Jun 2013

When Racing Turns On Its Own: Camelot


Okay. Let’s talk Camelot, because his fall from grace last night was spectacular. The Classic king of 2012 fell off his throne on the greatest public racing stage of them all - Royal Ascot - and Ballydoyle could only idle nearby and count the dollars, tens of thousands of them lost in stud value. The fall-out was horrendous. ‘Camel’ and ‘donkey’ fell about Twitter from some very credible sources. It was hard to read. And out there, on the lawns of Ascot before an audience adulating Al Kazeem, was left a lovely horse, a hero last year, with whom something had gone properly wrong.

Camelot’s rise to stardom began from his very first run in July 2011. His earliest record is a picket fence of perfect ones - first, first, first, first, first. The Racing Post Trophy, 2000 Guineas, the English Derby, the Irish Derby. And then Ballydoyle, in a gesture that was more sporting than greedy, courted history with the St Leger and found out why very few now chase that elusive Triple Crown. Camelot went down to Godolphin’s Encke in a slim finish that triggered the beginning of the end for him. And it’s been all downhill from there.

The horse headed into the Prince of Wales’s Stakes last night with redemption weighing far heavier than the nine stone in his saddle. Camelot had bombed in the Arc last October, came back in May this year with a first-up triumph in the Mooresbridge, only to lose the Tattersall’s Gold Cup to Al Kazeem three weeks ago. Where was the brilliance, the consistency that had so stamped his earliest days in racing? The dream, and we love the dreams in racing, suggested it would be all there at Royal Ascot last night, like the guns of Navarone. Camelot slid into favouritism, only to slide home a flat fourth.

Let’s look at the figures for a moment. There were 11 horses in the Prince Of Wales’s yesterday and Camelot was home in the first four. His record overall reads like this: 10 starts, 6 wins, 2 seconds. £1.926,569 in earnings. Three Classics, four Group One victories. In 10 starts he has been out of the first three only twice, yet the overriding stigma is negative: he comes from a shocking crop, he’s a hyped horse. Hype hype hype.

So where did it all go wrong? Well, let’s start with the Irish Derby back in July 2012. Ballydoyle headed there out of goodwill alone, and over terrible going that didn’t suit him at all, Camelot slashed out a very hard-earned victory over Born To Sea. It was one of those wins that you like to see in a young horse, when it’s taken to him and he fights back to draw away by two. But at what cost? Six weeks later, Camelot couldn’t find that extra neck to run past Encke in the St Leger. And I’ll never forget that night. Deflation and shock portioned evenly with sympathy for the Coolmore clan and the good of racing.

Last night, I watched the horse closely. Camelot is such a glamourous thoroughbred, put together like synchronised swimmers. He is graceful in the neck, light on the forehand, beautiful at the eye. He has a face cut straight from marble. He made the rest of the field, Al Kazeem included, look plain. But looks don’t win Group races, and John Berry, via Twitter, was spot on. ‘His sweat today suggests signs of wear and tear.’ Camelot had reached the gates a foaming mess. Yes, something was amiss. This wasn’t the horse of 12 months ago.

Ballydoyle must be blamed for one thing: they talked this horse up until the sun went down. As Camelot cleaned up the Classics last year, Aidan O’Brien had declared him ‘the best he’s had in his yard’, and that was a mighty call given the arsenal that has powered through the Tipperary yard in the last decade. Did he mean it? Probably, because at that stage he was handling robust Camelot who had turn of foot, staying power and closing speed. How was he to know it would disappear? And regardless of what critics say about last year’s three-year-old crop, Camelot could only defeat what he ran into. By the time the horse was meeting older opposition, it’s fair to admit something had gone terribly wrong.

I cannot remember a more polarising thoroughbred. People love Camelot, but many more hate him. And they hate him because of the stable he’s attached to, because of the excuses they think have been made for him. They hate him because they loved Frankel, and they hate him because they feel cheated - a Classic winner that has lost the ability to win. But I was ill last night reading the Twitter feeds. I hate seeing racing fans turn on a horse. As much as Animal Kingdom was a bigger picture than the Queen Anne, as much as So You Think was probably better than his loss to Rewilding, so is Camelot more than the troubled puzzle he has become.

O’Brien says he is keeping the faith. Perhaps he’s been too soft with the horse, he said. Perhaps the colic surgery (in the off season) has taken more off him than we know. But O’Brien can’t win. He says too much, he’s making excuses. He says nothing, he’s got nothing. Regardless, they are pressing on with this lovely, embattled Montjeu horse, suggesting they have no plans to despatch him off to Mike de Kock. But the reality is that, as much as So You Think could claw back only some of his reputation with his outgoing victory in the St James’s last year, it will take something like a victory in the Arc de Triomphe to restore Camelot to any sort of glory. And on the state of play, that probably won’t happen. But there is one thing that writing ‘Peter Pan’ and ‘Shannon’ has taught me: there is always, always more to a horse’s canvas than mere results.

Even In Defeat. Animal Kingdom.


He was the new racing story of the year. Animal Kingdom, the American-bred, American-trained Kentucky Derby winner that had gone to Dubai and cleaned up the wares in the world’s richest race. He had been portioned out to Australian interests, Dubai interests, so that his fans represented a few continents. He was the sticking chestnut that was something like Cigar, an American hero carted off to the desert, come out the other end a bigger hero.

Off the back of his World Cup victory, it was plausible that Animal Kingdom would go to Royal Ascot and win. Most of the world was behind him. The robust chestnut had a slick modern record - in 12 starts he had been out of the first two only once, in a difficult Belmont where excuses were credible. He had trotted his best over dirt, turf and tapeta, after thousands of miles of air travel, after bumps and knocks in running that would scupper the bravest horse. No, Animal Kingdom was not undefeated in an age where ‘unbeaten’ is gold. But he was honest and tough and world class. He was alive for the Queen Anne.

I was nervous watching him load for the race that kicks off the Royal meeting every year. I didn’t know if he would win, for as much as my Twitter timeline sounded off with ‘sure thing’, ‘load up folks’ and ‘the best horse in the race’, the stiff incline of this famous track has undone more than I can recall. Slipping over the tapeta on a flat, hot track in Dubai is hardly a form line for England, and let’s face it, English commentator Graham Cunningham was spot on: ‘the thought that the Dubai World Cup tends to be the end of something good rather than a springboard to something great rankles’. I had retweeted that in the hour before the Queen Anne.

Animal Kingdom lost his race, and lost it good. He slid home ahead of only two others in a bubble-bursting performance that was almost as painful as Dawn Approach’s Derby. It was hard to defend the effort (he’d had room to move, he hadn’t been too strong to my eyes, it just looked like he was outclassed), but it was also hard to fault him. Where, in his record, had he ever run a poor race?

And that’s the trouble with an extremely likeable horse. When Camelot lost his St Leger, and when Dawn Approach burst into flames in the Derby, criticisms were thick and relentless for these profiled, big-stable horses. But Animal Kingdom is vaccinated from that, perhaps because of his heart, perhaps because of his ownership. Team Valor and co. have been widely applauded for even trying to win the Queen Anne. And history salutes them. Even in defeat, Animal Kingdom was the first Kentucky Derby winner since Omaha, way back in 1936, to have a shot at Royal Ascot. The fact that it didn’t come off is only part of the story today.

The American horse (no, he’s not Australian folks) will likely be retired now, and in a season when we (Australians) have had so many ridiculous, premature retirements in the name of the bottom dollar, this one is thoroughly deserved. Animal Kingdom has gone down the halls of the Triple Crown, the Breeders’ Cup, the Dubai World Cup and Royal Ascot. It will be a long time before we can say that of another horse, so in this case, yes, last night’s defeat was only a tiny part of an extraordinary story. The horse lost little in defeat.