Sometimes a race can obtain an instant patina of nostalgia. It had happened overnight, an ocean away, when one of the most admired firms of the old school finally consummated its wholesome influence on the breed by winning the Kentucky Derby. And it happened here yesterday, when a Classic of still greater antiquity was gilded, in its 200th running, by a breakthrough for one of the most sublime riding talents of the modern era.
It had seemed an iniquitous incongruity that Richard Hughes could reach the age of 40 without winning a British Classic. But his belated status as champion jockey has now been indelibly complemented by the Qipco 1,000 Guineas success of Sky Lantern.
After an excruciating fortnight for the British Turf – the original favourite for this race, Certify, having been suspended after receiving anabolic steroids from her disgraced trainer – the ecstatic grin that broke across Hughes's fine, creased features warmed its entire community like a sudden sunbeam from stormclouds.
Many had come to the Rowley Mile in the hope of seeking some equivalent cheer from a seventh success in this race for Sir Henry Cecil, who saddled the favourite, Hot Snap. She had beaten Sky Lantern decisively in their trial, but the two fillies evidently took divergent paths during the intervening 18 days. Hot Snap was one of the first under pressure, managing no better than ninth of 15.
Sky Lantern, in contrast, travelled beautifully towards the rear before launching a sustained run to cut down Just The Judge in the final strides.
Just The Judge, always close up in the sponsors's colours, had struck for home a furlong out but was ultimately reeled in by half a length, with Moth laying down a neon marker for Epsom in just collaring Winning Express for third, another length and a half back. The other Ballydoyle filly, Snow Queen, and the winner's stablemate, Maureen, were breathing down their necks, followed by the French raider, What A Name. This was a trademark Hughes ride, full of dash and daring, a fitting signature to what will be remembered as one of his masterpieces. His admirers know that he has for years etched out the same kind of thing, day to day, on relatively small canvases.
None of those are worthless, of course, but it was the cumulative, retrospective effect that ensured the cheers in the winner's enclosure could not have been any louder for Sir Henry himself. Public, professionals, even jaded hacks watched him hug his father, Dessie, through a sepia of tears.
There was much satisfaction, also, on behalf of Richard Hannon Jr. – son, assistant and namesake of Sky Lantern's trainer, not to mention brother-in-law to the jockey. The old man had stayed closer to home, at Salisbury, but this filly has very much been Junior's project and her success will evidently accelerate the formal transfer of the licence. "He'll be taking the reins shortly and he's done a great job," Hughes said. "At least then I'll only get one bollocking, not two!"
But how typical that a Classic should never have felt more remote than the previous evening. Hughes remains certain that Toronado is better than he showed when fourth in the Qipco 2,000 Guineas – and his fidelity, critically, extended to his own principles. It would have been easy, after all, to remember the exasperating traffic problems Sky Lantern had encountered at the Breeders' Cup last autumn, and abrogate his instincts in favour of a safety-first ride.
"I had to ride her with balls," Hughes said. "I couldn't be panicking just because of yesterday. So I said I'd stick to my guns, even though I got blocked in America. They didn't go fast today, it was a pretty sedate pace really, and they did slightly get away from me going into the Dip. But I just felt you've got to come between horses with this filly, and she was ready to go when we hit the rising ground. She tells you herself – she grabs the bit, passes one, and then she's away."
Hughes had spent the previous evening comforting his wife, Lizzie, over Toronado's flat run. "It took my own mind off it, consoling her," he said. "I told her it was only a horserace, that there are more important things in life. And she said: 'I know that, but we never get the good ones.' For the last ten years of so Aidan O'Brien has been dominant, and if you're not on those horses it is hard. But Richard and the team have stepped up a gear, and hopefully we'll keep getting better chances over the next four or five years."
"We were pretty low after yesterday," Hannon Jr admitted. "But she deserved a bit of luck, this filly. And I'm delighted for Hughesie. He's one of the best jockeys ever, and I'm just delighted he's done it on one of ours."
Similar sentiments had been nearly universal at Churchill Downs, where Shug McGaughey saddled Orb to win for two families whose scrupulous standards had informed his pedigree over several generations. If Orb, in turn, can end the American sport's craving for a Triple Crown winner, he would offer his own reproof to trainers who depend on the syringe.
McGaughey himself had been sparsely represented in the Kentucky Derby, over the years, and would doubtless share the sense of both perspective and relief offered here yesterday. "I'm a lucky jockey," Hughes stressed. "I ride plenty of winners every other day. But it is a monkey off my back. And about bloody time!"