Jun 2012

There's Something About So You Think

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They call him Rockstar, the boys that paddle around with So You Think. He’s the horse with the Bon Jovi hair, the Freddie Mercury heart, the Chris Brown body. He is racing’s centre-fold, a near-black porn star of this sport. There is rarely talk of So You Think’s running talent without talk of his Adonis-like good looks, and we need a horse like that in racing, every once in a while.

The Royal Ascot meeting opened and closed last week with two overwhelming superstars, two horses from two hemispheres that snatched all the superlatives. Frankel and Black Caviar, the show was immense. But sandwiched in the middle of them was the Coolmore kid, the ex-pat Australian, who sort of slipped through the meeting like a supporting act. So You Think was victorious in Wednesday’s Prince of Wales’s Stakes, and it was the most satisfying, most appropriate, win at Royal Ascot, in my book at least.

The So You Think ride has been exhausting. Since he lined up in the 2010 Melbourne Cup, the riveting son of High Chapparal has gone through highs and lows in whiplash fashion. There were the procession-like wins at the Curragh, that loss to Rewilding, the squeaks that he was undercooked and over-hyped, the terrible Arc ride. There were the questionable trips to Meydan and Churchill Downs, then the period where it felt like everyone had sat back and rethought the script. Late in May just gone, So You Think clattered home in the Tattersall’s Gold Cup, then came his efficient, get-it-done-perfectly victory at Royal Ascot.

I’ve struggled with So You Think’s story since he left Australia, because I have stuck rigidly to the claim that from Leilani Lodge to Ballydoyle was a stiff step-up in class. This was no sprinter converging on Europe for one, maximum two, runs. This was a middle-distance Australian horse muscling into the elite game of the world. So You Think was a superstar in Australia, and Australia was positive he would be unbeatable in Europe. I wasn’t so sure, and the 2011 racing season left me scratching my eyes out with temper.

When the horse lost at Royal Ascot, a sea of criticism rose up from Australian fans. So You Think then won the Coral-Eclipse and Irish Champion Stakes in rugged, workmanlike fashion (1/2 length victories in both outings) before he, and the rest of the field, were annihiliated by Danedream in the Arc. But the relentless wailing from Australia was infuriating... can we have our horse back... Bart, go and show them how to train a racehorse. It was passion, yes (and I tried to see it as such), but it was outstandingly disrespectful. Aidan O’Brien was, only, the strongest force in European training. He’d been resetting the bar since he took up residence at Ballydoyle in 1996, resetting it because he kept leaping over it.

O’Brien’s admission this week that he had mistrained So You Think was predictable, because if you hover on your heels for just a moment, declining the itch to bellow ‘I told you so’, there is a valuable stallion product in motion behind the scenes. It is important to So You Think’s sire status that ‘trainer error’ resonates louder than ‘horse fell just that bit short’. And oh boy, it was just that bit short. The rockstar thoroughbred has started 11 times under the Coolmore flag, for six wins and two seconds, the latter losses by loose feet. This, at the highest echelons of horse racing. The highest.

So it was with satisfaction that I rode So You Think over the line with Joseph O’Brien last Wednesday night, cheering and whooping the horse that deserved this race more than any other in the field. He was convincing, albeit a smidgen lucky that Farhh had become tangled in the cavalry charge, and it wasn’t numbing like Frankel or nation-embracing like Caviar. It was one of those old-fashioned, gritty Gr1 victories, because So You Think is not a Timeform wrecking ball, or an untouchable tally of undefeated bliss. He never was.

More than the subliminal racing record, or the emotive Australia vs Ireland tug of war over this horse, I will always remember So You Think for the way he looks (me, and likely every one who has clapped eyes on him). There is something about this fellow, something ferocious and masculine in the way he is put together. It might be the neck, thick and massive for a thoroughbred, or the forehand, shoulders like Atlas. It might be his eye, all honour and honesty, and it’s definitely his hair. Rockstar. Yes, that’s about right.

Black Caviar - Her Finest Win?

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Glory. How do you measure it in horse racing? Is it by the winning margin, 11 lascivious lengths of the Ascot straight, or by grit and heart, victory when the chips are down? I found myself asking this question in the wake of Black Caviar’s Diamond Jubilee last night. A win, yes. But glory?

We expected nothing less. The great mare had delivered 21 outstanding wins from 21 career starts. She had beaten the best a sprinting nation could churn out, and beaten them with arrogance. Her victories were lavish, and effortless. Pure brilliance. We, Australians, weren’t just bleating about a great racehorse when we sent her off to Ascot three weeks ago. We were cheering the best we had ever seen.

I stood on my feet when the field jumped away in the 3.45 last night. I saw Black Caviar’s barrier attendant leap off the gates, job done. My hands were drumming rhythms on my chest as the 15 horses cruised into the half mile, and then they were in my hair, frantic. Where was the steam train that tows Luke Nolen deep into the straight, because the cavalry charge was coming? What’s he doing, jesus, what’s he doing. And when the line came I knew she was there, knew the win was hers by the shallowest of margins. But when I should have been cheering I was motionless, muted by shock and withdrawal. When I should have been waking the neighbours I was silent, stunned. I was speechless.

Twitter exploded on the 15” screen in front of me. I read only fragments of the timeline... Luke Nolen had pulled a Steve McQueen... Cool Hand Luke... luckiest escape in racing. Had he really stopped riding in the greatest test of her life? Had he misjudged where the winning post was? Did he think he was home and hosed three lengths out? Glancing between the television and the Macbook, exhausting myself trying to keep up with what everyone was saying, I was silent. Twitter friend Bobby MacDonald brought me to. ‘You still with us? Cmon... up off the floor now...’

Over the next three hours I followed the feeds and broadcast coverage. Everyone was stumped, but shock slowly unfurled into analysis. Was Black Caviar lame trotting back to scale? She looked exhausted. On her physical condition, I agreed with most folk. She did look battered from the run. Rumours swept that she was retired. That didn’t seem wild or unrealistic to me given the way she had won. We had expected a trouncing, and she had delivered a scraping.

The post-race interviews with Nolen and Moody were humbling. Moody especially looked stressed and tired. Where were his sunglasses, his smiles, the Peter Moody we all loved? He knew, and freely admitted, that something had gone wrong. And I could see what he was doing. He was telling himself that they didn’t have to convince anyone of Caviar’s greatness, and by everyone he meant Europe. I could see he just wanted to go home, get his champion on a plane as fast as he could. I remembered right at that moment what John Singleton had said weeks ago - he would never take another horse overseas again.

Australia will wake up to some gruesome headlines from the UK. The Racing Post has already gone there: ‘The blunder from Down Under’. It was nice to see the ABC had spun out something positive within hours of the race: ‘Black Caviar rules supreme at Royal Ascot’ (though that may have something to do with the Whateley biography due later this year). But when it’s all said and written, argued and bantered about until it’s a well and truly tired issue, we have only opinion left, and mine is in a spin tonight.

Black Caviar faced a mountain in lining up for the Diamond Jubilee. Sending a horse across the world is an enormous effort, a huge question of their constitution. She was crossing seasons, racing in a winter coat when her competitors were at the peak of summer condition. She was facing a new track, an undulating track absolutely foreign to Australian runners. She is also six years old. And, if it is true that she was off her game and never comfortable in running, then her victory, whatever the margin, was an outstanding display of grit, determination and heart. I raise my hat to that. However...

The question asked of our great mare wasn’t one that had not been asked of Choisir, Takeover Target, Miss Andretti, Scenic Blast, Starspangledbanner, and even Star Witness last year. Each of these horses had made the trip to Royal Ascot, charged down the same track and won (Star Witness aside) more convincingly than Black Caviar tonight. Each of them had traveled in confined, claustrophobic boxes, faced the same acclimatisation challenges, the same undulating surface, and the hazards of unpredictable weather. Little Bridge, winner of the King’s Stand on Tuesday, had come from Hong Kong. Treasure Beach, Wrote, St Nicholas Abbey, Daddy Long Legs - these are seasoned Ballydoyle globe trotters that prove travel can be done without ruin. So I was left asking myself, can we really blame Black Caviar’s below-par win on the travel?

What was left then? An off day? She’d never had one before. The Moody camp had spent three weeks telling the world’s press that she was fit, fitter than at any stage of her life, and that she was largely unaffected by her journey to England. They said she had settled into Newmarket like it had always been home, that she had lost only nine kilos when they had expected 30 - 40. Pre-race stress then? I thought she was tossing her head in the paddock a lot more than she had done at home, but she wasn’t hot as had been Ortensia on Tuesday night. There were few physical pointers that anything was amiss.

My uneasiness came down to a single silly question. Was it possible that Australian racing just couldn’t tow the line with European form? So You Think had been devastating in Australia, but a rung below that in Europe last year. I had lived in Ireland long enough to know the calibre of product in English/Irish racing. It was good, the best in the world one might say, but not when it came to sprinters. The Australian record in the sprinting division has been too strong at Ascot, too dominant. I couldn’t settle on the idea that Black Caviar’s narrow win against an average field was a reflection on Australian racing.

So what was it then? Was it that our champion mare wasn’t as brilliant as we had trumpeted? Was it weakness on the day? Was it the uphill climb of the track, or the gluey surface that brought her undone? As racing sage Danny Power tweeted, you never know until the button is pressed.

We beg for answers because that is what horse racing is all about. When Zenyatta lost to Blame in her final start, her sole inglorious defeat, the jockey was hung out to dry. When Man O’War lost in his sole defeat, a phrase was coined - an upset, after Upset who toppled him. In Caviar’s case, we beg for answers because there was no logical way she could win by a nostril. She was rated 136 on Timeform, behind only Frankel. She had 21 annihilating victories on the clock, wins as perfect as any racing fairytale, that flung her into the far reaches of legendry. On paper, she was lengths and lengths and lengths ahead of the Jubilee field.

It has been awful questioning her greatness, and my heart springs to her defense. It is foreign to read about her vulnerabilty, to learn that she is ‘only human’. If Black Caviar races again in Australia, she will tottle home like she always has here, but it won’t repair the international doubt now. A part of me was crying out for her to run in the July Cup, allow her that second chance to find her feet and unleash the demon within. Perhaps one run was not enough. We’ll never know.

A win is a win, yes, even if it is in less than satisfactory style. Though there are lingering, stubborn questions about the Diamond Jubilee, it is impossible to shake also this stunning realisation - if Black Caviar wasn’t right, if she was running on just a suggestion of her very best, her gutting it out and fighting for that winning line may well make it her finest win yet.

History Melts at Frankel's (Three) Feet

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As the Queen Anne field came up the rise of the Ascot straight last night, I sat muted on my couch. The performance was so breathtakingly brilliant, so insanely outstanding, that cheering seemed inappropriate, smiling even an afterthought. There was Frankel, the familiar four white socks moving in motions and rhythms that few of us have ever seen. ‘That’s 12 lengths’, I gushed as he left the winning post for dust, careening out of shot like some sort of steam train without its brakes. ‘It’s got to be 10 at least.’

Officially, Frankel had exploded over the line 11 lengths clear in the Queen Anne Stakes. As he disappeared out of camera coverage, I looked back with concern at Excelebration, his brave and bold heart bursting at the effort of the chase. There followed a string of wit-weary thoroughbreds, among them our own Helmet who might have been wishing he was still on the playing fields of Warwick Farm.

The Twittersphere went into meltdown, every obvious and creative superlative tapped into keyboards and touchscreens. We were all thinking the same thing. How does one horse annihilate a respectable Gr1 field at the highest level of European racing without a hint of stress in the effort? How can a single animal be so much better than everything else? What is it that propels him like that, because it can’t be just muscle and bone? Is it heart, or breeding? Freakonomics?

Tom Queally opened the pipes on Frankel yesterday, and in doing so allowed the horse the opportunity to sail into the Timeform history books. The ratings took their time in stepping forward. On Twitter, and likely all across Ascot racecourse, racing die-hards knew the result would be groundbreaking. Why else would it be taking so long? Ground-breaking it was, or earth-shattering, whichever you prefer. Timeform issued Frankel with an all-time highest ranking of 147 (sending him roaring past Sea Bird’s 145). More meltdowns. 147? Holy shit. The best there has ever been.

As racing continued, and oh boy did it feel like an anti-climax, I got thinking about this 147 figure.

I’m in the business of history. I record the lives of past champions in exhausting detail. I read books, file through old records, place myself back in time to measure what greatness really is. If 147 is the highest Timeform rating there has ever been (and Timeform began recording in 1948), it meant that the race I had just watched, the performance that had rendered me mute in my living room in Sydney, Australia, was the single greatest thoroughbred effort Timeform had ever seen. It surpassed Nijinsky, Brigadier Gerard, Shergar... all of the magnificent horses that lived in my imagination. It meant that someone like me, in 50 or 60 years, would be sitting researching her next book, reading about the race I had just watched. And it would be likely (if Sea Bird’s longevity at the top is anything to go by) that Frankel would still be the highest rated racehorse of all time in 50 or 60 years. My brain swelled when I thought about it. It was too big to digest.

If Queally had kept a close hold on Frankel in the Queen Anne, if they had come home only three or four in front, would he have earned that 147 rating for his mount? Sea The Stars was lethal but economic in his victories in 2009, never wiping out his field but winning, instead, with neat, ears-pinned efficiency. It earned him 140 on Timeform.  Black Caviar sits on 136 for her flawless efforts, but many Australians were last night wondering, should Nolen turn the tap on this Saturday, let the mighty mare rip like she never has? If she tots in by 10, what will Timeform do with that?

With five days of racing left at Royal Ascot, the Frankel imprint will be immense. Just how do the remaining racehorses (Caviar aside) match a spectacle like that of the Queen Anne Stakes? It was so overpowering, so numbing and arrogant, that anything after it can only be a supporting act. And when I heard last night that Frankel did it on three shoes, I thought of something I had heard while writing Peter Pan. Great horses have no need of excuses.

Dodging Frankel

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There is an interesting pattern emerging in UK racing, or at least it seems that way from down here in Australia. Any good horse that takes a different tack to that of Frankel, any horse that nominates for a non-Frankel race or opts for the road less Frankelised, is being slapped with a startling tag - ‘dodged Frankel’. First Caviar, today So You Think. Interesting, and frustrating.

Black Caviar was the flag bearer for this unfortunate title. Not only did people want to see her meet the king colt Frankel; people (mainly UK people) expected her to meet him. Her camp never did say she would run a mile. They said she probably could run a mile, but they wouldn’t be trying it during the biggest racing test of her life. Of 21 races, 20 of them had been at 6f or under, a single start over 7f. She is bred for speed, speed, speed. Nevertheless, when she failed to nominate for the Sussex Stakes, the headlines and taglines began... ‘Black Caviar dodges date with Frankel’. It went on and on and on, from the newspaper inches to the timelines of Twitter. It’s still going on. Yawn.

This afternoon I was staggered to see that So You Think had also been tarred and feathered. Ballydoyle failed to pay up for the Queen Anne, sending him instead to the Prince of Wales’s Stakes. It meant he would not meet the star of Europe next week. Cue the critics... ‘So You Think joins Black Caviar in avoiding Frankel and does not accept in the Queen Anne’. Extraordinary, given that his stable have never, ever shirked opposition (think Sea The Stars in 2009 and the battalion of horses they threw at him).

My frustration was going off like cheap popcorn, and it got me thinking. Had such negativity ever flowed in the wake of Black Caviar? Had she ever been so outstandingly brilliant down here that Australian racegoers had knocked her very competition? Had there ever been headlines lambasting her opposition for dodging her? Honestly, I couldn’t think of any.

When Caviar met Hay List in the Lightning Stakes back in February (pictured above, Hay List off the rails), she beat him convincingly. Hay List chased the relentless, brilliant Caviar quarters for the fifth time in his life, enough to break any horse’s heart. When he returned to scale, beaten and softly humiliated, his star was brighter than ever. A month later he stepped out and won the Newmarket, and the Melbourne crowd cheered and hollered him that day like he was number one in the world. I remember watching it from Sydney, overwhelmed. Hay List’s greatness was undoubtedly greater for the mare he had been chasing his whole life.

I see Excelebration the way I see Hay List, a horse of rare brilliance born into the wrong time. But unlike Hay List, I can’t ever see Excelebration winning a major prize without the sling of that glutinous Frankel strap - ‘yes he won, but he only won because Frankel wasn’t there’. I expect when Ballydoyle send their smart miler on the non-Frankel path, the tag will come (inevitably) like spring rains... ‘dodged Frankel’.

It is a great shame that in order to idolise one horse, others must be humiliated at his altar. Australian racing, though it has its critics, is surely applauded for avoiding this. I have never heard it said that Hay List is a lesser horse for running after Black Caviar, or that More Joyous has shamelessly dodged the Caviar camp. John McNair, Hay List’s trainer, received a slap on the back and all round chuckles when he declared he would go wherever Caviar didn’t. Men nodded and thought to themselves, ‘I’d probably do the same thing’. I don’t even remember much of a peep out of anyone when Peter Snowden elected not to run Sepoy against the great mare (even though Sepoy was probably the closest thing to beating her). In other words, Australian racing fans are very patient with their champions.

Royal Ascot is but days away, and it is the most impressive carnival in the world. There are lessons to be learned from this meeting, about the gathering of the world’s best horse flesh, about pageantry and history and magnificent competition. Nowhere in the world is racing done like this week at Ascot. But the 2012 renewal is not the Frankel show, wonderful, invincible as that boy is. So You Think has his own rainbow to chase, and as for Black Caviar... I suspect that at the bottom of that long 6f Ascot track next Saturday, Frankel will be a long, long way from her mind.

The Caviar Gold

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It’s the picture that every horse that has ever raced against Black Caviar has seen... the tight, finely lined, merciless arrogance of her hindquarters. A rear engine that has yet been fully wound up, an engine that needs do only half the work it’s supposed to. 21 starts, 21 seamless wins. Bart Cummings wasn’t far off. ‘The neck of a duchess and the arse of a cook’, he said of her.

Australians, like myself, knew of the Black Caviar gold before this week. We had seen her bring Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Adelaide to a standstill, seen football games interrupted on a Friday night to broadcast her efforts. She was a quickly creeping force around the nation, a horse whose non-racing appeal could only be compared to that of Phar Lap 80 years before. Yes, the comparison was tiring and overcooked, but it was true. Black Caviar was white gold, a marketing sledgehammer, a brand. Last week, the entire package arrived in England.

The local fascination for the mare has been outstanding. Gathered on the Newmarket grass outside her stable, below a brazenly pitched Australian flag, are film crews representing TVN, Channel 9, BBC, CNN. I mean, CNN. The wonder from Down Under was doing her thing in America, and she’d never set foot in the place. UK journalists are wearing Caviar ties, US trainers are wearing Caviar jackets and posting their loyalty on Twitter. Name me a horse that has ever done this to racing, or for racing, ever.

In the few days Black Caviar has been in England, the onset of egos has been fascinating. Her international knockers (most of them UK-based) had an unspoiled run the past year saying she would never travel, that she would dodge Frankel or find some excuse to stay at home. Now that she has traveled, has not dodged Frankel (she’s a sprinter guys) nor found an excuse to stay at home, I was amused, and largely irritated actually, to read a certain Twitter post this afternoon (from a UK resident). It touted that Caviar’s connections were fools to say she would handle a soft Ascot track. And here was I thinking the trainer that had brought her to 21 pitch-perfect wins would know her best.

Peter Moody, really, is a marvel. Recently I watched footage of him in the Royal Ascot enclosure last year, chatting with TVN about Caviar’s journey to 2012. He said she would be sitting at 20 or 21 wins when they planned to arrive in England, and he was spot on. He said she would be unbeaten, all going well. She is. The straight-shooting, Queensland-born Melbourne trainer is the best thing about Australian racing - a man who does it off his own bat, gets his horses to do it off their own bat. He will answer the questions you ask of him, with responses that can be startlingly honest and wonderfully straight-laced. He is also unfailingly patriotic. I get the sense that the Australian identity is strong in the Caviar brand.

So, ridiculously proud of the sprinting queen and her team, I will be following the story every step of its high-rolling way. Like most Australians, I know the stakes involved in her winning the Diamond Jubilee - integrity, national pride, the weight of an entire country watching back home. She is fortunate to be a horse, because these pressures are not lost on Peter Moody. When the time comes to cheer and holler Black Caviar up that stiff straight, to scream for the Australian superstar like there’s no tomorrow, I’ll be right there in the thick of it, burning my lungs. It will be one of the greatest racing moments of all time.

The Staggering Camelot

I was one Australian out of so many to welcome in the witching hours of Sunday morning watching the English Derby. There were Twitter feeds coming in from all over the world, people just like me riveted to the television screen, the Racing Post open on the Macbook, the iPhone buzzing somewhere under the couch cushions. Cheering home St Nicholas Abbey in the Coronation was a good start. Now come on Camelot, I was thinking, do the deeds for Ireland.

When the pictures began to come in from the Epsom paddock, I was amazed by the horse I was looking at. Ballydoyle wouldn’t know how to turn out an average-looking racehorse, let alone an average-looking Classic winner. But boy oh boy, Camelot was stunning. And stunning in that way that little girls dream of... long, full tail, unusual facial splashes, elegant curve of the neck, legs as straight as organ pipes. Whoever it was that said ‘my kingdom for a horse’, he surely had this horse in mind.

As Camelot cantered his prelim like a Nijinsky (the ballet dancer), I was left thinking about the horse Nijinsky, who was the last thoroughbred to clinch an English Triple Crown. Funny that all this talk of Triple Crowns was going on, as the Americans have that very thing dangling before them in I’ll Have Another. Like English racing, US racing has not had a Triple Crown winner in a long time, 34 years to be exact. In England, it was even longer. Nijinsky did it in 1970.

Most of the English/Irish racing fraternity were odds on Camelot to win the Derby. He was 8/11, he was 8/15. Some poor fool offered 9/2 against just before the race and has likely gone broke. As the horses mingled behind the gates, a typical few minutes late to the jump, I got thinking about a few things.

The last time Aidan O’Brien had sent in an English Derby winner, it was 2002 with High Chapparal. Before that, the inimitable Galileo in 2001. Since then, O’Brien had had 39 entrants in the coveted Derby. They included some of the classiest horses he has ever handled... Dylan Thomas, Fame And Glory, Treasure Beach. But the stars, or something, were aligned this year, because when High Chapparal did it it was a Jubilee year in England, as was this one. It was also impossible to forget that Montjeu, recently passed, was hovering away in the background, pressing for posthumous fame. It just felt right.

I had watched Camelot’s win in the 2000 Guineas some weeks before. I had been excited that a horse so lightly raced could have so much hype circling him, but I was more excited that he had lived up to it as so many horses often don’t. Who was this horse, I thought that night, apart from a two-year-old winner of the Racing Post Trophy and a Ballydoyle superstar in waiting? Well, the night of the Guineas I learned he was the outstanding three-year-old of his year.

When the horses loaded for the Derby last night I was nervous, transfixed on the gate that would spring the son of Montjeu forward. As the field set off on the long mile-and-a-half, I had eyes only for one. He was poised at the back, cool like a pro, and at Tattenham Corner I was begging Joseph O’Brien to pick him up. ‘Let him go,’ I was yelling, ‘Don’t do a Maybe (in the 1000 Guineas).’ And then he was gone. It was so easy and so humbly arrogant that I forgot to cheer for the quinella. I had backed Astrology on that, but who knew. One, two, three, four, five lengths. Mother of god, I was yelling. Frankel (my dog) was climbing all over me in my excitement.

I couldn’t remember being more thrilled, or more awed, by an English Derby winner. Not even Sea The Stars, who I had adored, had driven up more emotion than Camelot’s win. There was something about this horse, something elegant and humble and graceful and brilliant about him, that made me cheer him home. Yes he was Irish, yes he was Aidan O’Brien’s, but there was more. Just look at him. He was Nijinsky, both the ballerina and the horse. Oh boy, he was a superstar tonight.

Sunday morning post sleep, and I pored through the online reports. For the first time, I came across criticisms of Frankel. Why had the horse not contested his Derby in 2011? Why was he not brave like Camelot? It felt like this new superstar Camelot was hosing down the Frankel aura, and it took some horse to do that. I couldn’t wait to see where Ballydoyle would go next.

Twenty-four hours after the Derby and newspapers from London and Dublin to Dubai, Sydney and Hong Kong have covered the result of the race. Now Camelot is up there with Frankel and Black Caviar and I’ll Have Another, levels of fame that only brilliant racehorses can reach. And the Derby itself is reinvigorated in my mind. Federico Tesio wasn’t kidding when he said that the modern thoroughbred comes down to a piece of wood, that of the Epsom winning post.

I’m a student of the old world. Derbies should be preserved for entires, and should be won by the best horse entered. The Epsom Derby was a race that was created to extract a stallion, its very existence was with a mind to the breeding industry. If the result of that is a horse of the calibre of Camelot, then long may tradition roll on.