Even a meeting that had celebrated perseverance in far graver adversity could recognise the courage required by the author of its outstanding performance here yesterday. For however trifling his woes, compared with those grieving its most prolific trainer, Richard Hughes was perfectly within his rights to torment himself with the possibility that posterity might undervalue his own Royal Ascot legacy.
The first three days had brought the champion jockey to the limit of his trademark nonchalance. Things had got off to an exasperating start on Tuesday, when Toronado was hampered and then thwarted only in a photo by Dawn Approach. As things turned out, that was only the first in a series of misadventures – another near miss in one race, another blind alley in the next – that for once he allowed a tremor of self-doubt to seep among the asperities of punters.
And now the same script that had celebrated the life of Sir Henry Cecil the previous day, through his posthumous success with Riposte, now presented Hughes with the perfect challenge to his belief. Sky Lantern, the filly who had given him an overdue British Classic in the 1,000 Guineas, was drawn 16 of 17 in the Coronation Stakes. Even Jamie Spencer, perhaps the only jockey with daring to match his own, consented to drive Just The Judge forward and wide from the only stall on their outside. And Hughes had suffered terrible traffic problems on this same filly at the Breeders’ Cup last autumn. Emboldened by his brother-in-law, Richard Hannon Jnr – who had supervised the filly’s preparation – he nonetheless resolved to stay true to his principles, dropping to the rear and saving ground. He would be vindicated in quite spectacular fashion.
True, Hughes did compromise to the extent that he brought Sky Lantern wide on the home turn, rather than try to pierce the field. But she proved so superior that it made no difference, bursting four lengths clear as the French outsider, Kenhope, claimed second from Just The Judge, followed by the winner’s stablemate, Maureen.
Hughes did not disguise his emotions afterwards. “What a relief,” he said. “Everything’s gone wrong. The job is to ride winners, the way I always ride them – to get them into a rhythm, find the gaps. If they come, they come; and if they don’t, they don’t. [But] they haven’t been coming all week and it’s been a nightmare.
“Richard believed in me. We had a chat in the parade ring about the terrible draw, and he said: ‘Just go out and enjoy yourself and do what you always do.’ That’s huge – to know I could ride my race, and that if I came flying late I wouldn’t get anything back from the trainer.”
Hughes had spent the morning playing golf with his colleague, Pat Dobbs. “I needed to get away for a couple of hours to freshen the mind up,” he said. “I had to keep saying: ‘Believe in yourself.’ If you don’t, there are plenty of fellas out there to knock you down.”
This filly, with her exceptional turn of foot, especially warranted a typical Hughes ride. Hannon feels that such tactics will enable her to stay farther, and there was even loose talk of going for the Arc.
Spencer had, meanwhile, redeemed various vexations of his own this week when Kiyoshi became a first Royal Ascot winner for Charlie Hills in the Albany Stakes. Trainer and jockey attributed a fairly wild drift across the track to pure inexperience, and she had certainly looked a smart prospect when initially opening up. It is not difficult to picture her emulating Sky Lantern in the Guineas, but she is no better than 10-1 already and many cards have yet to be played even in the last of this year’s Classics.
Hillstar, for instance, was introduced to the Ladbrokes St Leger betting at 12-1 by the sponsors after running down the Derby fourth, Battle Of Marengo, in the King Edward VII Stakes. But the latter’s stablemate, Leading Light, promptly staked his own claim for Doncaster in September with a resolute display in the Queen’s Vase, and is now 6-1 from 10-1.
The Vase was run in memory of Cecil, who died 11 days ago, and the Warren Place runner, Disclaimer, was still cruising on the final turn. He did not get home, however. It turned out that destiny had bestowed enough consolations for one week. Just as well, then, that Hughes was prepared to dig his own way out of trouble.