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Jamie Lynch's Weekend Preview: A Golden Eclipse in a rider’s twilight
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Jamie Lynch's Weekend Preview: A Golden Eclipse in a rider’s twilight

Jamie Lynch looks ahead to Coral Eclipse weekend and reflects on both Golden Horn and the resurgent Frankie Dettori.

In 1953, in the essay on Pinza in Timeform's Racehorses Annual, Phil Bull wrote: 'many Derby winners owe their success not only to their intrinsic merit, but also, to some degree, to the fact they were already near the zenith of their powers.'

Impressive wins in the Derby are always hard to follow, and the more impressive the win, the harder it is to follow. Less of a gentle nudge and more of a smack in the face, Jack Hobbs last week reminded us that Golden Horn was an impressive Derby winner.

Epsom puts the thorough into thoroughbred, for the thorough examination of ability and constitution the race provides, and the thorough preparation that's needed in training a horse to the minute to succeed at all, let alone emphatically, in the Derby.

The Triple Crown in America, revived and completed this year by American Pharoah, on the same day that Golden Horn tore it up at Epsom, is a champion-defining series, but by and large, in racing, distinction is a moving target, like the high jump, where the upshot of a successful completion is to quickly raise the bar higher still.

Though it's the only visible peak on that initial ascent, the Derby is not the point of greatness but more a reference point for greatness, taking Reference Point as an example, whose three-course three-year-old meal went from good starter at Epsom to great main in the King George and a pleasing St Leger pudding, before stuffed in Paris.

And Reference Point was beaten in the Eclipse. So, too, more recently, were Derby winners Erhaab, Benny The Dip, Motivator and Authorized. Motivator in particular is the flash-and-burn lesson for other Derby winners to learn, the modern take on the awareness campaign started 60 years ago by Phil Bull, whose warning words seem to ring truer still these days.

The post-Epsom power outage was in sharpest focus between the years of High Chaparral (2002) and Authorized (2007), when Motivator was one of four Derby winners not to land a single race afterwards. New Approach and, moreover, Sea The Stars bucked that trend, and didn’t he just, but since him in 2009 the Epsom heralded heroes collectively won only four Group 1s subsequently, and two of those were the Irish Derby at long odds-on.

The intangible of the Epsom effect certainly seems a bigger threat to Golden Horn in the Eclipse than the tangible opposition, headed by The Grey Gatsby, the Ian Bell of racehorses; an admirable, dependable top-level performer with a CV to be proud of, but forever banging his head against the boundary wall to the land of greatness.               

In terms of Derby winners, Golden Horn looks an exceptional exception, like a Sea The Stars, rather than the recent rule or Ruler of The World of Epsom being the end game.

As well as reinvigorating the series in his homeland, American Pharoah provoked some debate of the Triple Crown concept in Britain and whether or not it's moribund in its current guise, needing a newer format to reflect the shifted racing landscape toward more haste and more speed, of less is more, more or less.

It's almost as if Golden Horn is embarking on his own unofficial Triple Crown, with the self-serving Eclipse very much having a Preakness feel to it, that of a hurdle between two fences, of a combative calm between two savage storms, the Derby safely negotiated and the King George storm brewing in the near-distance.

The Eclipse might not appear to be much of a challenge to Golden Horn, but it is when viewed in conjunction with Ascot in three weeks' time, and the Derby-Eclipse-King George treble that helped to define Mill Reef and Nashwan as two giants of the turf.

Frankie Dettori was born the same year that Mill Reef began racing, in 1970, and Golden Horn has been a big part of what has felt like a rider’s renaissance this season. The Derby, swiftly followed by a draw-defeating masterclass in the French Oaks, and then a Royal Ascot treble, has put Dettori back in the big time and the big time back into racing.

Is Dettori, at the age of 44, really riding better than ever? Thanks to Timeform’s unique Jockey Ratings, which compare the riding population by the frequency with which their mounts run to form or better, expressed as lbs +/- the average rider, we can chart Dettori’s season-by-season progress over the last two decades. Naturally, the quality of the horses has some bearing, as well as telling a story in itself, and so Dettori’s ratings graph has been plotted against the median ratings (excluding handicaps) of his rides. It makes for interesting reading:

 

First things first: when Dettori was in his pomp he was nothing short of sensational, and his 2001 Timeform Jockey Rating of 7.28 is phenomenal – more so considering he’d survived a plane crash the year before – and one of the highest ratings of any rider in any season.

Up to 2007, the chart tells a tale of a top jockey riding top horses, but then, as can be seen, a pronounced slump sets in, despite a period when the standard of his rides was at its height. There was no blaming the tools for this talented tradesman. Whatever the reasons behind it, and some are well documented, including the Godolphin split and drugs ban in 2012/13, Dettori had seemingly taken his eye off the ball or his foot off the gas, winding down past the point of apparent no return.

But look at the slump-stopping spike on the graph for 2015, in association with the median rating of his rides edging back up to 108, as high as it’s been since 2011, and a big factor in that has been his reconnection with John Gosden, who has, amongst other things, brought Dettori gifts of Golden Horn, Frankie-confidence and mirth.

Though it can’t be stated from the statistical study that Frankie is as good now as ever he was, it has to be put in the context of two things; firstly that Dettori’s best was off the chart, and secondly that comparing any forty-something athlete with his younger self is unfair due to the minimizing process of aging. Yet the stats certainly bear out what comes across, that Dettori is riding better than he has for years.

It’s an Indian summer for Dettori. It’s a big summer for Golden Horn. Dettori’s story is in its final chapters. Golden Horn’s might have only just begun.

* * *

Gosden and Dettori join forces in the preceding race, the Coral Distaff, with Jellicle Ball, who has gone from pin-up girl to voodoo woman in the eyes of the once-smitten, twice shy Timeform time team.

To Jellicle Ball, we say this: That gleam in your eyes is no big surprise anymore, ‘cos you’ve fooled us before. Move over darling.

Move over darling, because there’s a new cat in the sectional town, and her name is Black Cherry. The new addition to the Timeform racecard indicators, the Sectional Flag, which identifies horses who’ve done notably well in the time context of a race, has proved very profitable so far, and Black Cherry carries that very badge of distinction into battle at Sandown.

In a thinner listed race than the numbers might suggest, Black Cherry looks a good bet to take the rise in class in her stride, her sexy, speedy, sectional stride.

 
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