BETTER late than never... it was always a statistical oddity that jockey Joe Fanning, so long a mainstay of Mark Johnson’s Middleham yard, had never ridden a Group One winner.
However, Fanning set the record straight on his 46th birthday when The Last Lion led from start to finish to win the Juddmonte Middle Park Stakes at Newmarket and dent some lofty reputations.
It also enabled Johnston to have the last laugh – this was the two-year-old colt’s 10th race of the campaign and was another rebuttal of those trainers who race their horses more sparingly.
Despite an arduous campaign which began with victory in the Brocklesby Stakes at Doncaster’s season-opening turf meeting in April, The Last Lion was given free rein at the head of this competitive field.
Though William Buick edged closer to the pacesetter on the well-fancied Blue Point, Fanning’s mount found another gear in the final yards.
Not only can there be no quibbling of the form’s solidity because Mehmas, the Goodwood conqueror of Blue Point, was back in third, it was a long-overdue victory at the elite level for Fanning, who has missed out on countless big-race opportunities over the past two decades because so many of the leading owners have their own retained riders.
“I’ve ridden a lot of Group Twos and Threes, but never a Group One so it’s nice to finally nail that one. It’s nice to do it, and on one of Mark’s as well – it’s great,” he said.
“The owner said if he was in the first five he’d have run well. We always thought he was better on soft ground, it’s quick today but he’s done it well.”
As for Johnston, who is closing in on his fifth successive double century of winners in a calendar year, this heart-warming result vindicated his judgement at the sales – and the strength of his enduring partnership with Fanning.
“He’s a fantastic horse and it’s a fairy story right from the beginning because many years ago we had Mister Monet here (in 2004) for the Champion Stakes and he broke his leg and didn’t make it,” said the trainer.
“When I saw this horse at Goffs (Sales) from the same family I phoned John Brown (co-owner) and said you’ve got to have this one. I’ve also said you shouldn’t pigeon-hole horses after one or two runs. After the Brocklesby on soft ground, Franny (Norton) said he’d be better on faster ground and here he is.
“It’s fantastic for Joe. He’s ridden a huge number of winners for us over the years. He usually doesn’t get the opportunity to ride in Group Ones. Hopefully, he’ll get a few more before he retires.
“He gives us loyalty. He came to us when he was just out of his apprenticeship in Ireland. Many times he’s been jocked off over the years and had to play second fiddle to a chain of jockeys. He never complains. He turns up every day and never lets us down. He’s always been there for us when we need a jockey.”
The Last Lion will not race again this season as Johnston considers targets for 2017.
As for Blue Point’s trainer Charlie Appleby, he was full of praise for the winner and said there were “no excuses”. The runner-up is owned by Sheikh Mohammed’s Godolphin operation, who have made it clear James Doyle remains a key member of their team – despite no longer being the automatic first choice for trainer Saeed bin Suroor.
Godolphin chief executive John Ferguson spoke following well-sourced speculation Doyle will replace Paul Hanagan as retained jockey for Sheikh Hamdan Al Maktoum, who is the brother of Sheikh Mohammed.
Doyle replied in the best way possible by steering Best Of Days to victory in the Godolphin colours for trainer Hugo Palmer in the Juddmonte Royal Lodge Stakes.