FOR TWO agonising minutes, jockey PJ McDonald’s racing dream hung in the balance.
He’d produced the ride of his life on the equine ballerina Laurens in his quest for a landmark Group One win – the first of a career defined by hard work.
His horse had made every yard of the running in Newmarket’s Bet365 Fillies Mile worth £320,000.
Yet, as this fantastic filly flashed past the line, the fast finishing September could not have been closer.
Cue delirium as the photo-finish result was announced,
McDonald, the one time Scottish National-winning jump jockey, punched the air in celebration.
Victorious owner John Dance performed some dance moves for the cameras.
And stable lass Lucy Burke couldn’t hold back the tears as her father Karl – the trainer of Laurens – suffered a Theresa May-like coughing fit during post-race TV interviews.
The win meant that much to them.
Victorious in Doncaster’s May Hill Stakes last month, they all know that their champion two-year-old filly is a genuine Classic contender for 2018 – whether it be the 1000 Guineas at Newmarket over a mile, the French Oaks (Prix de Diane) over 10 furlongs or the Epsom Oaks over a mile and a half.
They can now dare to dream all winter, not least the likable McDonald who told The Yorkshire Post yesterday that a Group One win would be the ultimate reward for a career that saw him progress through the ranks before joining racing’s elite this year.
“I honestly can’t believe it. I’m 35 years of age now and the relief when that number got called out was amazing. If I never do anything else in my career, I’ve ridden a Group One winner,” said the North Yorkshire rider.
“I didn’t have a clue whether we’d won. I was praying we had it, but I didn’t know. All the credit goes to Lucy. She rides this filly every day and has done since she came in. It’s a massive team effort, everyone has played their part. It’s brilliant.”
A generous 10-1, McDonald and Laurens grabbed the near rail at the start and never surrendered the winning position. Stablemate Ellthea threatened momentarily before September – unlucky in running – failed to provide all-conquering Ballydoyle trainer Aidan O’Brien with a 24th Group One success this year.
A victory for perseverance, it was also celebrated in style by all those who have supported McDonald since he arrived from County Wexford at the West Witton stables of multiple Cheltenham Festival-winning jumps trainer Ferdy Murphy.
As for next season, connections will bide their time. “That was good, apart from the last two strides!” said Leyburn-based Burke whose never had a better crop of juvenile horses.
“She’s a very high-class filly and we always knew that. When we step up to a mile and a quarter or even further next year, she’s going to be very good. I would rather her take a lead as she’s such a green filly, but we had to let her use her stride.
“She wasn’t a cheap horse (£220,000), but she has this fantastic action – she’s like a ballerina and very light on her feet for a big filly.”
He added: “I think the ideal race for her next year would be the Prix de Diane (French Oaks) over a mile and a quarter, but we’ll sit and think. We’ve got plenty of time.
“PJ has got a great work ethic. He works really hard and rides out whenever you want him. I think the Mark Johnston connection has really helped him and given him that confidence. Luckily we’ve had a few nice horses for him to ride this year.”
Meanwhile Norton handler Declan Carroll has an exciting two-year-old prospect in the colt Abel Handy who knuckled down admirably to claim victory in the Group Three Cornwallis Stakes under James Doyle.
The Ryedale raider won two of his first three starts before finding the reopposing Sound Of Silence just half a length too strong at York in late August.
Yet, in reversing the form with Sound Of Silence, the victory provided some compensation to Carroll who lost Royal Ascot runner-up Santry when the colt suffered a fatal injury on the gallops. “This helps a lot, but Santry had a big future,” a clearly emotional Carroll added. “It’s been very tough, but we’ll keep going.”
Just like PJ McDonald, racing’s latest Group One-winning jockey.