Kevin Blake

Leading racing writer Kevin Blake discusses John Gosden's brilliant British Champions Day, which was led by the game grey Roaring Lion winning the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes. Kevin, once more, also raises questions about the British rules of racing regarding interference.

  • Monday 22 October
  • Blog
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GOSDEN’S STARS SPARKLE ON BRITISH CHAMPIONS DAY

There are many highlights to discuss from British Champions Day at Ascot, but Roaring Lion’s victory in the Queen Elizabeth II takes some beating as the headline performance. At the end of a long season and on ground he didn’t seem to be enjoying, Roaring Lion put his heart on public display and gamely overcame adversity to prevail.

It cannot be overstated just how good of a training performance John Gosden has pulled off with Roaring Lion. From all-but throwing away the Racing Post Trophy in his final two-year-old start and making a poor reappearance in the Craven back in mid-April, Gosden ironed out all his quirks and got him to progress from race-to-race.

His improvement culminated in his best single performance in form terms, a highly-impressive victory in the Juddmonte International at York. It is that race that tells us just how talented Roaring Lion is, as while he won his next two starts, those wins were more so about overcoming adversity and showcasing his will to win that exhibiting the true depths of his talent.

In the Irish Champion Stakes, the run of the race set Roaring Lion a very tough task to catch Saxon Warrior after he got first run on him and he proved equal to the task. In the Queen Elizabeth II at Ascot on Saturday, it was far from his best performance in form terms, but he had to dig deeper than he has all season at the end of a long campaign and on ground he seemed to be hating.

How hard a horse is trying can be a hard thing to quantify, but I defy anyone that watches the close-up shots of Roaring Lion in the final furlong to conclude anything other than he gave everything he had. It was stirring to watch.

Roaring Lions wins the Queen Elizabeth Stakes
The game Roaring Lion en route to winning the QEII

What we learned in the aftermath of the QEII is that Roaring Lion will retire to stud next season. It is a somewhat understandable decision, but it does always disappoint as a racing fan when a colt as talented and tough as him isn’t returned to training as a four-year-old. Sheikh Fahad and his family have been wonderful supporters of British and Irish racing and one only had to watch his reaction to Roaring Lion’s victory in the Royal Box to see how passionate he is about the sport, but the reality is that horses like Roaring Lion are very hard to find.

As satisfying as it will be to watch Roaring Lion’s stallion career unfold over the coming years, it can always be delayed a year. Should it be the case that none of Qatar Racing’s current crop of two-year-olds come up to the Group 1-mark next season, one wonders will Roaring Lion’s connections regret choosing to retire a proven superstar just as he was hitting his peak.

There would have been a common view at the time that Frankel didn’t have anything left to add to his CV on completion of his three-year-old campaign, but Prince Khalid Abdullah’s game decision to race him as a four-year-old allowed a more mature Frankel to remove any doubt as to his status of an all-time great.

While Roaring Lion’s connections may have publicly stated that he will be retired, one can only hope that further reflection might tempt them into a rethink and send Roaring Lion back to John Gosden for the 2019 season. Given his arc of improvement in 2018, there is every possibility that he could reach even greater heights as a four-year-old.

LONG DISTANCE CUP CREATES CONTROVERSY 

The QIPCO British Champions Long Distance Cup saw the John Gosden-trained Stradivarius consolidate his position as the best stayer in training with a workmanlike victory, but the riding tactics in the race were the main subject of conversation afterwards.

The first point of contention was the ride given to Flag Of Honour by Ryan Moore. In tactical terms, the three Ballydoyle runners laid a trap for Stradivarius and Frankie Dettori jumped head first into it. With three furlongs to race Stradivarius was hemmed in by all three Ballydoyle runners, with Frankie facing the prospect of not only having to wait to get in the clear, but also having to switch three or even four wide to do so.

However, he didn’t need to, as Ryan Moore allowed Flag Of Honour to edge off the rail and gave Frankie and indeed Thomas Hobson an opportunity to get up his inside that they immediately seized. While Flag Of Honour may not have handled that point of the bend perfectly well, Moore didn’t seem to exhibit any notable urgency to keep him tight to the rail. It may or may not have been a result changer, but the finish is highly likely to have looked very different had the three Ballydoyle horses stayed tight to each other against the running rail. It is a race that Moore is unlikely to want to look back on any time soon.

The second notable talking point was Frankie’s riding in the closing stages. Having quickened to the lead, Stradivarius edged left which opened a gap for Thomas Hobson on his inside. Willie Mullins’s charge seemed to be steadily closing the gap on Stradivarius, but Frankie gradually brought Stradivarius back to his right, intimidating and then squeezing up Thomas Hobson to end his challenge with half a furlong to left to race. It was a manoeuvre that resulted in a three-day careless riding ban for Frankie, but such is the way the rules are interpreted in Britain, Frankie knew he could do it without the slightest fear of losing the race in the stewards’ room.

I’m blue in the face from saying it but allowing riders to make such manoeuvres with no fear of meaningful consequences is just begging for serious trouble in the form of a catastrophic injury or death of a jockey and/or horse. This was far from the worst example you’ll see, but it still denied Thomas Hobson his fair opportunity to challenge, not to mention putting him and his rider in danger of clipping heels and coming down. It just seems to be happening more than ever at present and high-profile examples such as this will only serve to embolden riders to do it even more.

Even in Ireland where the stewards are much more willing to demote horses for interference than in Britain, the volume of dangerously careless rides that have been weakly punished in recent months is very concerning indeed. The clearest example of this was the ride given to Eileen O by Patrick Mullins at Listowel which resulted in a rival horse and jockey hitting the deck, yet the Referrals Committee only deemed it to be deserving of a one-day careless riding ban.

Safety of rider and horse should always be the most important consideration in stewarding and right now, it seems to be well down the pecking order of priorities on both sides of the Irish Sea. It will truly be a tragedy if it takes a catastrophic injury or even the death of a rider for the stewards to see the danger they invite by enforcing the interference rules as weakly as they do.

Kevin Blake
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