Driving to Newmarket through a biblical-style deluge that had sheep, cattle and horses queuing in twos in case Noah had to get busy, I feared for my day’s sport last Saturday. But it takes more than rain to stop the British enjoying themselves and there they all were: the fashion train-wreck hen parties in garish satin and flimsy chiffon, the likely lads in hair gel and shiny grey suits, the county set in panamas and brogues. At the flower-filled July course you get up close and personal with the horses and their handlers in the parade ring or the winners enclosure; there is a sense of involvement that simply isn’t possible on some other tracks, and after a season seemingly dominated by drug scandals and warnings-off the sheer buzz of enjoyment was hugely reassuring.
Racing was rocked back on its heels this year by the disclosure that at Moulton Paddocks, one of the two Newmarket yards owned by Godolphin, 11 horses had tested positive for illegal anabolic steroids. In very little time their trainer Mohammed Al-Zarooni had been banned from the sport for eight years and vanished, never, one imagines, to be seen again in racing. It was bad enough that one rogue individual at such a level had disgraced the organisation. But then came a report from the British Horseracing Authority condemning the woefully inadequate management structure of the Moulton Paddocks Stable, castigating them for not keeping proper medical records and for muddling stable responsibilities.
Some gloated: big boys aren’t always popular. Most of us were simply saddened that the Dubai-based Godolphin, an organisation which has eight times been British racing’s champion owner and which has sent out 205 winners of Group One and Grade One races around the world, was being dragged through the mire. There were real fears that Sheikh Mohammed, the ruler of Dubai and the boss of Godolphin, might react to the disgrace by pulling out of Britain. Despite the welcome advance of the Qatari royal family as significant investors in British racing, such a move would have been catastrophic for the sport and for those employed in it. As I write, this year alone 287 horses have contested 743 races for Godolphin, 20 per cent of them proving winners.
But racing’s tide, it seems, has already swept away the ugliest gashes in the sand. Sheikh Mohammed has not gone away; he has instead scored significant success with the Jim Bolger-trained Dawn Approach. Back in July the cheerful, approachable Charlie Appleby was appointed as Al-Zarooni’s successor both at Moulton Paddocks and at Marmoom Stables in Dubai, and Newmarket on Saturday provided emphatic evidence that Godolphin has ridden through its crisis.
The day before, Godolphin horses had scored a treble at York. At Newmarket they had another. The first went to the Saeed Bin Suroor-trained, two-year-old Ghazi, who dwelt at the start and ran green but who stayed on well under an educative ride from Mickael Barzalona. The Boys in Blue won the second too. On the Charlie Appleby-trained Safety Check, Barzalona grabbed an opportunity to go clear two out in the seven-furlong race and persuaded his mount to hang on for a neck victory. Amazingly, Charlie Appleby told me, that was already his 21st winner.
Appleby and Barzalona secured a third Godolphin victory with a win over ten furlongs for the top-weighted Greek War. The four-year-old hasn’t always appreciated soft ground in the past and had trouble going the pace early on but Barzalona persevered. Holding him up until two furlongs out he came with a sustained run at the end and hung on well. All three Godolphin horses looked to have more to come and, for all the bitterness it caused, Sheikh Mohammed must be sure now that he made the right decision in taking on young Barzalona as his No. 1 rider, prompting the departure of Frankie Dettori.
The young Frenchman may have looked a cocky little devil when he stood up in the stirrups to celebrate his Derby win on Pour Moi for André Fabre before the pair had passed the post but he has promised we won’t see such antics again. His English has improved, he has knuckled down to his wider stable duties in Britain and his post-race briefings were winning appreciative nods from both Godolphin trainers. He has the instinctive feel of a potentially great rider: as Fabre has said of him, ‘The best thing is that he seems to know exactly where the winning post is.’
Barzalona’s oppportunities suffered from the lockdown for several weeks of the Moulton Paddocks stables but now he is flying. Asked for his target this season, he said simply that he wants to better his total of 66 wins last season. With 45 on the clock as I write, he should have no problem, and there was a fourth Barzalona success on the day at Newmarket when he brought home Lancelot du Lac in the six-furlong sprint for a delighted Dean Ivory. Dean scored a double himself with the useful Tropics, who is definitely one for the end-of-season sprints.
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