This year's Vodafone Derby (Eng-I) over 12 furlongs at Epsom was accused of lacking caliber by the form book shrewdies and the purists. But when you get a race as action-packed as it was-–who cares?
North Light gave Michael Stoute his fourth Derby success as a trainer and jockey Kieren Fallon his third with a brave performance Saturday. North Light kept up with the pace throughout and launched into the lead as soon as he hit the tricky, sloping home straight, with four furlongs left to run.
Backers of the 7-2 joint favorite-–Frankie Dettori's Godolphin mount Snow Ridge was the other-–faced an agonizing wait to see if anything would come out of the pack to nail him down. It was close, but the son of Danehill had a length-and-a-half to spare at the line. Rule Of Law (20-1) and Let The Lion Roar (14-1) produced flying finishes to take second and third, separated by a head. Percussionist, running in the colors of the late Robert Sangster, was beaten the same distance into fourth.
In Britain, the Grand National Steeplechase is supposed to be the race that supplies us with irresistible tales about the winning connections, but the 2004 Derby, worth a total of $2.3 million, didn't do a bad job either.
North Light's owner Lord Weinstock died late last year but left a fitting legacy. The two joint favorites were both bred at his Ballymacoll Stud in Ireland.
It would seem beyond the realm of fiction that Britain's greatest flat race could be won by a six-time champion jockey whose confidence had been shattered by a 28-day ban for messing up a race he clearly should have won (on Ballinger Ridge on the Lingfield all-weather. But it has been.
And despite this admirable victory, Fallon faces possible further disgrace. The Jockey Club is preparing for a disciplinary inquiry into whether he brought racing into disrepute over comments he made during a newspaper sting.
The 39-year-old Irishman leads a shaky life out of the saddle but a wonderfully assured one in it.
On the 50th anniversary of Lester Piggott's first of nine Derby wins on Never Say Die, we were left acknowledging an increasingly serious contender to his title of King Of Epsom.
Last year Fallon stunned us with an irresistible late rally on Kris Kin, landing a monster nationwide plunge in the process.
Yesterday he left us breathless once more with a demonstration of his riding skills that proved that he is not only wonderfully instinctive but also cunning, cool and versatile.
With the Aidan O'Brien-trained Meath-–very much a second string following the withdrawal last week of ante post favorite Yeats through injury-–-setting off in front, it was noticeable how many horses were quickly struggling.
American Post, the French-trained colt who needed a carrot dangled in front of him to persuade him to enter the stalls, was fighting for his head. So, too, was Percussionist, a tricky ride and a tricky horse, who needed earplugs fitted prior to the race to keep him calm.
But as the 14-strong field surged up the initial rise, maneuvering for position and already gasping for breath, Fallon showed why he is such a smart jockey. To avoid any trouble, and to make sure that North Light didn't waste any crucial energy by pulling too hard himself, he shuffled his mount up to the lead.
For the rest of the race, North Light saw only one horse. And when Meath began to run out of gas Fallon made his move by pushing North Light into the lead.
Could they catch him? Well, plenty tried. First American Post cruised up to North Light's flanks under Richard Hughes, but when ridden out had nothing left to give. Percussionist launched an astonishing, unexpected rally before taking fourth place.
Then, from nowhere, came the Godolphin second string Rule Of Law to take second at 20-1, with Let The Lion Roar doing just that right behind him.
Salford City (5), American Post (6), Snow Ridge (7), Hazyview (8), Pukka (9), Gatwick (10), Massif Centrale (11), Coming Again (12), Elshadi (13) and Meath (14) completed the order.
This win was an enormous tribute to Lord Weinstock's skills as a breeder, as Stoute was quick to point out. "For a stud like that, with 25 mares, to have bred two horses that started joint favorites for the Derby and for one of them to have won is quite remarkable. It is just a shame that Lord Weinstock cannot be here."
Stoute added: "Kieren and I discussed the race beforehand but we didn't have any particular plan. We just wanted to let him flow and be positive. We were concerned that it might be a rather muddling race and it was important to let him flow through it.
"This was only the fourth run of his life and we shall have to think pretty carefully about what we do with him in the future. But I would think it is pretty likely that we shall go for the Irish Derby (Ire-I)."
The Irish Derby is at The Curragh on June 27.