Yeats and O'Brien join Ascot immortals

This was not just one horse better than the rest. This was how habit becomes ritual, how years become epochs. They have been running the Gold Cup here for 201 years now, and they will keep coming back, if their luck holds, until the royal heath and forest succumb to desiccation or floodwater. So long as they do, greatness will have its context, will be measured against the annals of this place. And yesterday, in a race worthy of their achievement, Yeats and his trainer perhaps engraved their names above all others.

Yes, Sagaro also won the race three times running, back in the Seventies. And his rider, Lester Piggott, won it 11 times in all, starting with Zarathustra in 1957, when his face showed neither crease nor care. In matching Sagaro, however, Yeats wrote a still more resonant page in Turf history. Exceptional as he is, strenuous as ever in his seventh summer, he is no more remarkable than his trainer.

Aidan O'Brien has now saddled four of the five Group One winners this week. Abraham Lincoln, the 33-1 shot who finished ninth in the King's Stand Stakes on Tuesday, will have received some long, hard stares from the other horses when he got back to Ballydoyle.

O'Brien, of course, remains too modest, too muted a man to accentuate his deeds with superficial personal flourishes. But with the exception of his rivals, some of whom have patrons with resources exceeding even those of Coolmore Stud, everyone who has witnessed his work this week should be joyous with their privilege.

The manner of this success was suitably inexorable. It had the delicious shifts of rhythm you find only in staying races. First, the cast of characters was introduced, galloping cautiously past the stands, the jockeys' silks shimmering in the sunshine like a mirror to the gorgeous crowd. And then, gradually, the central protagonists revealed their different traits, a dissonance that fed the race's crescendo like kettledrums.

Heading into the home turn, Johnny Murtagh sent Yeats into the lead, followed immediately by the unbeaten Coastal Path. The French pretender was going every bit as well as the ageing king from Co Tipperary, but Murtagh seemed to determined to test his rival's stomach for the fight. You could almost see Coastal Path catch his breath as Yeats narrowed his lane against the rail, but he held his position long enough to stimulate hopes for a vintage duel up the straight. But what was this? Here came the flatterer, Geordieland, cruising into their slipstream. Now we would see what all three were made of.

First to crack was Coastal Path, his stamina proving porous in a far tougher examination than he had ever endured in France, where he had only run over two miles in small fields at a half-hearted gallop. The extra half-mile here broke him, whereas Yeats was only just finding his stride as Shane Kelly, rather too early for some tastes, sent Geordieland forward. His mount had pulled up even when leading in the shadow of the post at York, so there was never the faintest danger that he would outbattle Yeats. Sure enough, the 11-8 favourite stretched imperishably clear, five lengths ahead at the post, with Geordieland another four and a half clear of Coastal Path.

Such, after 364 days, was the consummation of O'Brien's mission. And perhaps the constitution of the horse and the instincts of the trainer may yet see the cycle through another year. For now, O'Brien referred the matter to his employer, John Magnier. "You'd better speak to the boss about coming back next year," he said. "I don't know when the time is going to come for his genes to be preserved, and that is the reality, because we have never had a horse with as big a pair of lungs, as big a heart. These are physical things and not things you believe in. With most horses, when you go a mile and a half they are coming to the end, but this fellow is only just getting up to 180 beats, which is unbelievable."

Magnier deferred any verdict to the end of the season. "He'll be eight next year, so it would be like a granddad getting married," he said, though as it happens conjugal rights represent the alternative option for Yeats, at stud.

Though the horse is being treated more delicately – this year he had come here with just one race under his belt – he has yet to betray any hint of frailty. "He's moving great and has never pulled out like an old horse," O'Brien said. "He's still very fresh and has a great personality. When he pulled up he was bucking and kicking. Into the straight he was lazy, but I can't see any horse who would be able to stay off the bridle with him."

Jamie Osborne, the trainer of Geordieland, saluted the champion generously but suspects that things might yet fall right for his horse, given a less extreme test. He may even bring him back here next month for the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes.

The grandeur of Yeats defined the afternoon, eclipsing many notable achievements: the return to the fold of Robert Winston, who only recently completed a 12-month suspension and won the Norfolk Stakes for Howard Johnson on South Central; a new peak for Michita in the Ribblesdale Stakes, after her slalom down Tattenham Hill; and a double for Highclere Thoroughbreds through Collection and Colony, the latter a first Royal Ascot winner for Ryan Moore, at the 80th attempt.

He is now only 118 behind Piggott. But then that is the point of a place like this, as Yeats showed. It still remembers Master Jackey, who beat three rivals for the Gold Cup in 1807 and won 100 guineas for a Mr Durand. And it will never forget Yeats, or Mr O'Brien.