Kevin Blake

Leading racing writer Kevin Blake reflects on Saturday’s Coral-Eclipse from Sandown where Roaring Lion survived a lengthy stewards’ enquiry after holding off Saxon Warrior.

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ROARING LION COMES OF AGE IN THRILLING ECLIPSE

Going into the Eclipse at Sandown last Saturday, the world of Flat racing had plenty of questions about the merits of this year’s Classic generation. With Masar a late absentee, there was plenty of doubts whether the Eclipse would give us the star we craved. While the result may not have delivered a stand-out victor, what it did produce was a thrilling horse race that was battled out between the old rivals Roaring Lion and Saxon Warrior.

While there had been much talk about tactics prior to the race, the Eclipse was a relatively straightforward affair in which none of the main contenders were significantly inconvenienced by how it was run. Indeed, the one that perhaps had the least optimal run around was the eventual winner Roaring Lion.

Oisín Murphy was always likely to drop in from his wide draw, but he got caught a shade wider than he might have liked around the home turn. However, it was clear from some way out that Murphy was very happy with how much horse he had under him and having made quite smooth headway to challenge, his mount really knuckled down and battled.

As has often been the case when he has got to the front in the past, Roaring Lion briefly edged left under pressure, but Murphy’s strong left-handed use of the whip sent him back the opposite way. While he bumped Saxon Warrior close home, the race was won at that stage and there was no question that the best horse on the day was the winner.

That being said, the connections of Saxon Warrior can only be heartened by the performance of their colt. It was a big call to back him up just seven days after his defeat in the Irish Derby, but it was vindicated by his fine effort in defeat. It was a performance that supported the theory that a mile-and-a-half is just further than optimal for him, as for the first time since the 2000 Guineas, he settled, travelled and picked up like a top-class colt with Donnacha O’Brien back in the saddle for the first time since riding him to that victory at Newmarket.

That such an effort came off just a seven-day gap between runs raises hopes that he can do even better with more time between his runs. Another source of positivity for his connections is that despite the quick return to the track and the very warm weather, his pre-race demeanour was better than it was prior to the Irish Derby.

The Juddmonte International has been confirmed as the next target for Roaring Lion, so the next question is whether Saxon Warrior will be there to meet him for the fifth time with the scoresheet currently standing at 2-2. It would seem a natural next target for Saxon Warrior, but his connections did mention the possibility of his dropping back to a mile and that opens up some interesting scenarios.

With the Sussex Stakes likely to come too soon for him in just over three weeks and the Prix Jacques Le Marois at Deauville on August 12th not being a race that Coolmore have targeted all that much in the past, one wonders might Saxon Warrio be kept to a mile-and-a-quarter for the Juddmonte International and the Irish Champion Stakes. After that, they would have the option of the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes or the British Champion Stakes at Ascot or perhaps even the Breeders’ Cup meeting to round off his season.

As an observer, it would be great to see the rivalry between Roaring Lion and Saxon Warrior renewed at least one more time, ideally with Masar thrown into the mix as well. That said, seeing Saxon Warrior back at a mile would be a fascinating prospect and could well show him in an even better light than a mile-and-a-quarter. If he was to return to a mile, there is every chance the likes of Without Parole and/or Alpha Centauri would be there to meet him and those are clashes that would very much excite.

Whichever way these top-class three-year-olds are sent, the stock of the Classic generation seems to have risen since Saturday and all being well, it will continue to go in that direction after we are treated to more clashes between them and their older rivals for the remainder of the season. 

STEWARDS’ INQUIRY PROCESS PROVES FRUSTRATING

In terms of post-scripts, the stewards’ enquiry was a subject of frustration for many. Of course, an enquiry was necessary to assess the significance of the interference that took place between the first two home in the closing stages, but how it panned out highlighted the shortcomings of how enquiries are conducted in this part of the world.

Allowing cameras into the stewards’ room to broadcast the evidence given by the jockeys can make for fascinating viewing, but more importantly the presence of the cameras has also allowed the public to see how silly it is that jockeys are asked for their evidence in these situations.

Calling a spade, a spade, most jockeys will exaggerate and embellish the truth in whatever way they see fit to try and influence the stewards to interpret the evidence in a way that favours their case. With that in mind, the manner in which the Sandown stewards persisted in asking multiple questions of Oisín Murphy and Donnacha O’Brien just seemed unnecessarily longwinded and drawn out.

Stewards are in the role they are in because they are supposed to be racing experts. If they cannot accurately assess what has happened in a case of interference with the help of multiple camera angles and slow-motion footage, then they really aren’t fit to do the highly-important job they are there to do. Asking jockeys to give evidence not only serves to slow the decision-making process, it can also give an unfair advantage to jockeys that are more eloquent in making their cases and that is fundamentally wrong.

The only question that needs to be asked of a jockey in these cases is whether there was anything that may not be obvious from the footage that they think had an impact on how they or their horses behaved in the incident. That evidence should be collected by an official outside of the stewards’ room and then be presented to the stewards before they make a decision. Anything beyond that should be unnecessary to a skilled eye making a fair decision.

LATE INTERFERENCE AGAIN SHOWS SHORTCOMINGS OF RULES

I feel like I’m banging my head against a wall for so many years on this subject, but the finish of the Eclipse again illustrated the shortcomings of the interference rules in this part of the world.

When Roaring Lion started to edge to his right away from Oisín Murphy’s whip, the rules and how British stewards interpret them offered no deterrent to Murphy allowing his mount to edge all the way across and bump Saxon Warrior. Of course, this was a tame example of such practices, but it is worth highlighting due to the size of the stage it took place.

Highlighting it doesn’t seek to knock Murphy, he knows that the British interpretation of the rules means that he can effectively cause whatever interference to a pursuing rival he likes and will be safe in the subsequent stewards’ enquiry barring the winning distance is a nose or a short-head. A four-day ban for careless riding is a price worth paying for making sure of victory.

Yes, the best horse won, but offering no deterrent against such riding sets a very dangerous precedent. Thankfully, it has yet to happen, but I feel it is an inevitability that a horse and/or rider will be seriously injured or worse as a result of win-at-all-costs riding that the current rules lend themselves to. It will be incredibly sad if it takes such an incident for the authorities to realise the error of their ways in allowing such riding to be so weakly punished.

Kevin Blake
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