Gary Stevens is leaving these islands just at the time his talent has reached full bloom. A 31-1 hat-trick yesterday, including the International Stakes on Royal Anthem, finally erased any notion that his mastery of American circuits could not be translated to Britain. He leaves for his United States homeland a week tomorrow with the sentiment that he will miss us. The feeling is more than reciprocal.
When Stevens flew over here just before the Derby the critics were ready with their rifles behind the butts. Here was an American champion trying to prove his worth in an alien land. Stevens heard the bad words after his mistakes but he did not respond. His style was not loud either, but gradually the results themselves began to trumpet. At close of play yesterday Stevens was up to 45 winners and a level pounds 1 stake profit nudging towards pounds 50. He will leave a persuasive legacy.
The slender consolation seems to be that there is the promise of an occasional return. Stevens's new posting with the Thoroughbred Corporation will limit him largely to California. But the green and white colours aboard horses with the distinguishing white bridle will also continue to be seen in Europe. And, on the big days, we may see the big man.
In addition, Stevens could be tempted to come back, commitments permitting, for Britain's most rewarding races. One particular conveyance he would pursue is King's Best, whose Acomb Stakes win was so authoritative that he became favourite for the 2000 Derby and a 10-1 shot for next year's 2,000 Guineas. "Whenever you ride a colt of this quality it's got to make you second guess, but I'm pleased with the decision I've made," the American said. "The sky's the limit with this colt. Who knows, maybe I'll be able to come back next spring and ride him in the Classics.
"Prince Ahmed Salman [the man behind the Thoroughbed Corporation] is more than happy to work with me as I'll be working with him. But my first priority and obligation is to the Thoroughbred Corporation.''
Stevens discussed King's Best almost as fluently as he rode him. It is another talent we will miss. "In his first race he was just taking everything in, but the moment I got into the walking ring today I could see the focus in his eyes," he said. "He knew it was game time."
Fantastic Light also received the gentle touch in the Great Voltigeur, but it was Royal Anthem's demolition in the International Stakes that formed the centrepiece.
The four-year-old is an animal of frightening proportions. If he were ever placed under a picador, the bull would probably exit the ring. Stevens looked like a mahout on his back.
Royal Anthem uses his physical advantages well. The stride is, as Stevens might say, awesome. It took him to the front just over three furlongs out yesterday and then the giant horse just kept going. It was a sight not normally associated with a Group One race as he left a bunch of apparent sloths eight lengths in his wake. Cat, never mind Gary, could probably have won on the previous underachiever yesterday.
Salman was sent into whirls of hyperbole by this performance. "He's the best on the planet," the owner said. "He's the best horse here, America or anywhere. They can come from another planet." But it was not the same for Henry Cecil, the other member of the winning team.
Recent events at Warren Place have taken their toll on the trainer, and he looked out yesterday through heavily bloodshot eyes. And, for the moment, the natural spark has gone. He seemed more interested in the welfare of his five-year-old son Jake than any great celebration of victory.
The champagne reaction was left to Stevens. "There's been a lot of hype about this horse for the last two years, but he's always seemed to come up one horse short," he said. "But today he buried a very, very good field. I can't remember winning a Group One race as easily as I did today. It was just a beautiful, beautiful race.
"This horse actually throws you back in the saddle with his acceleration. He accelerates more like a sprinter than a mile and a half horse. I told Mr Cecil when I got off that, wherever he runs next, I'll be on a plane and I'll be there."