The Rent-a-Slapper and Prats R Us element that so plagues modern summertime meetings apart, racing at Goodwood still holds a timeless- ness after 200 years. As they did when Pantagruel won the first race (a three-heat contest over six miles in total) held on the third Duke of Richmond's estate atop the Sussex Downs in 1802, the English Channel shimmers and glitters to the south and the rolling cornfields flash gold to the north. As a setting it is indeed glorious.
It is an aspect of the week's business that is not lost on the Yorkshire-based trainer Mark Johnston, who ups sticks from his Middleham base wholesale for the five days. "I enjoy festival meetings, and their continuity, in general," he said, "and this one in particular, with its holiday atmosphere. I believe in running my horses where they have the best chance, and not being influenced by geography or convenience or even pleasure.
"But where this week is concerned, if I am faced with two equal opportunities for a horse and one is at Goodwood, I will certainly try to direct it there. Even if the Goodwood race looks the tougher, I may still want to go for it because that is offset by the fact that the prize money is usually better. This week, and Royal Ascot, are the only two meetings in the year that I book accommodation in advance on the assumption that we'll be running something.
"My owners will always want to be there so we plan the midsummer round it to send the best possible team. I love the idea of the northern raiding party sweeping south and the staff love it too, and we've won the stable prize twice in the past three years. I admit that there is a little selfishness in the policy but it seems to have paid dividends in recent years."
Johnston has netted 17 Goodwood Festival winners in the past 10 years and this week will field a squad of some 16. And if there is something of the braveheart in the trainer, a Scot and proud of it, there is too in his senior standardbearer this week, Royal Rebel, who will be aiming to prove that he is worthy of a stayers' crown in the Goodwood Cup.
The Cup, first run in 1812, has particularly fond memories for Johnston, for it was three years ago that his beloved Double Trigger became the first horse in the venerable two-mile race's history to win it three times. The chestnut, now at stud, will parade before Thursday's renewal.
Royal Rebel, last year's winner, has yet to find the same sort of place in public affection; indeed, when he so narrowly beat Persian Punch at Ascot last month he almost took on the role of the one who shot Bambi. This week he will be aiming to become only the fifth dual winner after Proverb, Le Moss, Further Flight (who had to be put down yesterday aged 15 after breaking a leg in his paddock) and Double Trigger.
Johnston was aware of the sentiments abroad after Ascot. "I can understand that people might have seen it as justice if Persian Punch had won," he said, "he is the old warrior, and mine might have had another chance another year. But I would like to think that it was the right result.
"The race may have looked like just a battle of dour stayers, but at the end of Royal Rebel's campaign last year I felt he had the class to be come the champion of the division. His two disappointing runs at the start of the year were the surprise, not the Gold Cup result. He has to carry his Group One penalty this week but Double Trigger showed us that could be overcome."
But however admirable the qualities of his gutsy marathon man, it is the youngster, Leo's Luckyman, who has Johnston catching his breath. The Woodman colt, who has the choice of the Richmond Stakes on Tuesday or the Vintage Stakes on Wednesday, won by a scintillating eight lengths on his debut at Ayr last month and is already being mentioned in next year's 2,000 Guineas despatches.
"I am trying to keep my feet on the ground," said Johnston, "and I accept that the horse still has to prove himself. But I have to admit that I view him differently from almost any of my two-year-olds I can remember. He would have won that Ayr race at any distance and at this stage of his career he's miles ahead of anything I've got, or indeed anything I've had.
"My one worry about what he's shown us is that it all might just be that he is exceptionally physically mature for his age. He is 16.1 hands already and big with it – he weighs in at 505 kilos, which is 5 kilos heavier than Fruits of Love, who is six. That precocity may be a factor but I am sure there is something more, and if there is, he's going to be frightening."Reuse content