If the mares' tails cirrus-high in the wide East Anglian sky of pale, pearlescent azure and the freshening breeze blowing straight down the Rowley Mile were portents for the jump from indian summer to autumn proper, the sport here yesterday was a glorious finale. And with the greatest respect to the golden promise of youth on view, it was the golden oldies who stole the show. Step forward, Pat Eddery and Persian Punch.
Eddery, 51, who retires at the end of this year after a matchless career, was presented with a rocking chair during the week by the weighing-room colleagues who know him as "grandad". But there was nothing geriatric about the ride he gave 12-1 shot Landing Light to win the Cesarewitch, filling in one of the few big-race blanks on his CV.
The 11-times champion settled the eight-year-old among the back-markers in the two-and-a quarter-mile marathon, made a forward move as the field of 36 swung into the 10-furlong straight, thought about carving a route through the bunch half a mile out and then settled for a run up the stand rail.
Eddery's tactics may have caught some rivals napping; he was the first to go for his final run, and his switch of direction gained daylight as he did so. Sun Bird (33-1) finished to good effect and caught Kristensen (50-1) close home to take the runner-up spot by a neck, but he was still two-and-a-half lengths adrift of the winner.
"It's taken me a while to win this," Eddery said, "and I've had a ride nearly every year. I was a bit worried I may have gone too early, but the horse stayed on very well."
Entirely appropriately, Landing Light, second in the Champion Hurdle two years ago, is trained by Nick Henderson who, though a jumping man, is resident at the Seven Barrows stables whence Eddery rode so many top-class horses - the 1975 Derby hero, Grundy, was just one - for the former incumbent at the Lambourn establishment, Peter Walwyn.
"The connection is just splendid," said Henderson, who unlike Eddery was winning a Cesarewitch in his first attempt at the historic prize. "I certainly didn't give any instructions; the man is a legend and knows much more about Flat racing than I do."
Eddery's exploits will soon be memories but, happily, Persian Punch, who took the Jockey Club Cup for the third time, will be back for more next year. And there could have been no finer setting than here for his seasonal farewell, for on these wide acres, bounded by the Iron Age earthwork of the Devil's Dyke, thoroughbreds have been plying their trade for three centuries.
For owner Jeff Smith, his great, and great-spirited, chestnut is true to their heritage. "I love this sport," he said, "and to me he's the embodiment of it, in the mould of an old-fashioned horse like a Stubbs painting. It is a wonderful thing, almost a privilege, to feel that close to the sport and its roots."
As is his wont, Persian Punch snatched victory from the very gullet of defeat. He and Martin Dwyer, willing partners, set out to make all, but a furlong out Millenary, Tholjanah and Kasthari had all caught and gone past him. Such a challenge, though, is meat and drink to the horse who has become a genuine peoples' champion. He threw his heart up the final hill and went after it. "It doesn't come any sweeter than this," said his trainer, David Elsworth, "when he does it like that it is pure theatre."
After 62 races and 185 miles galloped in anger, the giant 10-year-old is still as sound in mind as in body, as his rivals have found to their cost. Yesterday's winning distance, from Millenary, was a short-head; it was Persian Punch's 20th victory and eighth in a photo-finish. "Unreal," was Dwyer's verdict.
Handkerchiefs really should have been standard issue on the gate. Jamie Osborne, whose unconsidered 33-1 shot Milk It Mick bettered the 11-4 favourite Three Valleys in Britain's premier juvenile contest, the Dewhurst Stakes, would certainly have availed himself of the facility. The former jump jockey was in floods after Darryll Holland drove the colt, running for the 12th time, to a head success, the first at Group One level for the trainer and for owner-breeder Paul Dixon, who retained the humbly bred Milk It Mick for just 14,000gns at the yearling sales last year.
"He doesn't have much of a pedigree," said Osborne, in his fourth season with a licence, "but he always looked like a racehorse and we weren't going to let him go for nothing."
A year after Eddery started his apprentice career in 1967, Michael Jarvis set up as a trainer in Newmarket, where he has consistently been one of the quietest of achievers. Rakti was another to bear witness to his talents with victory in a Champion Stakes in which most of the leading contenders, notably Nayef, Alamshar and Russian Rhythm, ran as if feeling the effects of long seasons.
The ex-Italian Rakti, by contrast, was running for only the third time this year, having been injured when chasing home Nayef at Royal Ascot. Two furlongs out he was the only horse travelling and came home an easy two lengths clear of Indian Creek. Last year, the four-year-old had been denied a run in the race by refusing to enter the stalls; this time, he was attended at the start by equine behaviourist Yarmy Dyble. "He's a very good horse," said the winning rider, Philip Robinson, "a machine."