All eyes on the speedy Gandalf
THERE WAS A BUZZ at the Garrison last Saturday that made it clear something big was happening.
And that it materialised means great news for local horse racing.
Before the John B Simpson Classic Handicap over 1570 metres, there was talk about whether Derby winner Gandalf could take on the older horses for the first time and conquer.
His main rival was the irrepressible front-runner Infrared which led the chase in the Sandy Lane Gold Cup for more than three-quarters of the nine furlongs in the premier event in March. To many, Infrared’s challenge was having to give Gandalf 18 pounds in the weight for age handicap. The former packed 128 pounds and the latter 110 pounds.
I felt it was 50-50. Infrared, seasoned, tried and tested; Gandalf, precocious, speedy and competitive. Other pundits were more forthright as they installed Gandalf as the favourite to win. I also felt the tactics of the respective jockeys would be crucial. The very experienced Rickey Walcott, who I think is the best locally based reinsman and the very confident, exciting Rasheed Hughes were charged with making the right decisions spontaneously despite whatever instructions they may have had from the horses’ connections.
That’s the nature of sports. Your game plan shouldn’t be written in stone. You should be prepared to make amendments depending on the state of the game and how situations unfold at particular phases of an encounter. A bit of race luck and a jockey’s scholarship and choices can make a big difference in such circumstances.
And while it seemed a tad disrespectful to other highly rated animals like Refire and Celestial Storm, the truth of the matter is that pundits generally saw it as a twohorse race, almost like a match race.
Who’s to say that this lofty expectation didn’t increase the pressure on Walcott and Hughes and that it couldn’t interfere with their judgement? After all, patrons took to every vantage point to see the outcome of the race. There hasn’t been that amount of hype at the Garrison since the Gold Cup.
The vital play would be which of the leading horses would break on top. Gandalf started with the advantage as he was drawn one. With his natural speed he burst to the front but soon had Infrared close on his heels and the two fought the expected duel for command of the race.
Walcott, who always had “a ton in hand”, never allowed his rival to take the lead. In fact, there were moments when Infrared tried to go past but couldn’t get his nose in front. Eventually, he was forced “to spit out the bit” two furlongs from home and the rest is history.
What was very impressive about Gandalf’s triumph was how cool he was under pressure and how easily he kicked on when Walcott asked him for the effort. This horse seems to be something special.
Naturally, we can speculate about whether the result would have been different if the weights were closer but Gandalf’s composure was exceptional throughout the race. Suffice to say that the winner carried his allotment and Infrared his in accordance with the race conditions. So we can leave the weight differential debate for another time.
Star is born
What transpired Saturday was a “star-is-born spectacle”. As alluded to earlier, this makes it great for racing. People look forward to rivalries in all sports. It is what lures us through the turnstiles. Gandalf is now big box office news as he threw down the gauntlet impressively to all comers. I think he is better all-round than stablemate Brave Star, which is far from being a pushover.
The talk after the John B Simpson Classic Handicap was the likely clash between Gandalf and the same field in the Victor Chandler on the Boxing Day card. His form is welcome respite for the absence of the marvellous Northern Star, which is recuperating from an operation to draw inflammation from his hoofs and will be out for the rest of this year.
Understandably, a Gandalfnorthern Star clash is now on the radar when the time is right. The common denominator in this matter is that they are both trained by the magnificent Victor Cheeseman. I say no more. Oh, and should I add, excited fans are already asking if Gandalf’s connections will nominate him for next year’s Gold Cup?
It is a short four months away and I am sure it will be considered, as he turns four and notwithstanding that four-year-olds have a good record in the Gold Cup.
I remember the same question was asked about Northern Star a year ago but his owners, including Cheeseman who has a share in him, opted for another event on the big day to secure what looked to be a more guaranteed high-end payday. If it was a pure business decision they were right. Gandalf’s owners will be faced with the same equation, particularly if he slams the field in events like the Victor Chandler and the Coolmore in coming months.
The Barbados Turf Club may be frustrated about the delay in starting night racing because of the excessive duties it has to pay to import the lights but with a Gandalf in the fray, little attention might be paid to that now, especially among ordinary race fans who simply like to see a creole with the ability and potential to dominate.