To his victim, it must have felt as though Johnny Murtagh had trailed the nightmares that would stalk him through the hot, brief night ahead.
The man booked to fill the vacancy left by Kieren Fallon in the Investec Derby yesterday gave him a vivid sample of how it might feel to be beaten in a drive to the line, with an Epsom Classic at stake. In fact, if the Investec Oaks were shown to the judge deliberating over Fallon's eligibility to ride, he might well conclude that the aggrieved owners of Native Khan have ended up with the best of the deal, anyway.
Murtagh, like Fallon, has won the Derby three times but the 20-1 success of Dancing Rain represented his first in the fillies' version. And what a ride it was, albeit most of his rivals were absurdly complaisant in allowing him such a leisurely lead. Fallon, in fairness, was always shadowing Dancing Rain closest on Wonder Of Wonders. But he could never quite wind up sufficient momentum to run the leader down, not least as he felt his mount falter on the camber. There was still three-quarters of a length in it at the post, the pair four lengths clear.
Whatever the plaudits due to Murtagh, they must be shared with William Haggas, whose acuity in judging the proper grade for all his horses now leaves him with a record of two wins from two runners in Classics here. Since saddling Shaamit to win the 1996 Derby, he has waited – no doubt with varying degrees of patience – for someone to send him a horse of Epsom calibre. Dancing Rain, he freely admits, bore no resemblance to one this time last year. But she has bloomed steadily since, and on the eve of the race Haggas had made a cogent case in this newspaper for expecting another leap forward.
He stressed that she might have won her trial, where she was narrowly foiled by Izzi Top, had more use been made of her. So Murtagh required no second invitation when the other jockeys offered him the lead on a silver platter. In their midst, Frankie Dettori was having an especially unhappy time on Blue Bunting, favourite after her success in the 1,000 Guineas. Clearly uncomfortable on the hill, she lurched into Havant to launch her run, and never threatened to reach the front pair. Dettori then compounded his woes by dropping his hands well short of the line, only to be collared for third by Izzi Top. This earned him a 10-day suspension, starting on the Friday of Royal Ascot.
Haggas hoarsely played down his immaculate record. "It's just a case of getting the right horse and, on this occasion, the right jockey," the Newmarket trainer said. "She's a big, long-striding filly and it would have been pointless to hold on to her. And we got lucky. They left her alone and Johnny said when he gave her a squeeze six out, he could tell she was up for it, so he popped her back to sleep and bided his time."
For his wife, Maureen, Dancing Rain has now paid off a painful debt. She had ridden the filly every morning until they shared a stalls accident a month ago, which left her hobbling around with a broken fibula. Murtagh, meanwhile, was hardly short of incentives. He has already replaced Fallon once, after all, for a successful, three-year stint as Ballydoyle stable jockey. He resigned that post at the end of last season, however – which is precisely why Fallon had been approached to ride Wonder Of Wonders and, of course, Recital in the Derby. As the familiar silks loomed alongside, Murtagh seemed determined to show his former employers just what they were missing. "I knew Group Ones were going to be hard to come by this year," he said. "But you get a name as a go-to man and, thankfully, William rang me for the ride."
Ryan Moore will remain on top of that "go-to" list for Ballydoyle, having earlier pulled the Investec Coronation Cup out of the fire on the rejuvenated St Nicholas Abbey. Midday had seemed to strike decisively for home as Moore struggled to get his mount balanced, but was gradually worn down. St Nicholas Abbey won by a length, going away, to set up a probable crack at the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes.
Martin Taylor, who owns Dancing Rain with his brother, Lee, neatly condensed all the issues of the day. A lawyer himself, he said: "A lot of this game is down to luck. But you can increase your chances by surrounding yourself with the right people."Reuse content