When Hawk Wing went to post for the Lockinge Stakes here yesterday, a bitter, unseasonal wind was driving rain across the course. By the time he came back, in awesome isolation, the precipitation had thickened to sleet. But for racegoers the sun was out; they had witnessed a shining solo tour de force. As Hawk Wing and Mick Kinane entered the winner's place, the colt's bay hide and the jockey's navy silks slick and sodden, the diehards broke cover to give them the welcome they deserved.
On paper, the latest running of the straight-mile Group One contest could have been considered classier and more competitive than any of the previous 44. The field was reduced to six by Duck Row's morning withdrawal and Desert Deer's refusal to enter the stalls, but four of those six were winners at the highest level already.
Hawk Wing started the 2-1 favourite, but there was infinitely more than punters' money riding on his elegant nose. His very appearance, as a high-class, well-bred potential stallion remaining in training at four, marked a sea change in policy at Ballydoyle, John Magnier's Co Tipperary operation that services the huge and globally influential Coolmore Stud. And this inmate, in particular, could ill have afforded a dent in his reputation; oddly, although winner of the Eclipse Stakes and runner-up in four other Group Ones, including two Classics, he was regarded last year as an underachiever. Defeat yesterday would have been a gamble unstuck indeed. Now, though, defeat may be unlikely ever again.
Races of this calibre are rarely won by 11 lengths, the distance between Hawk Wing's powerful backside and Where Or When's unavailing nose. It was a further eight back to Olden Times, with the French challenger Domedriver, the Breeders' Cup Mile hero, fourth. The time, for a race won in a canter, was barely a second outside the track record.
Hawk Wing has always been a notably handsome individual and has matured during the close season into just about the beau idéal of the thoroughbred racehorse. According to Kinane, he felt as good as he looked when he cantered to the start, head and neck bent tautly over his bit like a bow.
"He was a joy to be on," the veteran Irishman said. "He was at peace with the world and ready for the job, no mental scars at all left from last year. My only worry came when Desert Deer took himself out of the game, because being a frontrunner he would have given me a lead. But mine pinged the start and I said, 'Go on then, my son, you can have it'.
"With the rain in my face and a hell of a wind, I couldn't look round to see what was happening behind me. But by the three marker I just couldn't hold on to him any more. It was tough for him on his own in front, but he was simply incredible. Today was one of those times when I still have to pinch myself."
Aidan O'Brien, Hawk Wing's trainer, regards the son of Woodman as a dangerous type of horse. "You see him in the morning," he said, "and he quickens your heart, he has such natural talent. But he can make you say too much, things that can fly back at you, like last year. This year I knew he'd been working like a dream but I was not going to blow him up too much. I thought I'd let him do the talking. I think he gave a bit of a shout today."
It was mention of the Triple Crown, and Hawk Wing as a successor to Nijinsky's legacy, that came back to haunt O'Brien. "People called him names," he added, "but remember, he danced to every beat and didn't miss many. He had a tough time, and his last two runs, in particular, told on him. We had some little physical problems to sort out during the winter when we give them all a routine shake-down, and we shouldn't have taken him to the Breeders' Cup after he was beaten at Ascot, but you can't blame him for that."
The one imponderable unanswered was Hawk Wing's stomach for a head-to-head scrap; the way the race panned out he was allowed a soft lead and never taken on. But his sheer ability may decree that he does not need to get into one and, although the jury is out, he must, now discomfort and stress have been removed from his orbit, be given the benefit of the doubt.
The pride of Ballydoyle will next be seen at Royal Ascot, although whether over the mile of the Queen Anne Stakes, which will have Group One status for the first time this year, or the 10 furlongs of the Prince of Wales's Stakes, has not been decided. "He's an amazing horse," O'Brien said. "With his pace, you'd almost think he could win a July Cup."
There were no valid excuses from the Lockinge vanquished. Where Or When had beaten the Irish colt in winning last year's Queen Elizabeth II Stakes, but John Humphreys, his owner, said: "On the way we did think that if the real Hawk Wing turned up, we might be in trouble." He did, and they were.