Racing history was denied in emphatic fashion at Royal Ascot when Stradivarius, the usually mighty chestnut, finished a disappointing fourth and missed out on becoming only the second horse to win the Gold Cup four times. In a strangely misjudged race by the normally masterly Frankie Dettori, the jockey and Stradivarius suffered. Stuck in heavy traffic on the rail at the home turn, they struggled to find the space to have a sustained crack at the impressive Subjectivist, who streaked home to win by five lengths.
Stradivarius was almost 10 lengths behind with three furlongs to run and, from that position, victory already looked unlikely for even a great horse. A damp squib of a race for the favourite was sealed when, while making a late surge to close the gap on Subjectivist, Stradivarius and Dettori succumbed and were also beaten home by Princess Zoe and Spanish Mission.
Romantic followers of racing had hoped the seven-year-old would join another magnificent stayer in Yeats, who won the race for an unprecedented fourth time in 2009. At the time that achievement seemed unlikely to be matched again and yet, 12 years later, Stradivarius entered the race on Thursday afternoon having won the past three Gold Cups in riveting style.
There was logic to the yearning because, while the poetic and musical references in their names make them sound like a cultured duo, Yeats and Stradivarius have long been defined by their resolve, tenacity and sheer brilliance. But those three attributes were all missing as Dettori could not find the space to allow Stradivarius to flourish. He seemed to have miscalculated as, against such a richly promising four-year-old in Subjectivist – ridden by Joe Fanning, an arch-exponent of race management and winning from the front – Dettori lacked his usual magic and nous.
The threat of heavy rain had introduced early doubts that Stradivarius would again win a landmark race which demands both stamina and speed at the death. Stradivarius has never been invincible, having been beaten 11 times in his long 28-race career, and last autumn his aura was dented on heavy ground. He struggled at the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, finishing seventh, and on sodden ground at Champions Day last October he was second-last in a field of 13.
But those blips could not obscure the enduring qualities of a horse that has often proved he can dominate elite opposition even when the going does not suit him. Last year, despite 24mm of rain having fallen overnight, he won his third Gold Cup by an incredible 10 lengths as, ridden by Dettori, he became faster and stronger the longer the race went on. This year turned out to be very different.
Joe Fanning and Subjectivist were far too strong for Frankie Dettori and Stradivarius. Photograph: Shutterstock
His trainer, John Godsen, had sounded worried on Wednesday as forecasts predicted that the hot and sunny weather would turn stormy with drenching rain. “The more of this rain that falls, the more it compromises his chances,” Gosden said. “We’ll take our chance and see if he can match Yeats but we could have done without it.”
That understandable anxiety on the verge of history was echoed by Dettori, who has shared so much with Stradivarius. The venerable jockey, who recorded his 75th victory at Royal Ascot this week, admitted before the race: “I was pretty nervous last night.”
Such foreboding was prescient because, despite only a couple of millimetres of rainfall overnight and going which remained good-to-firm on a muggy but dry afternoon, Stradivarius could not roll back the years again amid the tactical confusion. In the end the vagaries of the English weather mattered far less than race strategy and the authoritative performance of a stronger and younger rival in Subjectivist.
Stradivarius is approaching the wrong side of the hill but, in a gruelling race, he was never given a proper foothold in pursuit of victory. “I ran into a pocket turning for home,” Dettori said. “When you get stopped in a two-and-a-half mile race, you never get going again. The winner’s very good, but I’d love to have another shot at it.”
Gosden sounded philosophical. “It didn’t work out exactly,” he said wryly. “We were an awful long way back and Frankie couldn’t get out when he wanted to. You need these races to go right but full marks to the winner. I thought he was mightily impressive.”
Stradivarius’s fourth place should not obscure his legacy. He stands alongside Sagaro and Yeats in a stellar trio of horses to have won the Gold Cup three times. After Stradivarius won the race for the first time in 2018, Gosden said: “We call him Mighty Mouse because he’s not very big and he looks a bit like a mini-Trigger with his four white feet. But he’s a gorgeous horse.”
That last phrase remains true but, just when history beckoned, this little giant of Royal Ascot was boxed in so badly he suddenly looked older and slower. Dettori, the king of this track, will rue the fact he did not do much to help Stradivarius when it mattered most on a frustrating afternoon for all those dreaming of Gold Cup history.