So You Think

The Lure Of The Coral Eclipse

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Horse racing. It’s the thrill of the chase, the blood and thunder of the contest. It’s the two minutes and some when magnificent speedsters come together for the shortest space of time. It’s the glory of the fastest, the strongest. And sometimes, one race is all it takes to remind us of all the above. This flat season so far, it was the Coral-Eclipse.

Up until yesterday morning, the 2012 renewal of the Coral-Eclipse was shaping like the most scintillating race of the season. Yes, we’d had Frankel in the Lockinge and the Queen Anne a few weeks ago, and yes he’d been outstanding. But no, the races hadn’t been competitive. Yes, we’d had Black Caviar trot through 21 simple victories here in Australia, but no, they hadn’t been competitive either. Frankel and Caviar had done a Phar Lap, making the game all about them. And then neither horse declared for the Coral-Eclipse, and the flood gates opened. So You Think, Farhh, Bonfire, Monterosso, Nathaniel. It was delicious.

The betting scales tipped between So You Think, the rockstar, and Farhh, unluckily tangled in running during the Prince of Wales at Royal Ascot. It was looking like a proper rematch. Then the rains came in England (or, more like, kept coming) and the coin arrived for Nathaniel. By yesterday morning Australia time, there were three horses at the pick for the Coral-Eclipse. Here was glorious competition, I had missed it. Not one horse demolishing favouritism, but two, even three, at the highest tier.

But racing is a funny game, plump with highs and lows. The sky fell when So You Think was withdrawn yesterday. The shoulders of Twitter’s racing community sagged like overpacked shopping bags. My timeline was jammed with messages of regret... ‘the light has gone from the race’, ‘sad that we will not be seeing So You Think’. Was it regret because we wouldn’t be witnessing the rockstar run, or regret that the contest had become a lot less interesting? Probably both, though the latter read loud and clear to me.

Procession events like Frankel and Black Caviar are well and good (saviors even, I’ve been told), but racing needs the thrill of a well-spread race, a contest at the highest level for which the winner can only be predicted, not known. Horses that are not odds-on, races upon which mortgages do not rest. The Coral-Eclipse reminded me of that this week. I felt the simmering excitement at the field, everyone’s measurement of the surface, the umming and ahhing of race records. I’ll be shot for saying so, but are we a little Frankel weary, a little Black Caviar weary?

Without So You Think, the Coral-Eclipse is certainly less exciting. It is the almost-race-of-the-season now, though that’s taking nothing from the field that remains. Farhh, undefeated in three starts until he ran into So You Think. Monterosso, last start winner of the $10 million Dubai World Cup. Nathaniel, defending King George winner. Crackerjack King, no slouch. Bonfire, the boom three-year-old were it not for Camelot. And then there’s the old favourites of English racing, Twice Over and Sri Putra. An excellent field, and just what the doctor ordered.

The Coral-Eclipse is magnificent every year. Some of its winners have slid on to great things, and this year may well be no different. But for me, the race is a strong breeze in the current season, a breath of fresh air if you will in a climate of dodging him, dodging her, protection of undefeated records. A reminder of horse racing at its grass roots. The simple game. A contest.

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.