I Remember 1999

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Istabraq | Racingfotos.com

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In the hallway of my house, there is a mirror and on it are the words “If things seem dark, focus on the brightest stars.” For me, illumination generally takes the form of memories, recalled as sunlit spells on the grasses of Europe, prepared for the sake of racing horses. Everyone has their tonic and mine involves conjuring up moments of personal joy and celebration of this particular sport. It just seems that, looking back, the final year of the last century holds more of those than others. When I was a teenager, Prince was already singing about 1999 and with the fear of the “millennium bug” hanging over us all, I’m sure many approached the year with a degree of trepidation. I’m pleased to say that armageddon via technical glitches failed to materialise and I can now focus on what Hugh McIlvanney termed as the “magnificent triviality” instead.

Let’s get started. As context at the beginning of 1999, Godolphin were at least four years into their plan of world domination from Moulton Paddocks and it was going swimmingly, Ballydoyle was beginning to crank into persistent motion the machine that we have all become accustomed to, while the “old guard” of Newmarket greats like Cecil and Stoute still reigned supreme as the new world armadas assembling around them had yet to fully launch. Then there were the jockeys, the great characters of the game such as Pat Eddery, Mick Kinane and Gary Stevens who rode alongside the peaking new masters of Kieren Fallon and Johnny Murtagh. Eddery is one of several now departed before their time, along with Walter Swinburn who was also riding at this juncture but who was nearing the end of his tolerance for the havoc the profession had wrought upon him. As Don Draper pointed out, nostalgia is pain from an old wound, a “twinge in your heart”, but it is a necessary element of any recollection of this particular 12 months.

After everyone had just about recovered from the “annihilation” (to quote Channel 4 Racing’s voice of the generation Graham Goode, or “GG” as he was better known) that the Ballydoyle legend Istabraq (Ire) (Sadler’s Wells) had brought upon his rivals in the Cheltenham Festival’s Champion Hurdle in March, it was time for the flat season to commence. There was a twist to proceedings, with Newmarket’s Rowley Mile closed for refurbishment and so the 2000 and 1000 Guineas took place on the July Course. Godolphin, Ballydoyle, Henry Cecil, Barry Hills, John Dunlop and Peter Chapple-Hyam were all pitted against each other in the former Classic, in which Orpen (Lure) flopped for Rosegreen and Frankie Dettori cajoled Island Sands (Ire) (Turtle Island {Ire}) to victory over the strong-closing Niarchos colt Enrique (GB) (Barathea {Ire}). Cecil had the upper hand 24 hours later as Khalid Abdullah’s Wince (GB) (Selkirk) landed a gamble under Fallon in the fillies’ Classic and five days later took The Thoroughbred Corporation’s much-vaunted Killer Instinct (GB) (Zafonic)–remember him?–to Nottingham to break his maiden. The Thoroughbred Corporation was the racing operation of the late Prince Ahmed bin Salman and the famous white bridle was brought vividly to the forefront a month later in the Blue Riband itself.

Warren Place’s Oath (Ire) (Fairy King) was no superstar by any means and not even the best in his own yard, but on that first Saturday in June he was lifted to glory by the master of Epsom Kieren Fallon from the hoodoo stall one. Later entering into the rarefied position of being one of only four owners to have enjoyed success in both the Kentucky and Epsom Derbys, Salman stated on that day in June that winning Classics was “a piece of cake” and that “all you do is buy a horse and send it to the genius Henry Cecil!” Just a day earlier, his brother Fahd Salman had benefitted from the work of the trainer described by the late Jim Joel as having “green fingers for horses” as the brilliant chestnut Ramruma (Diesis {GB}) rolled to victory in the Oaks.

While all this was playing out, Aidan O’Brien was shaping the future within his own borders, sending out a remarkable 16 debut winners from his first 21 2-year-old runners in a seam of relentless quality unlikely ever to be matched. After King of Connaught (Ire) (Fairy King) had opened the stable’s account in The Curragh’s initial juvenile race of the season, the likes of Fasliyev (Nureyev), Bernstein (Storm Cat), Mull of Kintyre (Danzig) and Giant’s Causeway (Storm Cat) followed suit. Fasliyev was the year’s leading 2-year-old after emphatic wins in the G3 Coventry S. at Royal Ascot, G1 Phoenix S. at The Curragh and G1 Prix Morny at Deauville, but was injured and never made it back to the track. By the end of 1999, it was clear that the 2000 Guineas success of King of Kings (Ire) (Sadler’s Wells) a year earlier was not so much an aberration but a gauge of where the winds of change were to take modern European racing.

In the face of this uprising, the “Boys In Blue” were putting their own stamp on the racing program via the exploits of that flying grey Daylami (Ire) (Doyoun {Ire}). His emphatic five-length triumph in Ascot’s King George reaffirmed what a success the initiative’s modus operandi was at that time. Obtain good horses from outside sources and enjoy as they hit the heights in the royal blue livery. On top-of-the-ground from summer onwards, Daylami was as fine a runner as the stable have had bar, of course, Dubai Millennium (GB) (Seeking the Gold). He just happened to be bubbling under at the same time as a raw but fast-progressing 3-year-old. For all of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s defining moments in the sport, surely his pinnacle came when stating after Dubai Millennium’s G1 Queen Elizabeth II S. victory that he was “the best we have had” and “just an outstanding horse.” That kind of boldness before the horse had truly peaked could easily have backfired, but just six months later the ill-fated luminary would prove him categorically correct under the desert lights.

Unfortunately, Dubai Millennium never got to meet his nemesis, at least in terms of status, in the scintillating Montjeu (Ire) (Sadler’s Wells). During 1999, Michael Tabor’s highly-strung but imperious bay skimmed through the tests of the G1 Prix du Jockey Club and G1 Irish Derby under Cash Asmussen before Mick Kinane was handed the reins ahead of the G1 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. In heavy ground impacted by a weekend of non-stop rainfall in Paris, he dramatically cut down the terrifically game and high-class Japanese representative El Condor Pasa (Kingmambo) in one of the great renewals of the autumn showpiece. The Racing Post adorned Montjeu with the title of “The Assassin” in the next day’s publication, which seemed to do ample justice to the mercilessness displayed by John Hammond’s pride and joy. I can think only of the same trainer’s Suave Dancer as having the same international regard as a French-trained Flat Thoroughbred during my lifetime and few would argue that he was not the better of that pair.

Other stand-out moments of a vintage year included the awesome flourish of Ballydoyle’s newly-visored Stravinsky (Nureyev) in the G1 July Cup at Newmarket. Looking as if he had just joined in passing the two pole, the extravagant sprinter crushed several smart rivals with a finishing surge rarely witnessed. I leave the commentary of GG to reveal all. “Look at this! Stravinsky bursts clear–he’s annihilated the field! It’s Stravinsky by a mile!” Still one of O’Brien’s best, he went on to add York’s G1 Nunthorpe S. to his tally while narrowly evading catastrophe as Rambling Bear (GB) (Sharrood) took a heavy fall in his immediate vicinity. At the same Ebor meeting, Pat Eddery took the reins on Ramruma and conquered the G1 Yorkshire Oaks to complete a treble of such wins for the filly after she had followed up her Epsom triumph at The Curragh the month before.

Despite the exploits of Ramruma and Stravinsky on the Knavesmire, Yorkshire’s annual August jewel is best remembered for the incredible emission of power from another of The Thoroughbred Corporation’s big names in Royal Anthem (Theatrical {Ire}). For so long prior to the G1 Juddmonte International a “nearly horse” who had promised without truly delivering, the imposing 4-year-old gave Gary Stevens the absolute thrill of his brief European riding spell. We all know how brilliant Frankel (GB) was for Henry Cecil in this race in 2012, but I defy anybody to watch the replay of this colt in action on that day 21 years ago and deny him almost as many plaudits. “This horse actually throws you back in the saddle with his acceleration. He accelerates more like a sprinter than a mile and a half horse,” issued Stevens afterwards. For good measure, the North American icon rode two more winners that afternoon, two potential stars in the 2-year-old King’s Best (Kingmambo) in the Listed Acomb S. and Fantastic Light (Rahy) in the G2 Great Voltigeur.

Royal Anthem’s York blitz was to prove career-defining, as at Leopardstown the following month he was brushed aside by Daylami–with Frankie gesturing to Stevens as he rushed by–in the G1 Irish Champion S. on an afternoon in which Godolphin’s pre-eminence was glaringly obvious. Over at a swelteringly hot and humid Doncaster, Mutafaweq (Silver Hawk) emerged from a battle royal with Ramruma to annexe the G1 St Leger. Such were his travails as he subdued the triple Oaks heroine, he almost failed to make it back alive. I was close by as he buckled and swayed, but anxious connections and course vets managed to keep him on his feet and doused him with water to bring him back from the edge. That stays with me as a vivid testament to the effort these animals are capable of making for our pleasure.

I ask you, what didn’t this year have?

To offer your opinion and have your say, email Gary King at [email protected].

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