Admirable Ascot

Staging a group I race over 2-1/2 miles may seem a little archaic, but few top-grade races have as enduring appeal as the Ascot Gold Cup (Eng-I). And certainly no other race at Ascot attracted as much controversy.

This year's running brought into focus The Jockey Club's often punitive rules on use of the whip when John Murtagh was handed a four-day ban after a winning ride on Royal Rebel that had most observers praising his talents, not denigrating them.

Royal Rebel, a 6-year-old gelding, is a notoriously obstinate ride who seems to save his best for when he is among the top hats and tails. Murtagh was banned for one day when winning this race on him last year and his attempts to get him home in a driving three-way finish on June 20 cost him another four days, meaning he will miss the Irish Derby meeting at the Curragh. Murtagh is based in Ireland, and his retainer with John Oxx means the ban could not have come at a worse time.

Murtagh was found to have used his whip with excessive force and frequency but the Ascot stewards' decision prompted much fury among racing professionals and the media as to whether the punishment was over zealous.

Murtagh, who had an otherwise brilliant meeting with four winners, said: "I have never felt so sick after winning a group I. I am very disillusioned with racing after winning the Gold Cup--it is a total anti-climax."

He was backed by Royal Rebel's trainer Mark Johnston, well known for being among the most intelligent members of his profession. "It was a great pity that all the focus after the race was on Johnny Murtagh's use of the whip and his four-dayban. They should have been looking at the winner and seeing how he was, and I can tell you he is absolutely fine. What you have to look at after races like that is not the horse's backside, but his legs; it is very hard work for them over 2-1/2 miles on fast ground like we have had here, but there is nothing wrong with the horse whatsoever," Johnston said.

A more independent view came from Michael Stoute, on whose horse, No Excuse Needed, Murtagh had gained his first winner of the meeting in the Queen Anne Stakes (Eng-II, June 18). "It's souring a wonderful spectacle for racegoers and Johnny has been penalized for a great ride (on Royal Rebel)," he said.

The trainer was winning the Queen Anne for the third year in a row. "We would not have run him had the ground been as soft as it was last week. He has got to have it like this or even firmer," Stoute said. "He has always been a good horse, but things have gone wrong for him this year."

Stoute wrapped up a second win at the meeting when Balakheri was a 3-1/2-length winner of the King Edward VII Stakes (Eng-II) and will now be aimed for the St. Leger (Eng-I, Sept. 14).