Lion roars back to deny Guineas hero Saxon Warrior in thriller
By consensus this was not going to be one of the great Coral-Eclipses, but try telling that to Oisin Murphy, for whom Roaring Lion was a first domestic Group 1 winner at just 22.
Or try telling it to the Sandown crowd, or to viewers at home, who enjoyed one of the great Eclipse finishes of modern times despite the regrettable absence of Derby winner Masar, who was ruled out on Friday evening with heat in a foreleg.
In a reduced field the betting confirmed that loyalties were broadly split between Roaring Lion, third in the Derby, and Saxon Warrior, who had beaten him in both the Racing Post Trophy and the 2,000 Guineas but was only fourth when favourite at Epsom.
In what developed into precisely the head to head that the betting anticipated the pair served up a treat in a climax that saw them finish clear of last year's Derby runner-up Cliffs Of Moher.
It was Saxon Warrior who first took the lead approaching the final furlong with a burst of speed that was lacking over the longer distance.
Roaring Lion, however, was closing all the while on the wide outside, and he mastered him with 100 yards to go before carrying him right, prompting the stewards to have a long hard look, even though the winning margin was a neck and so there was little likelihood of a reverse.
"Relief," said Murphy, when asked the overriding emotion when the 'result stands' announcement came some 18 minutes after they had passed the post, the enquiry nevertheless penalising him with a four-day suspension for allowing Roaring Lion to drift right.
"I knew I was on the best horse in the race today, and that's the bottom line," he added. "I just had to get it right and not get there too soon. I'm delighted I got the job done for Sheikh Fahad and Qatar Racing, for John Gosden, all the staff, and for my family. This is what I've wanted to be achieving.
"These horses are very hard to find and we've won a Group 1 with him now. I've been watching the Eclipse since 2005 I think, when Motivator was beaten by Oratorio, and it's a race I've always wanted to win.
"This is top now in all of my achievements. It's great, but I want to do more. I've wanted to be champion jockey every year and I've been trying this year, but my percentages haven't been good enough, so I'll have to try again next year."
While this was a first Eclipse for Murphy, who is still growing in stature by the year, it was a third for John Gosden in the last seven runnings, following wins with Nathaniel in 2012 and Golden Horn in 2015.
It was clear that much of the trainer's experience and wisdom had rubbed off on Murphy as he prepared for the race, in which tactics were bound to be a factor, as he was facing three opponents from Aidan O'Brien's yard.
Murphy said: "John always asks me how I'm going to ride him and he was happy with it, so that gave me confidence. They kept me wide, but John said whatever happens don't get sucked in. He doesn't pull, and so he didn't need cover, but it very was good race riding from Wayne [Lordan, on Happily]."
He added: "Roaring Lion has grown up through the season and he felt great today. I couldn't pull him up after the line."
Gosden was full of praise for Murphy's riding, and he had no complaints regarding the tactics employed on the O'Brien runners.
"The tactics were clever," he said. "Happily was keeping us out and we were the only horse that went three wide around the bend, but he [Lordan] was riding quite correctly to give Saxon Warrior all the room he wanted to come out. It was fascinating tactics, and it got us in trouble – three wide and further back than we wanted, but if you drop in they put you in a box.
"Oisin rode a clever race. We discussed options but you have to leave the jockey with an blank canvas. The smaller the field the trickier it gets, but he wasn't going to get himself in any trouble and I thought he timed his run perfectly."
Roaring Lion will stick at a mile and a quarter now, and Gosden is looking forward now to York's Juddmonte International. Paddy Power make him a 4-1 chance, from 11-2.
Gosden said: "It was very sad that the Derby winner wasn't here as it would have been a phenomenal horse race and a right old ding dong, but he wasn't here and we still got a hell of a race, so full marks to Aidan for sending Saxon Warrior here just a week after the Irish Derby.
"Roaring Lion will freshen up now and go to York. I'm sure we'll see the second there and with any luck we'll see Masar there too.
He concluded: "It will be some horse race."
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