A CROCKED horse off the track for nearly 500 days, a small-time trainer who nearly threw in the towel because of despondency and a fresh-faced riding genius who had to take evasive action at the start: the unheralded Litigant’s win in the Betfred Ebor will be remembered as one of Flat racing’s ultimate rags-to-riches story.
The £275,000 Ebor is now firmly established as Europe’s richest Flat handicap and one of the best fields in the race’s 172-year history was no place for a lightly-raced, seven-year-old all-weather specialist making its debut on turf in the UK and racing for just the eighth time in a stop-start career that began in France.
Sired by the 2000 Epsom Derby winner Sinndar, the only people on Knavesmire not surprised by his shock 33-1 win were owner Tony Byrne, Irish-born trainer Joe Tuite, who was once a journeyman jockey with the redoubtable Jenny Pitman before learning the art of training with former footballer Mick Channon, and champion apprentice Oisin Murphy.
This was a day when a seemingly impossible dream came true in front of 30,251 slightly disbelieving spectators – a record attendance since the Welcome to Yorkshire Ebor festival was extended to four days in 2011 and saw the meeting’s signature race switched to a Saturday.
With this cast of characters, equine and human, this was an Ebor to raise the spirits.
Litigant was the oldest horse to win the race since Yorkshire legend Sea Pigeon’s triumph in 1979.
“He’s just delicate. Joints, knees, tendons, back legs, front legs,” said Tuite. “I think Mrs Pitman would be proud.
“With her, I rode her Gold Cup winner Garrison Savannah in work and Royal Athlete, who won a National. I learned the need to be patient with crocks.
“Two years ago, I could have walked away. I had sick horses and five winners in my third season. I just wanted to cry. Horses can do that to you, but we had faith in what we do and had a good year in 2014.
“This year we almost won the Super Sprint (at Newbury) but I’ll take this. You go down in the history books for winning this race.”
Plain-speaking Tuite, a Lambourn trainer who wears his heart on his sleeve, had always been reassured by the much-respected jockey George Baker that Litigant had the class to win a historic handicap, despite having been off the racetrack since Good Friday, 2014.
He did not lose the faith, even when the experienced James Doyle worked the gelding at Kempton recently and concluded: “He’s not an Ebor horse.”
Neither was in the saddle on Saturday; that honour fell to Murphy who has been instrumental in helping the trainer return from the depths of despondency and was hailed by Tuite post-race as a “gifted, gifted rider”.
Tuite, who has just 21 horses in training, had felt guilty that he had not provided the likeable 19-year-old Murphy with a confidence-boosting winner this season as the teenager establishes himself in the senior ranks, and also in a high-profile role with Qatar Racing, after becoming champion apprentice last season.
Even the rider did not think that Saturday would be the day.
The horse, he told The Yorkshire Post, was lathered with sweat going to the one mile six furlong Ebor start adjacent to the Bishopthorpe Road, and bumped himself so hard on the starting stalls that Murphy had to jump off.
“To have a good ride in the Ebor is a feat in itself,” said Murphy who shouted ‘yes’ in exultation as he passed the post one and a half lengths clear of Frankie Dettori’s well-backed mount Wicklow Brave.
“It’s so competitive, with 20 runners, that I didn’t think it would happen.
“He then got worked up in the stalls, but when the gates opened, he just relaxed. The horse is a cripple, but he travelled great into the race.
“It’s great for such a small team. I would love to be riding big winners every day for Qatar. If it wasn’t for Qatar, I couldn’t have won for nicer people. Being a jockey is a fashion-orientated thing, you need the winners to keep your name in the spotlight and Joe’s support means a lot.”
As the winning connections contemplated a tilt at Qipco British Champions Long Distance Cup at Ascot on October 17, Murphy was flying off to Chelmsford City where three rides on the all-weather drew a blank.
“You’re only as good as your last ride,” said the crestfallen rider. “The last ride had a chance, but was tailed off.”
It was not the perfect ending envisaged by the Ebor-winning rider. At the end of a week of shocks that began with Derby winner Golden Horn’s Juddmonte International downfall, Oisin Murphy should have known to expect the unexpected. That’s racing.