One of the misconceptions about this sport is that a race cannot be exciting unless it features a massed field and a blanket finish or, conversely, must be a thriller just because of that. But both hypotheses fail to take into account one intangible quality. Only four runners contested the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes here yesterday but the narrative in the build-up, and the exhibition produced by the winner, Rip Van Winkle, lifted the spectacle from the mundane. Class is spine-tingling to watch.
All through last winter Rip Van Winkle was the great white hope at Ballydoyle, the one Aidan O'Brien had picked out from the herd. But early in the spring he fell victim to foot problems, the extent of which were fully revealed only yesterday by his trainer and which makes the colt's performances – yesterday was his second top-level victory – the more creditable.
The son of Galileo finished fourth in the 2,000 Guineas and Derby and second in the Eclipse Stakes before notching his first Group One strike in the Sussex Stakes, but this was his first effort on a complete set of fully sound hooves. "He had an infection in his heels that went, off and on, to all four feet," said O'Brien. "The soles were peeling off in layers and he was sore after every time he ran. But I've never seen a horse with his kind of pain threshold."
Rip Van Winkle, an 8-13 shot, ran here wearing special plastic pads between shoe and hoof. Unusually, he was not accompanied by a pacemaker, but in the event Aqlaam unwittingly provided the perfect service, blazing away in front. Johnny Murtagh settled the favourite in his slipstream, followed in turn by the Godolphin challenger Delegator.
With no doubts about Rip's stamina over a mile and plenty about his chief rival's, Murtagh threw down the gauntlet on the swing into the straight more than a quarter of a mile out. Delegator ranged up briefly, but it was left to the outsider, Zacinto, to provide the final threat. While Rip Van Winkle had to dig deep to repel it, he was always in control and drew away in the closing strides to take the prize by a length and a quarter.
"It was a long way up the straight," said Murtagh, "but he put them to the sword. He's a typical Ballydoyle horse, always right there come the big day."
The winner's next date is the $4 million (£2.5m) Breeders' Cup Classic, the richest race at the world's richest race meeting, and a possible fourth clash with Europe's best colt, Sea The Stars. "We'd relish taking him on again if he goes there," said O'Brien. "Rip Van Winkle is only getting better. He was very sore after [winning at] Goodwood, and the past two weeks are the first clear run we've had with him all year.
"He's not just a good horse, he's a great one. He has to be, to get through what he's got through. As an athlete he can travel and cruise through his races – we haven't got a horse fast enough to lead him in his races, we'd need a Group One sprinter to do that – and stay and battle at the end. As an individual he's got courage and a concrete mentality. You call it just pure class."
The three-year-old may be joined in the Classic at Santa Anita by his stablemate Mastercraftsman, another to have been put in his place by Sea The Stars.
The much-touted showdown between Ballydoyle and Godolphin failed to materialise in the feature event, and bragging rights among the youngest generation also went to the Irish, courtesy of Joshua Tree, who won the Royal Lodge Stakes with Godolphin's Vale Of York third, and You'll Be Mine, who finished third in the Fillies' Mile – won by the maiden Hib-aayeb, enterprisingly campaigned by the indefatigable Clive Brittain – with the blues' Long Lashes only seventh.
Tree and Vale Of York, who were split by Waseet, were perceived in the market as their stable's second strings but left Mikhail Glinka, the mount of Murtagh, and Frozen Power, ridden by Dettori, in their wake. But then, the pecking order among gawky teenage athletes changes rapidly, and more light may be shed today at the Curragh. St Nicholas Abbey, already prominent in Derby betting, represents Ballydoyle and Passion For Gold Godolphin in the Beresford Stakes, won 12 months ago by Sea The Stars.
Outstanding cross-country riding yesterday set the British team up for an eighth straight title in the European Eventing Championships at Fontainebleau, where they go into today's concluding showjumping with a huge 57.40- point lead over France, with Italy third.
Kristina Cook on Miner's Frolic led individually with a brilliant round just 0.8sec outside the minimum time on a tricky undulating and twisty 6km course of 27 obstacles.
Germany's challenge collapsed when of their six riders only Michael Jung, their first team member, managed to complete, and with neither jumping nor time faults he is in second place, just 0.1 ahead of William Fox-Pitt on Idalgo, but Cook has a fence in hand over them both. Piggy French excelled on Some Day Soon to go fourth, with Nicola Wilson making an impressive British team debut in 10th.
Mary Gordon Watson