They always knew he belonged to the elite cadre. But the fulfilment of every thoroughbred, pawn and knight alike, is sooner contingent on luck than any such judgement. Certainly, Rip Van Winkle has always been on tiptoes, with those notoriously tender feet, even at the sort of heights he regained here yesterday. It is almost fitting, then, that his success in the Juddmonte International Stakes was hardly a preening exhibition of brilliance. He arrived only just in time to trample over the remnants of Twice Over and Byword, who had been pummelling each other for much of the straight. But shiny shoes in barracks drill will only get you so far, once you reach the trenches. And Rip Van Winkle, now the winner of three Group One prizes, has unquestionably earned his stripes.
In his first season, he immediately disclosed unusual talent on the Ballydoyle gallops, but also offered Aidan O'Brien the first, ominous evidence that he would not be easy to train. Last year he was duly still feeling his way in the Classics, and then had to find a way round the apparently ubiquitous Sea The Stars. One way or another, he ended up serving an exacting tour of duty, and yesterday represented due vindication for a change of strategy by O'Brien and his patrons.
Rip Van Winkle did not resurface until Royal Ascot, where he seemed to lay only shallow foundations for the rest of the campaign. But he built up nicely against Canford Cliffs at Goodwood last month, and those two runs together toughened him up sufficiently to step back up to 10 furlongs, over which distance he last year set Sea The Stars the most searching challenge of his career.
This more patient approach to his deployment was matched in the race itself by Johnny Murtagh. Though an undemanding gallop might have favoured those nearer the pace, Murtagh allowed Maxime Guyon to strike for home early on Byword – rather too early, perhaps – and Tom Queally must have thought that his fierce ride on Twice Over had won the spoils as the line approached. But Rip Van Winkle, after initially hanging fire, had now found his range and there was something inexorable about the way he ran down the Abdulla pair. Though he only got there in the final strides, he won by half a length, more or less easing up. Byword was spent, another three-quarters of a length away, but remained well clear of Cavalryman and then Dick Turpin, who failed to settle over the longer trip.
"Aidan had a plan this year with this horse, that he was going to take it slow," Murtagh explained. "There's a lot of big races coming up at the end of the year, and we want to have him fresh and well. I think he'll improve again from today, he was still a bit rusty. They went slow and then quickened, and that can be a problem on this track. In fact, I'd sooner Harbinger had run, they'd have gone quicker then. But he stretched out really well once he got into top gear."
O'Brien added that the winner was "back on that curve again" and is thinking of a rematch with Canford Cliffs in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Ascot next month. Rip Van Winkle won that race last year, of course, before proving over the top in the Breeders' Cup Classic. It is vexing that his prospects of making amends in that race this time round are so diluted, as a son of Galileo, by its return to a dirt circuit at Louisville. "Last year the Breeders' Cup was a non-event," O'Brien said. "He was washed out, the poor fellow. This year we have geared him for the second part of the season, and you would love to go back to America again, either for the Mile or the Classic."
Ballydoyle's traditional adversaries at Godolphin once again look as though they might salvage another anonymous Classic campaign in the Ladbrokes St Leger. Rewilding is 2-1 favourite with the sponsors after a very persuasive trial in the Great Voltigeur Stakes and, after just six races, he remains eligible to bring Godolphin overdue succour in open championship company next season. Having been rested since his fine third in the Derby, he did look especially effective fresh here, but in the same sort of form he will take an awful lot of beating at Doncaster.
Waiter's Dream improves from race to race and earned a crack at the Darley Dewhurst Stakes with his stylish success in the Acomb Stakes. His trainer, Brian Meehan, is clearly satisfied that Crown Prosecutor remains better than he looked over a seventh furlong at Goodwood, but may find Casual Glimpse (2.50) today extending Richard Hannon's monopoly of the big juvenile races this summer.
Illustrious Blue has an away fixture after his big win at Goodwood and may have bitten off more than he can chew in Ask (2.15), while Fortuni (3.25) will surely be competitive in the Totesport Ebor Handicap if showing up in the same form as at Epsom. He had a discouraging reconnaissance here in May but then thrashed a subsequent Royal Ascot winner on Derby Day.
Chris McGrath's Nap
Fortune (3.25 York) Has been both awful and dazzling this term but hope is that he flourishes over this longer distance.
Ask (2.15 York) Did not get home at Ascot but can outclass this lot as a Group One operator
One to watch
Heavily backed for his Newcastle debut, Ventura Sands (R A Fahey) travelled best before just failing through inexperience.
Where the money's going
Waiter's Dream is 33-1 for the 2,000 Guineas with Totesport after impressing at York yesterday.