25 February 2023

Mostahdaf apart, Saudi Cup day proves hard work for British runners

25 February 2023

The British flag was gloomily lowered in a sunlit corner of the globe yet again on Saturday when long-absent 2021 Ascot Gold Cup winner Subjectivist began his comeback in a noble yet unequivocal defeat.

He came only 12th of 13 in the $2.5million Red Sea Turf Handicap, beaten 10 lengths by Japan’s Silver Sonic.

The British contingent began to have a sinking feeling as soon as Joe Fanning rounded the bend at the end of the back straight. There was no burst of brilliant acceleration as in many of his other races, no hint of the imperiousness shown in his finest hour at the royal meeting two years ago.

Subjectivist could not even get close to Get Shirty, who came third, while the real battle was fought between Silver Sonic and Enemy who had finished 14th in the Ebor before winning a Dubai handicap, but not a horse on any previous reckoning in Subjectivist’s division.

Silver Sonic strode away to win by two and a half lengths. Subjectivist did not add to his bank-balance, although his owner, Scottish-born, Hong Kong-based economist Dr Jim Walker will survive.

After winning the Group One Prix Royal-Oak, Dubai Gold Cup and Ascot Gold Cup, Subjectivist’s winnings have just squeezed over the £750,000 mark. A win would have given him an additional £1.25m.

After the race came one of those jockey-trainer conversations between Fanning and Charlie Johnston which consist mostly of gesticulations, shrugs and quiet pauses. The significant sign language consisted of Fanning drawing his hands in to indicate the horse did not respond enough to his restraint.

Johnston has learned plenty from his father, for he was philosophical and consoling; it may be imagination, but one felt that the saddest figure in the tableau was Subjectivist, who could not utter an explanation.

A total of 618 days have passed since he cantered all over his rivals in the 2021 Ascot Gold Cup. Johnston, quite understandably, felt the lay-off with a near-fore tendon injury – which, but for mastery, patience and possibly wizardry, almost ended his career – made the difference.

“He was just too keen and I said to Joe this morning when we walked the track, that the couple of days he’d been on the track that he was just a bit too full of himself,” he said.

“The main thing now is he comes back in one piece and he’s shown that the enthusiasm for it is still there. We’ll lower our sights and we’ll go a bit closer to home, then find out where we are.

“I’m not too disappointed. I knew four out he was in trouble, because at that stage in Dubai and Ascot, that’s when he starts putting others to the sword and that wasn’t there.”

The trainer had a touch of triskaidekaphobia when the draw was made. Unlucky 13 it certainly was, leaving Fanning no choice but to go forward from the gate in the mile and seven-furlong contest.

Sunjectivist was lit up early and Fanning, himself recently coming off a lengthy injury, will doubtless feel a little sore in the shoulders after battling in vain for restraint.

Although a few months to go, Subjectivist’s defeat may be especially bad news for Royal Ascot’s marketeers, with Kyprios now almost certain to repeat his Gold Cup success and maintain his position as one of the finest stayers in history. For time is on the youngster’s side. Though only a year older at six, time lost has been an enemy of the Johnston team.

His trainer was philosophical, however, and added: “We knew what we are asking him to do was a big, big ask, but at the same time, where do you take the horse that won the Ascot Gold Cup last time out?”

This may have not been a day to extol European racing – the Brits were the ones who were defeated in every race bar one they entered, the gallant Mostahdaf, under an imperious ride from Jim Crowley, took the Group Three Neom Turf Cup in which George Boughey’s Missed The Cut was disappointing.

It was the same, too, for the Americans, with Bill Mott’s Elite Power finally giving the fans what they wanted – an armchair ride from Frankie Dettori, who scored by the proverbial country mile on the Juddmonte-owned “aeroplane” in the Riyadh Dirt Sprint.

Aside from that, the American horses were a little disappointing, the deeper dirt surface – which Dettori extolled as perhaps the best in the world – not playing to their strengths.

Yet it was still one heck of a day’s racing. Over 20,000 good-tempered local racegoers turned up at the King Abdulaziz Racecourse.

In the £20m Saudi Cup, the most valuable in the sport, Dettori stormed home late to take second on Country Grammer behind the Japanese-trained Panthalassa – the Bob Baffert-trained challenger finishing in the same spot as he did 12 months ago when ridden by Flavien Prat.

It was Japan’s third success of the evening – thanks to a brilliant ride from Yutaka Yoshida in a race where the Japanese-trained horses filled the first five places except the runner-up spot. There were also two victories for locally-trained horses, whose owners pocketed a combined $1.5m.

The people trying to turn the Saudi Cup event into something akin to a transglobal Super Bowl still have some way to go, but they are making this an established fixture on the international racing calendar – even though this was not a day for the Brits to truly celebrate.

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