A Good, perhaps Great Thing

Greg Wood bids a fond farewell to the season of Lammtarra
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It has taken eight months, but at last the 1995 Flat season offers us a certainty, though sadly not one on which any bookmaker will lay bets. After a campaign which was memorable both on and off the track, the sure thing is that today's rogue turf card at Folkestone will be a downbeat, almost squalid, way to bring it to a close.

It may be a little reassuring to find that the British Horseracing Board, impressive in so many ways since its inception, is still capable of old- fashioned howlers like closing a season on a Monday afternoon in the middle of nowhere. Yet 1995 deserves better. It overcame the premature loss of its supposed major star, Celtic Swing, and kept its followers enthralled right up to the Arc and beyond. All in all, it was a Good Thing.

Of course, 1996 could yet be the year of Swing, with Peter Savill's convalescent French Derby winner still, officially at least, on the right side of a stud farm's whitewashed paddock rail. However you look at it, though, his hard-fought victory at Chantilly was not that of an all-time champion, and the brilliance which we know exists within him was given instead to 1994. His marked preference for an easy surface must also count against him in any comparison with Mill Reef or Nijinsky, but here at least the 1995 season offers a credible alternative.

There seems to be an undercurrent of prejudice against the idea that Lammtarra was one of the best middle-distance Flat horses in living memory. One reason, perhaps, is that he was not Celtic Swing. Another, more reasonable, is that he departed for the paddocks after just four visits to a racecourse. He did not even stay around to lead the line in the Breeders' Cup at Belmont, (and in view of how close Freedom Cry, the Arc runner-up, went to winning the Turf, that may be a decision which Sheikh Mohammed now regrets). Nor did he win his races by 10 lengths going away.

But in a sport which values success above all else, any rational assessment of Lammtarra's achievements must place him alongside the very best. He completed a treble - Derby, King George and Arc - which eluded all but Mill Reef before him. He did so, what's more, on going which ranged from fast at Epsom to heavy at Longchamp, and won both from well off the pace and, in Paris, after hitting the front two out. He was courage on four chestnut legs, and we will miss him.

Thanks to Lammtarra, Sheikh Mohammed was finally able to lead in a Derby winner at Epsom, though the colours were those of his nephew. The Sheikh's Godolphin operation was the dominant - indeed almost the only - force in the year's big races, even if Saeed bin Suroor, whose name is on their training licence, was denied the championship by John Dunlop, with nine times as many wins.

Willie Carson's clever ride on Bahri in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Ascot secured the title for the Arundel stable, but in most other respects the season was painted with the royal blue of Godolphin. Halling, So Factual, Vettori, Moonshell added to Lammtarra's efforts to secure an incredible haul of Group One successes.

Away from the track too Sheikh Mohammed made the headlines, as his long association with Henry Cecil drew to a typically British close, with polite regrets pouring oil on the bitter waters beneath. Not, of course, that anyone wished to see 10 rounds of bare-knuckle brawling on Newmarket High Street. Well, not much.

The season also brought a final acknowledgement that Lester Piggott's career in the saddle could go no further, as the Long Fellow hung up his boots within sight of his 60th birthday, which he celebrated yesterday. Two generations below him, Lanfranco Dettori is still the champion, and the only rider who looks likely to be champion in the foreseeable future.

And at Goodwood in July, we watched Lord Wyatt, the chairman of the Tote, admit that he was unable to name even half a dozen of the horses competing on one of the year's most important afternoons.

The saddest thing was, no-one seemed particularly surprised.