Nightmare on the Knavesmire for many punters at York’s Ebor Festival

ANGEL OF THE NORTH -- one of the highlights of the 2015 York Ebor Festival as Mecca's Angel collars hot American favourite Acapulco in the Group One Coolmore Nunthorpe Stakes (PHOTO BY: John Giles/PA Wire).

ANGEL OF THE NORTH -- one of the highlights of the 2015 York Ebor Festival as Mecca's Angel collars hot American favourite Acapulco in the Group One Coolmore Nunthorpe Stakes (PHOTO BY: John Giles/PA Wire).

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While York’s Ebor Festival remains one of the most enjoyable meetings of the Flat season, it has harnessed a horrible habit of kicking punters in the teeth over the years.

Last week’s renewal was no different as the eclipse of Investec Derby winner GOLDEN HORN at odds of 4/9 led a parade of shock results that left bumper crowds scratching their heads.

Similarly short-priced favourites such as sprinting ‘monster’ ACAPULCO (13/8), Irish Oaks heroine COVERT LOVE (15/8) and much-hyped two-year-old prospects ORNATE (evens), LUMIERE and American raider FINNEGAN also bit the Knavesmire dust.

And the trend at a meeting often billed as the Royal Ascot of the north was top-hatted and tailed by an extraordinary sequence in the final eight races of the week, which featured THREE winners at 33/1 and one at 28s. These included LITIGANT, unlikely hero of the flagship race itself, the Betfred Ebor, who defied all odds, not just monetary, to land the spoils for small-time Lambourn handler Joe Tuite.

Now, I will not fall into the trap of making the sweeping generalisation that just because favourites aren’t winning, the punting public isn’t happy. Of course, someone, somewhere will have backed the likes of MY DREAM BOAT. Equally, I’m not going to risk sounding like Tom Segal by trotting out a litany of weird and wonderful excuses for an unfathomable set of results -- even if the sight of one of my Ebor selections being withdrawn at the start and the other pulling up after two furlongs was enough to reduce me to similar mardiness. Also, of course, there are genuine reasons why the brilliance of Newmarket trainer William Haggas (five wins and three places from 15 runners) trumped spectacularly the Northern-based battalions of Mark Johnston, Richard Fahey, Kevin Ryan and David O’Meara (eight runners in a single race but not one of them in the first six).

But there is no doubt that when many outcomes cannot be readily explained, either through the reliable medium of the formbook or even personal, visual interpretation, the gloss is removed from a meeting that always offers so much.

Even Dick Turpin had the decency to wear a mask when he was strutting his criminal stuff in the 1730s before meeting his maker on this very same Knavesmire. Veteran trainer David Elsworth wore only an angry glare which rubbed in the feeling of disbelief that greeted ARABIAN QUEEN’S silencing of Golden Horn in the Juddmonte International.

Rather than celebrate yet another glorious chapter in a remarkable career, spawning Desert Orchid, Barnbrook Again, In the Groove, Persian Punch et al, the 76-year-old ‘Elsie’ chose to take it out on the media and the sponsors for not giving him and his filly sufficient respect, pre-race. No doubt he’ll still be accepting his share of the £914,375 purse.

The pot was one of many enriched at this year’s Ebor extravaganza, to the extent that not one race, not even the two-year-old maiden, was worth less than £50,000. And given that such booty successfully attracted high-quality, competitive fields, it is probably curmudgeonly of me to moan about outsiders gatecrashing the party. Especially as I am the first to pour cold water on the theory, held in some parts of the media, that the big events should always be won by ‘the right horses’ ‘for the good of racing’. That is poppycock. After all, this is competitive sport, not a catwalk strut.

However, I do feel York would have been more memorable if Golden Horn had taken another step on the road to greatness. Instead he was far too keen after an absence not helped by the decision of connections to bypass the King George at soggy Ascot.

Similarly, while I take nothing away from the admirable trio of David Metcalfe, Michael Dods and Paul Mulrennan, guiding lights behind the marvellous MECCA’S ANGEL, I also feel York 2015 would have been more memorable if Acapulco had translated eye-popping looks into glorious justification for a brave transatlantic two-year-old tilt at Coolmore Nunthorpe immortality. Instead inexperience betrayed her as she wandered and wobbled on the alien yielding surface inside the final furlong.

The ground, Good to Soft for the most part, dead by the Saturday, I’m sure, dictated much of what we witnessed. Since its turf was re-laid back in 2008, the Knavesmire has gained something of a reputation as a grinder’s track, unsuited to hold-up horses and those with genuine changes of gear, but perfectly suited to those willing to graft from handy positions. The state of the going last week which, I hasten to add, was created perfectly naturally, exacerbated that reputation.

The outcome, I suspect, was also the main reason why the meeting was afflicted by as many as 11 whip bans over the four days. Knowing the track, knowing the kind of horse required to succeed and knowing the conditions, jockeys got after their mounts early in the long home straight, and were unlikely to relent if they were achieving a response. The duels between Covert Love and PLEASCACH in the Darley Yorkshire Oaks and between STORM THE STARS and BONDI BEACH in the Betway Great Voltigeur were high-profile examples of how many races unfolded.

Of course, if this is all true, you might retort, then punters should have added it to their armoury when going into war against the York bookies. Maybe then we would have found an Ebor winner who, at the age of seven, was racing for just the eighth time in his career, for the very first time on Turf in this country and for the first time anywhere for 491 days. Wouldn’t we?....

15 HORSES TO FOLLOW FROM YORK’S EBOR FESTIVAL

BONDI BEACH (3yo colt, Aidan O’Brien)

DELIZIA (2yo filly, Mark Johnston)

EARTH DRUMMER (5yo gelding, David O’ Meara)

FERRYOVER (2yo colt, Kevin Ryan)

HATHAL (3yo colt, William Haggas)

KOORA (3yo filly, Luca Cumani)

LUMIERE (2yo filly, Mark Johnston)

MARTLET (3yo filly, John Gosden)

MAX DYNAMITE (5yo gelding, Willie Mullins)

MISTRUSTING (3yo filly, Charlie Appleby)

MUTAKAYYEF (4yo colt, William Haggas)

OUTSPOKEN (3yo colt, Aidan O’Brien)

QEYAADAH (2yo colt, Ed Dunlop)

RIBCHESTER (2yo colt, Richard Fahey)

VERY TALENTED (2yo filly, Saeed Bin Suroor)