NO ONE was more surprised than trainer Mark Johnston after Oriental Fox won Royal Ascot’s concluding race after 51 weeks on the injury sidelines.
Despite the lay-off, Oriental Fox broke the two-mile five-furlong course record by two seconds and was a conclusive winner of the Queen Alexandra Stakes under Joe Fanning.
“He had been working terrible,” said the pleasantly pleased Middleham trainer. “We worked him over a mile and a quarter with a maiden, who beat him out of sight. We thought maybe we’d gone too fast, so we tried again, with the same result.
“We thought the race would be perfect for Oriental Fox if he was on song, but I have to admit I didn’t think he was. He’d had a long time off.”
Oriental Fox, owned by Markus Graff, sustained his injury after the Northumberland Plate at Newcastle late last June. “He had a couple of screws put in it and went home to Switzerland to recuperate and I think he had too much time off,” added Johnston.
“He was carrying a lot of condition and it has taken us time to get him straight. I’ve never seen him look better, but when it came to work he was definitely not showing his best.”
This was Johnston’s second success at the Royal meeting after top two-year-old prospect Buratino won Tuesday’s Coventry Stakes in emphatic style.
As well as the Johnston pair, the third Yorkshire-trained winner was David O’Meara’s Amazing Maria who prevailed on Wednesday,
However, the most unlucky trainer from these parts was Kevin Ryan.
Not only did he train a hat-trick of seconds, including The Grey Gatsby who lost the Prince of Wales’s Stakes by a whisker after being boxed in, but stable stalwart Astaire was a very gallant third in the Grade One Diamond Jubilee Stakes on Saturday.
Despite hitting the front late on, the American raider Undrafted – the beneficiary of a power-packed Frankie Dettori ride – and runner-up Brazen Beau, from Australia, just edged clear in a thrilling finish.
All three could meet again in Newmarket’s July Cup next month. “I’ve never lost faith in Astaire,” said a philosophical Ryan. “He’s proved he is up to this level. I was delighted with him, he looked great and was so relaxed.
“It’s great to have this international element. This is the Olympics of the sport and the whole world should be involved.”
Meanwhile The Grey Gatsby’s conqueror Free Eagle, still very lightly raced after a stress fracture to a tibia last year, could be heading to York for August’s Juddmonte International before a possible tilt at the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe later in the year.
“It was just one of those special days. He’s a very talented horse. Unfortunately a lot of people never got the opportunity to see his real talent, but we’re beginning to see it now,” said trainer Dermot Weld.
“We always saw natural talent in him and then we had a chapter of problems, but that’s behind us and it’s onwards and upwards. He’s got an excellent Group One now behind his name and hopefully we can go on to more Group Ones with him.
“We haven’t made final decisions yet, but you look at the Juddmonte International, you look at the Irish Champion Stakes and hopefully the Arc would be the final aim for him. He’s a very high-class horse over a mile and a quarter, but I have every reason to believe he’ll get a mile and a half.”
Locally, the Luca Cumani-trained Connecticut was a wide-margin winner of the totepool Pontefract Castle Stakes yesterday. Despite a 253-day absence, jockey Adam Kirby had an untroubled run at the West Yorkshire track with his task made easier by Red Galileo’s disappointing run.
Meanwhile, the focus shifts tonight to Wetherby when the course hosts its second ever Flat meeting. It has attracted competitive field sfor all seven races.
Former Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Long Run is set to go down the hunter chase route when he returns to action later this year.
Winner of the blue riband in 2011, the multiple Grade One winner has been off the track since suffering various injuries on his way home from running at Auteuil in May of last year.
Owner Robert Waley-Cohen said: “He’s only 10, but he’s been in training since he was two. Having a year off isn’t at all what we’d want, but it probably hasn’t done him any harm. The Foxhunter would be the No 1 target and he’ll certainly be entered for the Grand National.”