They thought it was all over: The year of the photo-finish: Perfect partnership touched briefly by genius

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THERE ARE some jockeys who would get Pegasus beaten by one of the Wise Men's camels and there are a few - though just a few - who might tempt you to oppose the favourite if they replaced Balthasar in the saddle. That is the hallmark of excellence in a rider: the ability to make a difference.

That difference is, on the Flat anyway, very often seen in a tight finish, for if a horse is measurably better than its rivals then, given reasonably competent handling, it should win. It is when heads are down and whips flying that magic comes into play.

But there are men who can conjure that ephemeral extra from a horse, beyond all the usual qualities associated with superior balance, strength and timing. And the regrettably short, hot summer of Gary Stevens, the top-class American who blazed across racing's firmament for three months at the height of the season, produced several such instances.

Two stand out in Stevens' own mind as being particularly professionally satisfying, Cape Cross in the Queen Anne Stakes at Royal Ascot and Zahrat Dubai in the Nassau Stakes at Goodwood, both wins from the front, both nail-biters but with markedly contrasting attitudes from the horses concerned; Cape Cross threw himself wholeheartedly into the fray, Zahrat Dubai, though game enough, required finesse, and for that reason is the man from Idaho's pick as his ride of the year.

The Nassau Stakes, a Group One contest, was the first time Stevens had ridden Zahrat Dubai, the Godolphin second string dropping back to 10 furlongs after being an outstayed third in the Oaks. He sent the black filly straight into the lead and gradually wound the pace up as the field fanned into the straight. And as the challenges began, Zahrat Dubai's pretty head went up, her ears went back and she seemed about to throw in the towel.

Stevens instantly pulled his punches and sat still. "Kieren Fallon and Lady In Waiting had applied some pretty heavy pressure from six furlongs out but she was still travelling very easily two out," he said, "but then when I started to squeeze her I could feel her change. I had been told she was a fussy sort of filly and when I asked her to pick up she pinned her ears and gave the impression she didn't want any part of it.

"She started rolling about and lugged to her right. Every time I asked her, she resented it. I couldn't pick up my stick, she didn't want any love taps. But every time the tempo quickened and the others came to her, she picked it up again on her own. She was happy to do it, but only on her terms. She even had a little bit left at the end."

Stevens' kidology meant that Zahrat Dubai held on, despite herself, by half a length, with less than three lengths between the first six. It is said that there is no secret so close as between rider and mount and watching a supreme horseman find an instant empathy with a sensitive thoroughbred, applying tack, not mere power, was a privilege.