Murtagh under fire after 'unsporting' tactics
Monday 11 August 2008
The race was devised to bring the world to Chicago, but this time it worked out the other way round. For the 26th running of the Arlington Million, an epic of pragmatism, politics and pride, showed that there is a little bit of this city in everyone.
Beforehand, Mike de Kock had chatted amiably in the parade ring with Derrick Smith, the only partner in Coolmore Stud to have made the journey. Subsequent events, however, implied that their civility was of the kind you might find in the heads of two powerful families who know that their every move is being watched.
As a rule, in public at any rate, horsemen scrupulously disguise any rancour prompted by events on the racecourse. They shrug their shoulders and chalk it down to bad luck. On Saturday, however, South African trainer De Kock could not bring himself to observe that code, objecting so vehemently to Johnny Murtagh's "ungentlemanly" riding that the two lower tiers of the podium for once became rather more interesting than the top one.
That was occupied by the group of Frenchmen who, noting the withdrawal of the one frontrunner in the field, expertly seized their opportunity with Spirit One. But De Kock seemed convinced that his horse, Archipenko, would have caught the winner had Murtagh, riding Mount Nelson, not prevented Kevin Shea from breaking free of the inside rail.
There had been an intriguing subtext to the race, of course, in that Archipenko was trained last season by Coolmore's principal trainer, Aidan O'Brien, who had sent Mount Nelson here in the hope of a 18th Group One prize this year. That record permits no doubt that O'Brien is one of the great trainers in Turf history, but De Kock had none the less managed to coax startling improvement from Archipenko after Coolmore, rather unusually, sold him to a kinsman of their greatest adversary, Sheikh Mohammed.
De Kock fitted Archipenko with blinkers and had already won big races in Dubai, Hong Kong and Britain before sending him here. And perhaps the vendors felt that Kevin Shea, his new jockey, had rubbed salt in those wounds last week when he described Archipenko as a nervous wreck on his arrival from Ballydoyle.
Regardless, De Kock strongly implied that he felt Murtagh's priority had been to stop Archipenko. "He rode his horse to keep him in," he said. "It's different if you still have a chance, but he was beaten and still didn't let Kevin out. There was no need to do that. That is the most ungentlemanly piece of riding I have seen in a long time. I know it's not a game for gentlemen out there, but I'd say that was a pretty ordinary piece of sportsmanship. I know he's King Johnny at the moment, but I'm a bit disappointed with what I saw."
Shea insisted that he would have won if Murtagh had given him a break. "I had so much horse I should have never lost," he said. "Johnny had me trapped the whole way round, and when it was time to go I begged him to let me go – and he wouldn't. If he'd had half a chance to win the race, I would have said: 'Fine'."
By this stage Murtagh was packing his bag for an overnight flight to Deauville, but he had been perfectly within his rights to be uncompromising. Mount Nelson was admittedly under heavy pressure on the home turn, but Murtagh might legitimately have hoped that he could still deny Archipenko second place. That would have made a difference of $99,000 (£51,500) to his employers.
As it was, Mount Nelson had no more to give and Shea, having managed to squeeze his mount through at the top of the straight, reduced the gap on Spirit One to three-quarters of a length, with Mount Nelson another length and a half back.
Whatever the merits of the other rides, there should be unanimous praise for Ioritz Mendizabal, who controlled the pace so deftly on Spirit One. Philippe Demercastel, his trainer, may bring the winner back over in the autumn for the Breeders' Cup Turf, but that will be a stiffer task – not least given the belated flowering of Winchester in the Secretariat Stakes earlier in the afternoon.
When he beat Moonstone in a maiden at Leopardstown in the spring, Dermot Weld suggested that Winchester had the makings of a top-class colt, but he had disappointed three times since. Tried in blinkers and dropped back to 10 furlongs, however, he surprised even Weld by the ease with which he hurtled seven lengths clear of Plan.
"I put blinkers on Go And Go when he won the Belmont Stakes and it has worked again here," the trainer said. "But it was my fault that I stretched him out too far in the Irish Derby. The mile and a half at Santa Anita would be dramatically different. You need a pretty sharp horse on fast ground round that track, whereas the Curragh is very stiff – there would be no comparison between the two. He only ran once at two and I see him as a very progressive horse."
Plan, incidentally, was making his last start for Ballydoyle. He has been bought by the owners of Big Brown, and now joins that colt's trainer, Rick Dutrow. Who knows? Perhaps his vendors will be glad to have found a new outlet. For it may be some time before De Kock and Coolmore do business again.
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