanish Mission if the rain holds off, and he’s in good form,” said the Kingsclere handler.

“Obviously Stradivarius and Trueshan are tough opponents, but Spanish Mission was good in the Yorkshire Cup and a bit of course form helps.

“This has been the intention for a while and hopefully he’ll run well.”

Bjorn Nielsen retains full faith in star stayer Stradivarius

Owner-breeder Bjorn Nielsen is in bullish mood ahead of Stradivarius’ bid for a third victory in the Weatherbys Hamilton Lonsdale Cup at York next week.

With three Gold Cups at Royal Ascot, four Goodwood Cups, back-to-back wins in both the Yorkshire Cup and the Lonsdale and a Doncaster Cup thrown in for good measure, it is fair to say the seven-year-old’s status as one of the sport’s great stayers has long since been assured.

However, John and Thady Gosden’s charge will return to the Knavesmire with a point to prove on Friday week following four defeats in his last five starts, most recently finishing fourth when seeking to claim a fourth Gold Cup in June.

Connections decided against challenging for a fifth Goodwood Cup win last month due to the prevailing testing conditions on the Sussex Downs, but Nielsen is confident he can get back on the winning trail at York, where he is unbeaten in four starts.

Stradivarius plundered the Weatherbys Hamilton Stayers’ Million with victory in the Lonsdale in both 2018 and 2019, but the bonus has since been discontinued.

Nielsen said: “The bonus no longer being there makes the Lonsdale slightly different this year, but in my mind I don’t think it’s a question of other horses beating him. He’s seven now, but as long as he’s still got it he’s going to win.

“York is the one place we’ve always had the good, or good to firm ground Stradivarius prefers and he’s never been beaten there.

“The day he’s beaten when he has his conditions then that will probably be it, but from what I hear he’s still full of it.

“Frankie (Dettori) and John (Gosden) have both told me how well he’s working, so I hope it lasts a few more races.”

Jockey Frankie Dettori (left) and owner Bjorn Nielsen with Stradivarius at Royal Ascot
Jockey Frankie Dettori (left) and owner Bjorn Nielsen with Stradivarius at Royal Ascot (Mike Egerton/PA)

Nielsen revealed talks are ongoing with several breeding operations ahead of a future career at stud for Stradivarius, but at the moment he is fully focussed on what is left of his glittering racing journey.

He added: “We’d have loved to have gone for that fifth Goodwood Cup and in previous years we might have run him, as it was heavy summer going – but at this stage of his career, we just don’t want to do it.

“He’s still got that enthusiasm, and we don’t want to spoil it. As long as he’s got it he’ll perform, but as soon as it’s gone then his time is up, so why ask him to do things he doesn’t enjoy?

“There is interest from two or three studs in England, and foreign interest as well, and when his time comes he can hopefully pass his qualities as a racehorse.

“I’d obviously prefer him to stay here, but the key thing is that I want him to have the best chance possible to cover Flat mares. I don’t want him going straight down the jumps’ stallion route, as a lot of mile-and-a-half plus horses have done in recent years.”