Stayers Again Steal Ascot Show

Someone asked me today to send them a link to the column I wrote five years ago about Yeats’ record-breaking fourth Ascot Gold Cup victory. That got me thinking about this year’s Gold Cup, which awakened those same feelings I felt back in 2009. Watching the favored Leading Light, from the same Ballydoyle Stable as Yeats, outfight and outlast The Queen’s gallant filly Estimate, the equally gallant filly Missunited at 40-1, and the hard-trying Brown Panther in a gut-busting stretch run after 2 1/2 miles was as exciting as racing gets. Adding to the excitement and drama was the fact that Estimate, who rocked Ascot into delirium last year by winning the Gold Cup for The Queen, was making her first start of the year.

These were true warriors, battling through exhaustion over a stamina-testing undulating course, yet none of them were backing down. Finally, Brown Panther gave way, leaving Leading Light to fight it out with the two fillies. At the finish, the three were separated by a neck and a short head.

That also got me thinking about some of the great moments in American racing over the past couple of years. Right up near the top of the list were the two spectacular victories by the Argentinian oldtimer Calidoscopio, whose breathtaking stretch runs in the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Marathon at 1 3/4 miles and 2013 Brooklyn Handicap at 1 1/2 miles (now marathons by our standards) brought waves of cheers from the appreciative crowd. Considering Calidoscopio was 10 years old when he won the Brooklyn, coming from 22 lengths back near the head of the stretch, it made his victory all the more popular and memorable.

Just thinking about Yeats, Leading Light, Estimate, Missunited, and Calidoscopio, it made me sad that the Breeders’ Cup has decided to eliminate the Marathon. Does anyone at the Breeders’ Cup remember the heart-throbbing nose finish between the 3-year-old Ballydoyle invader Man of Iron and the 9-year-old American Cloudy’s Knight in the 2009 BC Marathon? Apparently not. So, just like that, the Marathon is gone, as are the dreams of horsemen who have stayers (a dirty word in American racing). Let’s hope the racetracks who have carded long-distance preps the past six years keep them to at least give these horses someplace to perform to their strength. I can understand the Breeders’ Cup’s thinking in their decision, as the race was not supported as they had hoped. Nevertheless, still it makes me sad. Perhaps if the race were run at two miles we at least may have gotten legitimate European stayers instead of the in-betweeners, and it would have been a true marathon. But that is pure speculation.

Oh, to remember a horse like the Frank Martin-trained Paraje, who became a legend in the early ‘70s, winning the 2 1/4-mile Display Handicap three years in a row. Of course, there was Kelso, who won five consecutive runnings of the then two-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup. Must so many things in racing become nothing more than distant memories?

The person on Facebook suggested I reprint the column on Yeats, and after reading it again and rekindling those same feelings this year, the year the Marathon died, I decided to do just that.

All Hail Yeats

For 32 years I was able to say I was at Royal Ascot to witness history. Well, it’s history no more. It was 1977, my first trip to Ascot, and I was privileged to see the great stayer Sagaro become the first horse in the 170-year history of the Ascot Gold Cup to win the 2 1/2-mile race three times. To do it in successive years made the feat all the more impressive.

Watching Yeats this morning break Sagaro’s record, storming to victory in the Gold Cup for the fourth consecutive year, it brought a sense of purity and timelessness to the Sport of Kings that has been lost in this country. To hear the Ascot crowd salute the Ballydoyle-trained 8-year-old with an ovation worthy only of true champions, it showed there still is a place in the heart for the long-distance runner.

The purity and timelessness I refer to is stamina, an inherent trait of the Thoroughbred that has been so consumed by speed over the past several decades it has all but disappeared. What trickle of stamina, or at least what resembles stamina, that does remain is frowned upon by owners, trainers, and especially breeders.

There certainly is nothing wrong with speed, which is the premise on which the sport was born. But there is more to speed than five- and six-furlong races or even eight- and nine-furlong races. As was written about Sagaro: “Sagaro despite being an out and out stayer had a blistering turn of foot and could give an electrifying burst of a rocket propelling in the air, at the end of two and a half miles.”

What has made this year’s Ascot meet so memorable and significant is that we saw history made at 2 1/2 miles by a European horse -- I emphasize horse (not a gelding), by Sadler's Wells -- and at five furlongs by American horses -- two distinct worlds coming together to form a magnificent tapestry of the turf. In addition to Yeats, we had General Wesley Ward lead an unprecedented army of 2-year-old sprinters across the Atlantic to put on a spectacular display of American speed in front of The Queen and everyone else hoping to establish Royal Ascot as a true international event. By winning the listed Windsor Castle Stakes on Tuesday, Strike the Tiger became the first American-trained horse ever to win a race at Royal Ascot. By winning Wednesday’s group II Queen Mary Stakes, Jealous Again became the first American horse to win a group race at Royal Ascot.

To then have Yeats win his fourth consecutive Gold Cup the following day, it not only inscribed two new chapters in racing lore it burned this year’s Royal Ascot meet into the hearts and minds of racing fans in Europe and America.

The resounding ovation given Yeats is what this sport is all about. We even had a slight hint of it in this country last year when the 10-year-old Evening Attire was given a hearty round of applause by the Belmont Park fans after finishing second in a gallant effort in the 1 1/2-mile Brooklyn Handicap. There is just something about watching a horse, especially an old horse like Evening Attire or Yeats, run his heart out at the end of a long-distance race that strikes an emotional chord.

I heard those same cheers in 1977 when Sagaro defeated the top-class stayer Buckskin, despite having fallen victim to his rival on three occasions that year. Also in the field was the previous year’s St. Leger winner Bruni. Buckskin not only had beaten Sagaro in three major stakes in France prior to the Gold Cup, he had annihilated him by 20 lengths in the Prix Jean Prat. But in France’s top stamina test, the Prix du Cadran, Sagaro had cut that margin to three-quarters of a length.

In the Gold Cup, Sagaro burst to the lead and opened up to the cheers of the crowd who were looking to witness history. It was if Sagaro knew the Gold Cup was his race, just as Yeats appears to know it. He drew off from Buckskin to win by five lengths, establishing a record that would last for more than three decades.

In a bit of irony, the horse Yeats defeated today, Patkai, had won one race this year…the Sagaro Stakes at Ascot.

I remember standing and cheering Sagaro with everyone else that day as the grand-looking chestnut with the attractive stripe down his face was led into the winner’s enclosure.

I couldn’t help but relive those memories and emotions watching Yeats charge to victory today and march into the winner’s enclosure to those same cheers.

So, here is a toast to longevity, perseverance, courage, and stamina.

As William Butler Yeats himself wrote: “Every trial endured and weathered in the right spirit makes a soul nobler and stronger than it was before.”

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