Zodiakos wrote his name into the record books with victory in the Betway Welcome Back British Racing Handicap at Newcastle – the first race in Britain since meetings were last held on March 17.
After Government approval was granted on Saturday, racing was the first major professional sport to resume in Britain following the coronavirus shutdown and all eyes were on the opening event.
At the head of affairs right from the off, the Roger Fell-trained gelding bowled along in the mile contest under his jockey James Sullivan, who like all riders was wearing a face mask as part of the strict hygiene protocols in place.
His better-fancied stablemate Al Ozzdi came there strongly two furlongs out in the hands of Ben Curtis, but while he took a definite advantage at one stage, the 22-1 winner fought back gallantly and was a neck to the good at the line.
Sullivan said: “It’s very nice to get the first winner. I’m blowing a bit as obviously it’s the first time I’ve ridden in a race for a while and it was hard work from three and a half furlongs out, but in fairness to Roger he had him very fit, he was spot on for today.
“I think his ability to handle heavy ground helped him. The track is riding very deep today and it helped at the end as he outstayed the other horse. Al Ozzdi got by me, but in the last 100 yards his stamina kicked in.”
He added: “Hopefully that will have blown away the cobwebs. In this heat today, riding in the mask, it is very warm and after pulling up I pulled it down a little just to get a few breaths in. It wasn’t too bad, though, it’s manageable and it’s the sort of thing that in a week you won’t even notice it.”
Fell said: “My instructions were to make it, to get on with it because he has one pace and he did that perfectly.
“It (lockdown) has not been bad for us as we’re quite isolated, we’re not round lots of other people. A lot of the staff live on site so it’s quite easy.”
Little Jo came out on top in race two, the Betway Heed Your Hunch Handicap, which produced another tight finish.
Saisons D’Or led until deep inside the final furlong and it was only in the last few strides that he gave way to the Brian Ellison-trained 9-1 chance, who was ridden by Ben Robinson. Like the first race, a neck was the winning margin.
Robinson said: “He was a bit disappointing before lockdown, but we found a few niggly problems and Brian has done a great job at home and he came back with a bang.
“Mr (Jedd) O’Keeffe’s horses are always ready and race-fit and to be honest I probably got there too soon, but Jack (Garrity) was just helping me along on his horse (Saisons D’Or).
“The track is riding very slow. The sun beating down on it softens it up and makes it testing and gluey, it suited Little Jo anyway.”
Starting procedures are one of the areas being monitored, with only two handlers allowed to push per horse to help social distancing and the starter likely to be less patient with horses that prove troublesome.
That was in evidence in the third race on the card, the first division of the Betway Novice Stakes, as unraced favourite Freedom Flyer was reluctant to enter the stalls, in turn leading to Ejtilaab becoming fractious.
In the end the race went off without that pair and ultimately produced a most impressive winner, as the Mick Appleby-trained Edraak (16-1) rocketed clear when asked by Alistair Rawlinson.
Rawlinson said: “He’d been doing everything well at home. The last piece he did at home we didn’t go that strong, but he quickened up very nicely.
“He was all at sea early, but once I picked him up he’s gone and done it nicely. When we pulled up PJ (McDonald, on Blazing Hot) was happy with how his ran and believes ours will be nice.
“He picked up with every stride when the penny finally dropped, but we won’t know how strong the race was given what happened in the stalls.”
He added: “He was sharp enough away for his second run and put the race to bed. Whatever he did today was a stepping stone – he’ll definitely improve stepped up in trip as well.”
Appleby is currently isolating having been to Sweden for a race meeting there.
Art Power looked impressive when winning on his second start at York last season and defied a penalty in fine style in the second division.
Tim Easterby’s grey bounced out of the stalls for Silvestre de Sousa and never saw a rival, justifying connections’ faith having given him a Commonwealth Cup entry at Royal Ascot.
The way he quickened up for a little nudge from De Sousa suggests he is well above average and he came home five and a half lengths clear.
“He’s a nice horse and Tim thinks a lot of him. He’s got some classy entries, but he had to prove he could do it,” said De Sousa.
“He had a big weight today. Mentally he’s not there yet, he’s still a big baby, going into the gate he didn’t know who he was and on pulling up he was waiting for the others. There’s a lot of improvement in him.
“He’s a fast horse, and coming back to five (furlongs) would be no problem.”
Betfair introduced Art Power into the betting for the Commonwealth Cup at 25-1.
Richard Fahey’s Brian The Snail won the Heed Your Hunch At Betway Handicap by the narrowest of margins from Yousini.
A promising sort as a youngster, he was bought by Godolphin having won both starts at two but has failed to reach the expected heights.
Tony Hamilton was on board and he said: “He’s a horse with a lot of ability, but he only ever does it every now and again.
“His work at home is better than what he shows in the afternoon, but when he puts his best foot forward he’s a nice horse.
“Riding in the mask is not that nice, but we all know we’ve got to do it so we’ll do it as long as we have to.”
The domination of the northern yards continued as Kevin Ryan’s Oakenshield beat stablemate Barbarella in the Betway Casino Handicap.
Ryan took advantage of the change to the handicapping system with the twice-raced three-year-old, who won cosily at 11-2 under Andrea Atzeni.
“It’s great to kick off with a winner especially for the boss, Sheikh Obaid, who has had to be patient the past couple of months,” said Atzeni.
“It was pretty straightforward, he jumped and travelled like a typical one of Kevin’s, he was very ready.
“The track is riding slow, probably because of the weather, it’s hard work but fair.
“It’s not too bad in the mask, but it was my first ride for two months and it’s very warm. It’s what we’ve got to do, though, and we’ll get used to it.”
Oisin Murphy recorded his first winner of the campaign as the champion jockey got Sir Michael Stoute’s 5-2 joint-favourite Alignak up to land the Betway Handicap from fellow market leader Good Tidings.
But it was a race that saw two fallers in the straight, with PJ McDonald’s mount December Second bringing down the Jim Crowley-ridden Financial Conduct.
Both jockeys were reported to have escaped serious injury, but Crowley was replaced by Murphy aboard Thibaan in division one of the Betway Maiden Stakes.
Sadly December Second suffered a fatal injury. His visibly upset trainer Phil Kirby said: “He’s gone, I’m afraid.”
Frankly Darling could be another star for John Gosden to have scored at Newcastle as she stormed clear in the first division of the Betway Maiden Stakes.
The daughter of Frankel looked a class apart under Robert Havlin and was arguably more impressive than superstars Enable and Stradivarius, who both won on the Tapeta for Gosden in the early part of their careers.
So impressive was the filly that she is as low as 10-1 for the Investec Oaks with Coral.
Havlin said: “She’s still pretty green. I stuck three wide, I was going to drop in but the one on my inside was struggling a bit so I decided to keep it nice and smooth for her.
“Turning in I was fairly confident, she’d organised herself by then. I always felt she was going to put the race to bed. She saw the mile and a quarter out well, she’s by no means a slow filly but I think she can see the mile and a half out no problem.
“She’s filling into her frame nicely and she’s going the right way.”
The mammoth card was completed with a victory for Valyrian Steel (11-4), making his debut for Roger Varian in the second division.
Wise Glory looked like creating a little bit of history as Simon and Ed Crisford’s charge would have been the first winner in the UK under a dual training licence, but David Egan managed to get his newcomer up close home to conclude a momentous day.