Sep 2012

For History. For Glory. God Damn It.

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It was hard to watch, and even harder to swallow, like a peg going down your throat sideways. He was running for history, this glorious colt, for renovation of racing’s oldest concept. Camelot was running for a perfect record, for perspective that greatness can be shared. And it all went wrong in the straight.

Commentators have reworked the replay into the night, disagreeing about jockey error from young Joseph or Camelot simply not being good enough. Aidan said he stayed on rather than quicken, and quicken was just what Camelot needed to do to catch Encke. The light-blue horse had gone too far too nippily. It was off-the-couch stuff, fist-wrenching, heartbreakingly infuriating. God damn it (and all the expletives that followed).

There were nations behind this horse. Legions of fans took to Twitter last night to cheer on his bid for history. It meant something to horse racing, that this race was embedded with old fashioned value and made topical with the emergence of this three-year-old. John Francome said Camelot is no ordinary horse, but he was ordinary today. I don’t think that’s fair. You have to look a bit closer at the obvious.

If the kick wasn’t there, there was a reason for it. Was it distance, or jockey error? I can’t fathom why Joseph parked him on the rail and failed to let him fan out in the straight. When he did find room, he did settle, and he did eat into Encke’s advantage. He did leave the rest of the field behind, for not a single other runner went with him. That extra two and a bit furlongs, it obviously counts. And the margin at the end was not even a length, but the defeat was great. It made that length feel like 10 or 12, for a sport was deflated. All around the world, people had cheered for him not because they were Camelot fans, and not because they were Coolmore fans. Because they were racing fans, and Camelot was in pursuit of something special this season.

The twitter reactions were curious, some measured and respectable. Others ridiculous. Someone called the colt ‘a hack’, which made me tune right out. If you can prime a horse from an undefeated two-year-old campaign to win the 2000 Guineas, English Derby and Irish Derby, good for you. But until you do, shut it. And then there was the expected vitriol about Frankel, and I have only one thing to say about that. Frankel is the best horse going around, by a long, long way. But when he shirked the Arc for another unchallenging jaunt up Ascot’s straight, he lost me some. In horse racing, effort is everything. So well done Camelot for trying. Well done Coolmore for giving us that spectacle.

Racing is a game of opinions. Of the St Leger, there were a thousand different opinions on how it was won and lost. Picking holes in a wonderful racehorse for losing is unsporting and unsightly. It happened to Black Caviar when she barely got there at Ascot back in June, and it has happened to Camelot now. In Camelot’s case, I suspect that much of the slur comes from an anti-Coolmore sentiment, and how annoying that people can’t ignore the politics and enjoy an amazing animal. It will happen again, probably every time this horse strips for contest. What a shame.

Thankfully, the cheers of good fans could be heard loud and clear last night, from the sell-out crowd at Doncaster to the hundreds that ‘watched’ on Twitter, many, like me, into the small hours of Sunday morning. There were some fascinating observations kicking around, like what will happen to the integrity of the St Leger now that it has undone a remarkable three-year-old. There was talk of Encke and the Arc, and something about ‘you’re kidding’. There were the discussions about where Camelot would go next, and who might tackle the Triple Crown again, if ever. I suggest it will be a long time if someone does.

There are few races I can remember in which I was emotionally, overwhelmingly invested.
Sea The Stars’s Arc in 2009 was one, and this race was another. And it wasn’t just because Camelot was racing with the banner of history tied to his browband. It was because he had illuminated himself, in the way he won the English Derby, even down to the way he paraded. You can’t quite explain why you fall in love with some horses. You just do.

So, Sunday morning in warm, breezy Sydney and life goes on. It always does. But my heart is somewhere on the Doncaster straight still, somewhere near the rail about two out from home.

The Quest For Camelot

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Quest for Camelot… it was a movie in 1998, a cartoon about a whip of a girl on a quest to save the kingdom of Camelot. It had nothing to do with a racehorse. But couldn’t one be creative and make it about a racehorse with, say, a cameo by John Magnier? Ballydoyle’s Camelot in the starring role, with the whip of a lad Joseph O’Brien on a quest to win the English Triple Crown. What are they saving? The integrity of the St Leger, of course.

Camelot’s pursuance of the Triple Crown has been fascinating. When he snatched the Derby in vigorous fashion back in June, I read all sorts of criticisms about Ballydoyle pointing him to the Leger. It was the easiest route, many said, the best way to avoid Frankel. It was a plodder’s race, Coolmore was copping out. In fact, I suspected back then that ‘the lads’ held the Triple Crown in very, very high regard. And when you’ve won virtually everything else, why wouldn’t you. Not since Nijinsky had a horse earned the elusive title, and where did Nijinsky come from? Well, from the bowels of Ballydoyle.

The St Leger may well be a plodder’s race these days, and that’s not Camelot’s fault, but if the Arc or the Eclipse were the final leg of the Triple Crown, I get the impression that Ballydoyle would be pointing their horse there. I don’t believe they are protecting Camelot’s unbeaten record, and aren’t we sensitive to that this season (Frankel has been sprayed with all sorts of reproach for his unambitious four-year-old campaign, especially given that defeat is clearly a pipe dream). And if, as Aidan O’Brien hinted this week, Camelot trains on next year, clearly they are not cotton-wooling his record.

Which begs the question. Why has the horse absorbed all this criticism on the way to the St Leger? Has the Triple Crown become so obsolete in European racing that a champion three-year-old, on the road to racing’s oldest grail, must defend why he is heading there in the first place?

The son of Montjeu is a magnificent animal, and Coolmore have done all the right things with him. Undefeated two-year-old sent out for the three-year-old classics. He won the Derby running away, pulling up somewhere down the road to London. He hated the going in the Irish renewal, but rallied and won it by two. Camelot is a horse of gravel and guts, of simple class and undeterminable talent. It’s simply unfortunate that Frankel is kicking around too… Phar Lap and Peter Pan, anyone?

Only two horses since Nijinsky have won the Guineas-Derby double. They were Nashwan and the immortal Sea The Stars. Neither horse progressed to the St Leger, and given the lure of the Arc de Triomphe, you can see why. There is a lingering myth that the Leger wiped Nijinsky out for his Arc bid, and probable cause behind it. Couple that with the unfashionable distance of the race in today’s breeding chain and you’ve got yourself a very elusive target. Bravo Camelot for even going there.