This article appeared in the June 29 issue of The Blood-Horse
By Richard Griffiths
Such is the incessant and often mind-blowing quality that racing at Royal Ascot offers, it is hard to leave the meeting with a clear-cut idea of its golden moment.
So it really does say something about the merit of Rock of Gibraltar's win in the St. James's Palace Stakes (Eng-I, June 18) that it stands out as the most abiding memory of the meeting, even though it came on the first of five star-studded days.
There is something admirable about the son of Danehill and the way he is easing himself to greatness. It seems more trustworthy to do it that way than to try a shortcut to such status with a couple of flashy wins that can never be repeated. Taking in his juvenile career, the Aidan O'Brien-trained colt has now won five group I races in a row. This season, in three starts, he has won the English Two Thousand Guineas (Eng-I, May 4), Irish Two Thousand Guineas (Ire-I, May 25), and St. James's Palace. It is a feat that had not been achieved for 33 years. You can't fake that.
Sure, Rock of Gibraltar has yet to take on older horses, but the manner of his 1-3/4-length success over stablemate Landseer, winner of the Poule d'Essai des Poulains (French Two Thousand Guineas, Fr-I, May 12) suggested he will be more than up to the task.
Starting at odds of 4-5, Rock of Gibraltar quickened over a furlong out to win without fuss, but without any uncertainty either.
"He has got all the gears you need. In the straight I was able to get into Landseer's slipstream and I knew that I had the race won," said his rider, Mick Kinane. Coolmore boss John Magnier, meanwhile, suggested Rock of Gibraltar could yet be dropped down in trip from a mile to six furlongs for the July Cup (Eng-I, July 11) or even stepped up to bid for the top 1-1/4 races. It's a division in which O'Brien would already appear to be well represented with Hawk Wing.
Rock of Gibraltar is part-owned by Alex Ferguson, manager of the Manchester United soccer team and one of the most successful coaches in the sport's history. Intriguingly, Ferguson said he recognized a kindred spirit in O'Brien. "You have to make sacrifices to get to the top of the tree, as Aidan has done," he said. "In my managing career I have had to make sacrifices in order to do the best I can. You don't like having to do it and I missed a lot of my family growing up, but it is what you have to do, and you can see from Aidan's dedication to what he does that he feels the same way about it."
Rock of Gibraltar gave O'Brien his third consecutive success in the St. James's Palace Stakes following Black Minnaloushe last year and Giant's Causeway in 2000.
O'Brien added a second group I win at the meeting when the filly Sophisticat won the Coronation Stakes (Eng-I), again over a mile, on June 21. Before doing so, Kinane had to extract her from a pretty desperate position in the short home straight before whipping past the field in the final furlong for a neck score over Zenda, to whom Sophisticat had finished third in the Poule d'Essai des Pouliches (French One Thousand Guineas, Fr-I, May 12).
O'Brien also scored with his first juvenile winner of the meeting, Statue of Liberty in the Coventry Stakes (Eng-III, June 18), although that was followed by a succession of bruising failures at ridiculously short odds in the other 2-year-old races.
Given the unavoidable rivalry between the two sides, it was perhaps inevitable that Godolphin should sweep into the winner's enclosure for the big race on the second day, the Prince of Wales's Stakes (Eng-I, June 19). Just to remind Ballydoyle that the Dubai enterprise is anything but a back number. And never will be.
Whereas there was something pre-ordained about Rock of Gibraltar, Grandera's five-length success was more of a surprise, even if he was joint second favorite at 4-1.
This was Grandera's first start since winning the Singapore Airlines International Cup (Sing-I, May 11) at Kranji and the son of Grand Lodge had been earmarked as more of a globetrotter for Godolphin than a domestic standard bearer.
That's all changed. As his jockey Frankie Dettori was quick to point out, a strong pace and patient tactics brought out the best in Grandera, as witnessed by the way he pulled clear of the 25-1 shot Indian Creek, a horse whose long odds and unfashionable background should not obscure his ability.
"Now that we have realized what he wants, he is going to be around for a long while," Dettori said.
Godolphin's racing manager Simon Crisford was clearly impressed by the victory, saying: "It was an unbelievable performance. We were pretty scared when we saw Frankie taking a pull two furlongs out, because to win here that impressively you have to be some sort of machine.
"Grandera is still improving--he was a very good horse last year and it was asking a lot for him to come back from his Singapore victory to put up that type of performance. His victory is more impressive than people imagine--shipping horses overseas and expecting them to perform in different climates and on different surfaces all over the world is a very difficult thing to do."
A return to Ascot for the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes (Eng-I, July 30) is now in the cards for Grandera.
The 7-2 favorite Banks Hill, last season's Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf (gr. IT) winner, put up a much improved performance on her 4-year-old debut, and was just three-quarters of a length behind the runner-up, although the good-to-firm ground should have been ideal for the Andre Fabre-trained, Khalid Abdullah-owned filly. The autumn could be her time.
One of the training performances of the meeting came when John Gosden produced Malhub to win the Golden Jubilee Stakes (Eng-I, June 22, formerly run as the Cork and Orrery) only a week after the colt made a winning seasonal debut in a minor race at Yarmouth, albeit in track record time. Malhub was a decent 3-year-old last year who appears to have improved from a pelvic operation and throat surgery. He could become a contender for the Breeders' Cup Sprint (gr. I).
But the race was somewhat overshadowed by the incredibly tame performance of Johannesburg, making his first start since the Kentucky Derby (gr. I). The colt is now almost certain to be retired to stud, his trainer O'Brien saying: "With the benefit of hindsight, it was the wrong thing to ask him to get the Kentucky Derby trip and it just took its toll on him. It is possible that he may not run again. Looking at him today, he wasn't within 40 pounds of the horse he was last year.
"When you bottom a 3-year-old, it is very hard getting them back. Obviously, he has gone to a very low state and for him to get back to where he was is going to be very difficult."