A total eclipse of the Warrior

Naf headline? maybe? But Sandown on Saturday, with its headline Coral Eclipse was, for me at least, anything but naf. 

I must admit, I was questioning the wisdom of my early ticket purchase with the England World Cup quarter final kicking off at 4.00 and then the news late on Friday that Derby hero Masar was to be a late absentee – which must have made the 50 grand or whatever Godolphin paid to supplement him a contender for the worst investment decision of the year (as if they care too much). Nevertheless I was going to go, to enjoy the amazing British summer treat that is the Eclipse, held in perfect weather together with my daughter Holly, who is increasingly loving her racing.

With racing starting at a mid winter time of 12.20, it meant an early start to ensure we were there in good time for the first the Group 3 Sprint won happily by Judicial. Five furlong sprints are usually great spectacles. Is there anything better than the thoroughbred thundering past at top speed? that is unless you are at certain courses (Sandown and Longchamp most noticeably) where the 5f track is down the middle of the racecourse and the finish line way past the stands. It makes the whole experience generally unsatisfactory. So good to get that out of the way, and with a winner too.

A couple of other decent races followed before the build up to the big race. It was interesting trying to explain the head to heads to Holly. Although Masar v Roaring Lion 5 will have to wait until another day, Saxon Warrior v Roaring Lion was interesting with the score going into the race 2-1 in Saxon Warrior’s favour. 

What to make of Saxon Warrior? Unbeaten, a Group One winner at two, an apparently classy Guineas winner first time out with a pedigree that suggested improvement as he stepped up in trip, and lots of people saying here could be the Triple Crown hero we haven’t seen since Nijinsky way back when. 

Dreams of such immortality were quickly snuffed out at Epsom, and Saxon Warrior’s reputation seemed to start to engage reverse as he stayed on at one pace to finish third in what seemed a weak Irish Derby only one week earlier. If not the horse we hoped, still surely a high class miler for whom at least a mile & a quarter would suit? 

For Roaring Lion was this to be his day? I had felt that when Saxon Warrior outstayed him in last year’s Racing Post Trophy that the Lion would be the better horse when more mature. It hadn’t looked that way after a lacklustre effort in the Craven and an only ok run in the Guineas. But I was at York and very impressed when Roaring Lion comprehensively won the Dante and he ran well in the Derby just running out of puff close home to finish third. Going back to a mile and a quarter (the Dante trip) seemed likely to bring the best out of him. 

Was it just a two horse race? Most probably although Happily had hit the frame in three classics she hasn’t yet been quite the filly she promised and Forest Ranger, good horse that he is, looked outclassed to me. Actually my old friend Cliffs of Moher at over 20-1 seemed the value outsider but it was hard to look beyond the big two. 

So it proved, with the two old foes going head to head up the Sandown hill running clear of the rest of the field. And it was Roaring Lion who got his head in front. I though he travelled best of all and retained just enough in hand to get past Saxon Warrior inside the last furlong. A good run from both horses, although strictly on the form book, you’d have expected Masar to finish in front, but who knows?

Roaring Lion was first, and the roar from the Sandown crowd as they did battle was almost Cheltenham Gold Cup-esque. A fantastic noise which really helped make this year’s Eclipse feel like a proper Group One experience. 

The win was master trainer John Gosden’s third Eclipse but a first Group One for jockey Oisin Murphy, and a first Group One for some time for Qatar Racing, whose big operation has not really delivered over the last couple of years. 

Although racing kept going through to 3.55 focus for most people quickly turned to the football, with several choruses of “It’s Coming Home” breaking out in the crowd through the afternoon. Incidentally a quick aside. I’m old enough to remember that song from 1996. It’s always been my favourite football song. Being part of 92,000 belting it out at Wembley after England beat the Netherlands 4-1 in Euro 96 will always be a favourite football memory. 

I digress. Top marks to Sandown for making the game accessible. We watched the second half in comfort on the lawn near the pre-parade ring with hundreds of others, with England’s comfortable win helping to deliver an almost unique day at the races. 

Credit to Sandown also for plenty of free water (much like Epsom on Derby Day) this is a very sensible and welcome innovation. So all good really, a lovely day, great racing, a few winners and England’s triumph – what more could you want? 

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