Racing: States occasion as Stevens settles in

Sue Montgomery reflects on a supreme display of jockeyship
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The Independent Online
IF THERE was a theme to the final Royal Ascot meeting of the century, it was surely glee. Perhaps not so much from punters with only five winning favourites and a plethora of successful long-shots. But the delight emanating from the professionals during the week was manifestly apparent, even among the old lags with the been-there, done-that T-shirts.

Take Gary Stevens, for instance, the 36-year-old American jockey who has won everything there is to win in the States and who upped sticks to Britain two months ago to try to refresh his jaded enthusiasm for the game. And if he had had any doubts about the wisdom of the move, they disappeared last week on the backs of Cape Cross in the opening Queen Anne Stakes and Blueprint, in the Royal colours, in the Duke of Edinburgh Stakes.

Stevens' performance on Cape Cross, when he led, was headed, kept his mount balanced under pressure and thrust him to a short-head victory in the last stride over the difficult straight mile, was arguably the ride of the week and one in the eye for those who suggested that he would take time to adapt to unfamiliar tracks. His analysis of the race indicates why he has ridden more than 4,000 winners.

"I've always taken a lot of pride in being able to get to know my mounts in a short period of time, getting to know their mouths and their temperaments even if its only on the way to the start," he said. "Cape Cross is a very strong horse, and strong-willed and with that type there's a fine line between bossing the horse and letting him think he's the boss. By the time we'd got in the starting gate we'd built a mutual respect.

"Early on in the race, I left it to him to get comfortable. We were afforded some pretty leisurely fractions in the first two furlongs and he was going well within himself. The horse that finished second [Docksider] took up the battle about five furlongs out, which was to our advantage, because Cape Cross was looking for the battle early on.

"About two furlongs out I gave him a little test; I picked him up and gave him a little encouragement and he stuck his head in front. It was going to be a lot of work to keep him ahead from that point on, so I let him settle back again. He was carrying me well enough that he wasn't going to let the other horse get more than a head advantage. So I was able to let the other one do all the work until the final 50 yards. Then I picked Cape Cross up again and the more I asked him, the more willing he was."

Blueprint's race was only a Class B handicap, but Stevens' smile of sheer pleasure was testimony to what it meant. "I've ridden champions in $5m races," he said. "But to ride a winner for the Queen, at her meeting, and to meet her was the most exciting and happiest moment of my career. And the silks I wore; they were old ones and when I put them on I thought of all the great jockeys who had worn them before.

"I'm so happy I made the move. It's still early on but to come and enjoy a week like this is unbelievable. There's no racing in the world like it."

Another man with a sense of history would agree. The Aga Khan, one of the big league players in Britain until he took his ball home after a well- publicised spat with racing's authorities nine years ago, ann- ounced his return to do battle with Godolphin and Co in no uncertain terms by annexing two of the week's three Group 1 contests, the St James's Palace Stakes and the Gold Cup.

It would probably not have been becoming for the 62-year-old spiritual leader of the Ismaili Muslims to have taken off his topper and tails and chest-dived across the winner's enclosure, but the great grin on his face said he was absolutely thumpingly chuffed with Sendawar and Enzeli. It says much for the future of the sport as it heads for a new millennium that it can give such unmitigated pleasure across the board.

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