Chris McGrath: Ballydoyle raise Starspangled standard over sprint division

Inside Track at Newmarket

Nobody thought to ask the poor old horse, of course, but then it was easy to imagine which way his own vote would have gone.

As it was, Starspangledbanner was doubtless cooling under a hose in the racecourse stables, the pack leader who had thwarted an insolent challenge to his status. He had shown both class and courage to win the big race of the week, in the process vindicating the owners of over 150 mares back in his native Australia.

They had committed A$30,000 (£17,400) apiece for a tryst with the champion sprinter in his new career at stud. After the presentations for the Darley July Cup, however, as the crowds drifted away to watch the next race, a surreal epilogue began to unfold. At the height of an afternoon of savage heat, a group of men, sweating in their suits, huddled in the middle of a deserted parade ring and debated a commercial and sporting dilemma. If Starspangledbanner was to take up his new vocation, in time for the southern hemisphere breeding season, he would have to enter quarantine by midnight. Having now won consecutive Group One prizes, however, they wondered whether they might be cutting him off in his prime.

Aidan O'Brien, who has trained the horse only since March, was unsurprisingly in favour of postponing his retirement. Also among the circle of leaning heads, muttering and perspiring, were Michael Tabor, one of John Magnier's partners in Coolmore Stud, and Magnier's son, Tom. But all three of them at various stages took or made calls from the boss himself, and before they dispersed there seemed a growing likelihood that Starspangledbanner would stay in training. He was due to be inspected by the vets on his return to Co Tipperary, but in principle it is understood that the champion will be made to work a bit longer for his pleasures.

In the process, of course, he could well drive up that fee. Certainly, he has made a bigger name for himself since entering O'Brien's care, hurtling clear on the stands rail at Royal Ascot and here fiercely repelling a sustained challenge from Equiano. The runner-up had himself won at Ascot, but few expected him to rally quite so fiercely over a sixth furlong this time. There was only a neck in it at the line, with the Australian mare Alverta outrunning odds of 66-1 in a close third, followed by Kingsgate Native and Fleeting Spirit. Society Rock, second at Ascot, clearly needs to run fresh and managed only seventh, while Kinsale King faded tamely into 12th of 14.

It had been an exciting finish, backers of the favourite holding out breathlessly for the winning post, yet almost all the drama was reserved for afterwards. For even as his employers held their own council of war, Johnny Murtagh stood before another forum and listened aghast as the stewards handed down their punishment for causing interference in the early stages. A six-day suspension, starting on Friday week, rules him out of the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot – the target of Cape Blanco – as well as the first two days of Goodwood. Murtagh was livid, but the head-on footage shows that his short cut from stall 11 to the far rail had triggered a series of collisions.

In O'Brien, meanwhile, there was no disguising the satisfaction he has found in handling a really fast horse once again. You have to go back to 2001 and 1999 for his previous winners of this race, Mozart and Stravinsky, and in the meantime he has increasingly been sent animals with middle-distance pedigrees.

"He's just an incredible horse," O'Brien said. "In his last piece of work, he covered four furlongs in 45 seconds. The first time he worked at Ballydoyle, the fractions were so fast – and this was before he was fit – we had to go back and check, because we couldn't believe he could possibly have won over a mile in Australia. He has such fast reflexes. His fast-twitch muscles take him into top gear so quickly. And to have all that, and then be so tenacious at the end, that's very unusual. He has quarterhorse speed, but there he was at the end of the six furlongs, being so courageous. These are the things you just can't give a horse."

Equiano will drop back to five furlongs for the Coolmore Nunthorpe Stakes at York next month, but he may yet find himself pursued there by the winner. The Knavesmire tends to favour pace, and this pair could scorch it black between them.

O'Brien has not yet made his usual impact in juvenile races, but then nor has anyone else bar Richard Hannon. The success of King Torus in the 3Red Superlative Stakes meant that Hannon had won all three Group prizes offered two-year-olds at this meeting. And he bought this colt for €30,000 (£25,200) from none other than O'Brien himself. Some day, perhaps, he will go back for a son of Starspangledbanner. But the chances are that it won't be for a while yet.

Turf Account: Chris McGrath

Nap

Dubai Bounty (3.30 Ascot)

Unexposed after just three starts and found an unfeasibly hot race at Folkestone in the spring, just failing to reel in more positively ridden rivals in a three-way photo. The winner has in the meantime proved himself pretty useful but this filly retains a conservative rating.

Next best

Sarasota Sunshine (4.05 Ascot)

Another improving filly. Already prolific for her previous trainer, and looking even better now, showing promise on her reappearance before winning with more in hand than the strict margin at Newbury last time, idling in front.

One to watch

Deacon Blues (J R Fanshawe)

Is a progressive sprint handicapper who suggested that he remains ahead of his revised rating when set plenty to do, and meeting heavy traffic, before a midfield finish at Newmarket on Wednesday.

Where the money's going

Harbinger, who takes on his stable's Derby winner in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot in a fortnight, is 11-4 from 3-1 with Totesport. Paul Hanagan is meanwhile 4-5 from 11-10 for the Flat jockeys' championship after extending his lead over Ryan Moore at York yesterday.

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