Three cheers for a horse is not something often heard in this modern era, now far removed from the time when equines were part and parcel of life and affection. But yesterday someone in the always knowledgeable crowd here called for the old-time accolade after the two finest mares in the world fought out a spine-tingling finish to the Nassau Stakes. And right roundly it was given, both to the winner, Ouija Board, England's rose, and the runner-up, Alexander Goldrun, the darlin' of all Ireland.
It was a first-class tactical ride from Frankie Dettori, back in the saddle on one of his favourites, that helped Ouija Board prevail by the width of her black velvet nostrils and put the nightmare of her previous defeat, in the Eclipse Stakes, behind her. The Italian, though, had no doubt where the credit belonged.
As he came into the winner's circle he raised his finger to indicate No 1, then pointed repeatedly to his mount's pretty head, before smothering her neck with kisses. "She is just super," he said, "a very special one of a kind."
Before the race, it would have been difficult to find a more attractive collection of distaffers than the seven assembled in the sunshine for the Group One 10-furlong feature. Ouija Board, racing for the 19th time, took her usual calm, intelligent interest in proceedings; Alexander Goldrun, with 27 previous runs under her girth, oozed vitality in the sheen of her coat and spring of her step. The pair have now won 19 races between them, including 11 at the top level, on three continents.
Going to post, Ouija Board drew another rare reaction, a spontaneous burst of applause as she cantered gracefully past the faithful in the stands. All were aware that Lord Derby's colourbearer was on a mission after her passage from hell at Sandown last month under Christophe Soumillon.
Coming back was less elegant, but all heart. Unusually, Dettori had Ouija Board in the van from the start - her normal modus operandi is to quicken from off the pace - and daringly committed past the trailblazing Chelsea Rose a full three furlongs from home. He opened clear water, for none of his immediate pursuers could follow, but then came the danger from the clouds. Alexander Goldrun was last into the straight, just as she had been when swooping to an easy victory against much lesser opposition 12 months previously, but once unleashed by Kevin Manning she just flew.
Her white-blazed face showed in front of Ouija Board's two furlongs out, and from there it was a bobbing, straining, no-quarter duel to the line. The margins between egg or a smile on the face are fine, but this time, with a lot of help from his four-legged friend and perhaps the collective will of the crowd, Dettori's timing was perfection.
"I know that she prefers a target to aim at," he said, "but I reckoned that I did not want to get into a sprint with specialist milers at the end. She was the class horse in the race, I know she stays 12 furlongs and so I took it to them. I am just glad that it worked out, that I didn't mess up. But hers was the truly great performance, because the other mare went by her. I did feel she had something left to draw on but she showed great guts to find it and put her head down when it mattered."
Dettori was pretty sure he had prevailed; Ouija Board's trainer, Ed Dunlop, was less confident. "My reaction was that I was just pleased she'd run well again," he admitted, "and all credit to the runner-up. I hadn't given Frankie any instructions because, to be honest, I wasn't sure what to do. I left it to him and he was excellent." The £113,560 prize crowned a dream week for Dunlop, who had taken the meeting's other Group One feature, the Sussex Stakes, with Court Masterpiece. Though based in Newmarket Dunlop, 37, is a local lad, brought up at Arundel, a few miles down the coast. "This," he said, "Is as good as it gets."
Since winning the Oaks two years ago Ouija Board has mixed it with the best of both sexes around the globe, winning some, losing some but always performing with honour. She had a hard race here and will now have a deserved break in advance of an autumn campaign, her last hurrah before beginning her second career, as a mother. With the Arc and the Breeders' Cup likely targets, racegoers in this country may have seen the last of her, but the memory they can take was surely her finest hour.
BETS OF THE DAY
Ballydoyle representative Astronomer Royal (Newbury, 2.30) will have learnt a lot from his excellent debut effort.
Nursery debutante Buddies Girl (Newbury, 3.05) can build on her first three efforts over shorter.