The Choisir colt kicked off his season with victory in the Brocklesby Stakes at Doncaster’s season-opening meeting on April 2 and ended it with a Group One success in the Middle Park Stakes at Newmarket, a landmark first victory at the highest level for the Middleham trainer’s long-standing stable jockey Joe Fanning.
The winner of four races, The Last Lion was placed in his six other starts, winning connections £225,000 of prize money, and appeared to thrive from racing so frequently – 10 contests in seven months stands testament to the two-year-old colt’s phenomenal stamina, resilience and consistency.
Owned by John Brown and Megan Dennis, The Last Lion has been bought by Sheikh Mohammed’s Godolphin operation and will stand at Kildangan Stud in Ireland in 2017.
Though connections will never know whether The Last Lion could have developed into a genuine 2000 Guineas contender, Johnston has been in racing long enough to understand the commercial realities as next year’s potential Classic stars line up in today’s Racing Post Trophy at Doncaster – the final Group One contest of the 2016 Flat season.
“It is with mixed feelings that we say goodbye today to The Last Lion who is off to begin what I am sure will be a very successful career at stud,” said the North Yorkshire trainer.
“Of course, as a trainer, I would have loved to have him next year and to see what he might do stepped up to a mile or in the top sprint races against his elders.
“I had every confidence that he would have trained on and done well but, at the same time, I am delighted for his owners and for the horse himself that he has done so well in such a very short space of time and that he is already in such demand for stud purposes.
“He will surely go down in history as one of the best and toughest horses I ever trained. We started him way back at the beginning of April when he won the Brocklesby on very soft ground at Doncaster and he finished off at the end of September winning the Group One Middle Park on good to firm ground at Newmarket.
“In between he ran a further eight times on all types of ground and tracks and was never unplaced. He ran uphill, downhill, round a bend and even on the all-weather. To The Last Lion, it was all the same.
“Looking back at his training records I see that, from that first day at Doncaster until today when he steps on that horsebox, he has never had more than two consecutive days without a rider on his back. He is the type of horse that every owner and trainer dreams of. He truly is a ‘lion’ of a horse but I hope he is not the last. I am looking forward to training his progeny and I dearly hope there are many just like him.”
As for the Racing Post Trophy which has been previously won by five subsequent Epsom Derby winners, Yucatan appears to the most fancied of the three Ballydoyle runners as Aidan O’Brien seeks a 22nd Group One win of the year – it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that he can match Bobby Frankel’s all-time record of 25.
Equally many would not begrudge a victory for the newly-crowned champion Flat jockey Jim Crowley who partners Sir Dancealot, winner of York’s Rockingham Stakes a fortnight ago, for the never-to-be-under-estimated David Elsworth.
Meanwhile Crowley’s weighing room rival Andrea Atzeni seeks a fourth successive win in this race, after Kingston Hill, Elm Park and Marcel, with the Lester Piggott-bred Rivet.
A winner of the Champagne Stakes on St Leger Day, Rivet was a slightly disappointing fifth behind the O’Brien-trained potential superstar Churchill in Newmarket’s Dewhurst Stakes.
“Things didn’t really go his way in the Dewhurst, but he came out of it well,” said Piggott’s daughter Maureen, who is married to Rivet’s trainer William Haggas. “The ground is still relatively dry, so while conditions are in his favour, we thought we’d give it a go.”
Meanwhile Postponed, winner of York’s Juddmonte International under Atzeni, will not race again this season – the horse was fifth behind the O’Brien-trained Found in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.