As hired guns go, there are few who can hit the target and twirl the six-shooter with more accuracy and aplomb than Johnny Murtagh. The veteran Irishman, who trains as well as rides now, blew into town yesterday for just one mount and duly put a fifth Group 1 notch on his belt for as many different stables.
The sequence started in June at Royal Ascot, when he won the King's Stand Stakes on Sole Power for Edward Lynam. Then came the Pretty Polly Stakes on Ambivalent for Roger Varian, the Irish Oaks on Chicquita for Alain de Royer-Dupre, the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes on Novellist for Andreas Wohler, and now the Haydock Sprint Cup on Gordon Lord Byron for Tom Hogan.
Gordon Lord Byron, a 7-2 shot, went one better than last year's close runner-up spot in the £250,000 six-furlong feature, and how. Always travelling sweetly on the rain-softened ground that compromised the chance of the favourite Lethal Force, the five-year-old burst clear of his rivals going to the final furlong, and took the prize by three lengths.
The Byron gelding has performed with great credit in top company during the summer, picking up place money behind Lethal Force at Royal Ascot and Moonlight Cloud in Deauville. But autumn is the season when he truly starts to thrive – last year he went on from Haydock to take the Prix de la Foret at Longchamp – a fact duly noted by Murtagh. "He was in a different zone today," he said. "He was hard work last time, but today he looked different and felt different. At the three-furlong marker I was actually taking him back, and just let him coast to the two and when I gave him a couple of cracks he was electric."
Gordon Lord Byron, who had a price tag of just €2,000 as a foal and has now earned more than £600,000, has another tilt at the Prix de La Foret, and a possible rematch with Moonlight Cloud, on his agenda. "I felt confident beforehand," said Hogan, "because this week he's been in the best form he's been in all year. I know Lethal Force is a serious horse, but I thought if we were going to beat him, today would be the day. But I didn't think it would be that easy."
Slade Power, trained by Lynam, took second spot to make it a one-two for the two Irish raiders, with Hoof It, from the Mick Easterby yard, doing best of the home side in third.
Perhaps equitably, the two challengers from Britain finished first and second in last night's Irish Champion Stakes at Leopardstown, as The Fugue held her old rival Al Kazeem at bay by a length and a quarter. Trailblazing Trading Leather plugged on honestly to take third place.
It was a third crack at males for The Fugue, trained by John Gosden, after the Prince of Wales's and Eclipse Stakes (both won by Al Kazeem) and she may take the boys on again, with the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe and Breeders' Cup Turf pencilled in.
The four-year-old daughter of Dansili came to the fray at the top of her game, having won the Yorkshire Oaks 16 days previously but though she is another who favours fast underfoot conditions, the heaviest rain held off long enough. "If we had had this before racing started," said a delighted Gosden in the winners' circle, "we wouldn't be standing here now."
The Fugue showed a fine turn of foot as she went past Al Kazeem and Trading Leather early in the straight. "She's always been a special one for the yard," her rider William Buick said, "and after she was unlucky a few times last year its good she's getting the rub of the green."
Some interest was lost with the late defection because of the softening ground of the Ballydoyle No 1 Declaration Of War, and during the race his stablemate Kingsbarns, running for the first time this season, lost his action in the back straight and cantered home. But there was some consolation for Aidan O'Brien through the beautifully bred (by Galileo out of Ouija Board) Australia, now as short as 4-1 for next year's Derby after routing his rivals by six lengths in the Group 3 juvenile mile contest.