Halfway through the race, many punters were no doubt muttering darkly about the headless horseman who seemed to be riding the favourite. Come the post, the toast of Newmarket yesterday was instead one of those cherished horsemen named Head.
Freddie Head, scion of a great French racing dynasty, had come here 12 years previously to win the Darley July Cup for his sister, Criquette, on Anabaa. Now he was back as a trainer, and entrusting a champion of his own to the care of Davy Bonilla.
Few who had backed Marchand d'Or will have been thrilled with that appointment when they saw Bonilla yank his mount to the back of the field and then across to stands' rail. War Artist and US Ranger were already spitting on their hands, seeing off the challenge of Kingsgate Native, yet Bonilla seemed not to have a care in the world. But those thinking wistfully of solitary confinement for the jockey could not know that he had something very similar in mind for Marchand d'Or.
"I told him to ride like that, because this horse likes to be on his own," Head explained. "All his best races he has run when kept apart that way. Yes, it was frightening to watch, because I did not think he had enough time to get there. I thought we were only fourth."
Instead Bonilla pounced just in time to beat US Ranger by a head. So was the Ballydoyle Group One steamroller finally halted, albeit the stable's other runner, Astronomer Royal, finished nearly as fast for fourth, splitting War Artist and Kingsgate Native. It must be owned that they nearly finished in cavalry formation, and only the lurid style of the winner's success discharged him from suspicions that the present crop of sprinters are lacking distinction.
Head added. "He's in the same league as Anabaa, top-class. At home he can do works you cannot imagine, but that's because he's on his own and can relax."
Head will now take him back to Deauville for the Prix Maurice de Gheest, a race he has won twice already. And, as he becomes more familiar, perhaps this Garbo among thoroughbreds will become cherished for his idiosyncrasies. For if a white-knuckle ride like this can bring even jockeys and punters together, what differences can still divide mere nations?
Home in on Extraterrestrial
As far as William Haggas is concerned, God must be in his heaven and all right with the world. Until yesterday seven of the 14 runners he has saddled since the start of the month had won, and England's batsmen were flaying the South Africans to all parts of St John's Wood. Like all good Yorkshiremen, however, he will believe that even these blessings might be gilded by a change of location, so his joy will be complete if Mutajarred can win the John Smith's Cup at York today and Pietersen and Bell can then dish out more of the same at Leeds next week.
Accomplished cricketer as he is, Haggas always tries to find the gaps with his horses. We can assume that this enormous prize has long been a target for Mutajarred since dragging Many Volumes six lengths clear at Great Leighs in May. Many Volumes has done plenty for the form since, and Mutajarred has the easy ground he needs.
His chance is obvious, but so too is Richard Fahey's own regard for this race. Last year his five runners included Charlie Tokyo and Flying Clarets, who fought out the finish and return as the backbone of another big team for the stable today. Its most interesting member, however, is Extraterrestrial (3.15), who hated firm conditions at Royal Ascot and remains on a feasible mark, just 2lb higher than when so unlucky at Chester in May. The caveat is whether a son of Mind Games can last the extra two furlongs, but his powerful finish at Chester offers hope, and odds of 25-1 make ample allowance for the uncertainty.
Zomerlust (2.40) hinted at a return to form when badly drawn last time, while Swop (2.10) gained valuable experience in winning his first handicap at Doncaster and brings most scope for improvement to the opener. The same is true of Eastern Anthem (3.50), whose stable welcomes its 2007 stalwart back to the fray down at Ascot. But Ramonti is entitled to need this under a penalty, and has exacting competition in Archipenko and the course specialist, Cesare (2.55).
Gagnoa can silence O'Brien's six
It seemed rather a pity that Raven's Pass did not chance his arm against the sprinters yesterday, having shown such smouldering speed over a mile. In fairness, that would have amounted to a crapshoot, whereas the diffident habits of French jockeys may ensure that the Prix Jean Prat at Chantilly tomorrow does not make exorbitant demands of his stamina.
These sharp turns will instead place the emphasis on acceleration as two pacemakers thresh out a congested field of 16. Raven's Pass sets an unforgiving standard to the other Newmarket raiders: Winker Watson returns from a year off, while Kandahar Run and Rio De La Plata both failed to stay in the Derby.
Aidan O'Brien has been charitable enough to let everyone else have a go in France, but closer to home his inexorable Group One campaign continues with no fewer than six runners in the Darley Irish Oaks at the Curragh.
With a dozen such prizes in the bag, O'Brien is going at a faster tempo even than 2001, when he won 23. Two years later Bobby Frankel mustered 25 in the United States, but the world record could return to Ballydoyle once its staying juveniles emerge for the second half of the campaign.
Moonstone is favourite for the big race having chased home Look Here at Epsom, but Johnny Murtagh did not do justice to his chosen mount that day, setting a ludicrous gallop on Adored and coming home tailed off. Katiyra could also reverse form with Moonstone, having loathed Tattenham hill, but the most intriguing runner is Gagnoa. She, too, represents the Coolmore partners but is trained in France by Andre Fabre. Gagnoa chased home the meteoric Zarkava in France last time and is bred to appreciate this much stiffer test.
Greatest gets a go on turf
Horses can bring out the best and worst in people; and the same applies a fortiori to champion horses. Often they reveal their masters' most timid, craven instincts, but sometimes stimulate the joyous adventure now animating the career of Curlin.
It is one thing to proclaim your horse as the best in the world, quite another to prove it. Having already won the two richest purses, the Breeders' Cup Classic and the Dubai World Cup, Curlin today races on turf for the first time – the most substantial evidence that Jess Jackson, his owner, is serious about running him in the Arc in October.
Nor is the Man O' War Stakes merely a case of dipping a toe in the shallow end. Two Breeders' Cup Turf winners are lying in wait at Belmont Park: Red Rocks, this time tried in blinkers by Brian Meehan, and the veteran Better Talk Now. Coral make Curlin 4-5 favourite, and 10-1 for the Arc.
Once is fortunate twice is flare
To win one Group race with a five-farthing juvenile may be considered fortunate; to win two, within 24 hours, looks suspiciously like the work of a young trainer who knows what he is doing.
The July Meeting at Newmarket this week will prove a turning point in the career of Tom Dascombe. On Thursday, Classic Blade made all and just held on in the July Stakes; and yesterday Firth Of Fifth won the Weatherbys Superlative Stakes under an identical ride from Richard Kingscote.
This colt cost just £5,000 as a yearling. "But he's just tough and he loves it," remarked his trainer. "You can't buy that, you can't see it."
That is what gives everyone half a chance. And for some people, half a chance is ample.