Gifted Master bolsters CV with last-gasp win under ace apprentice Jason Watson
The Unibet Stewards' Cup is routinely one of the most difficult races of the year to predict and this year's edition remained complicated just one stride before the line as topweight Gifted Master collared rival Justanotherbottle to score by a short head in a photo.
Justanotherbottle looked sure to give Ger O'Neill the most significant winner of his career when going strongly inside the final furlong but instead it was fellow apprentice Jason Watson who was celebrating after the judge's verdict, which confirmed his 50th winner and saw his claim reduced to 3lb.
It looked like a below-par renewal of the famous cavalry charge beforehand, with the bottom weight rated 7lb lower than last year.
However, it was a remarkable performance from 20-1 shot Gifted Master to defy a lofty handicap mark of 111 – the same rating Hoof It won off in 2011 before proving competitive in Group 1s – and it is obvious that the five-year-old is something of a favourite at trainer Hugo Palmer's yard.
Palmer said: "He's been through some tough times and we've given him some tough assignments but he keeps coming back. He's a winner over five, six, seven and eight furlongs, and he's won maidens, handicaps and Group races – his CV reads pretty well."
On why he targeted the Stewards' Cup, Palmer said: "He's a gelding and has no stallion value so I'd say the main reason was the owners' prize-money of £121,400 – you'd win ten per cent of that for a Listed race!"
Palmer was also keen to pay tribute to the work of groom Ray Smith, who has played such an important role in the development of Gifted Master, whose tricky nature became apparent when he was gelded as a juvenile after just three starts.
He added: "He was given a phenomenal ride by Jason – but he's also given a phenomenal ride by Ray every morning. He's not an easy horse to work as he's fizzy.
"Ray is incredibly patient with him and they have a great relationship. Never underestimate the importance of what happens on the tiny days at home to the preparations for the big days on the track."
On future targets for Gifted Master, Palmer seemed averse to a crack at Group 1 company, citing the horse's previous failures to make an impression at the highest level. The Listed Hopeful Stakes, which he won at Newmarket last year, was instead put forward as a viable option.
Trainer Declan Carroll understandably felt mixed emotions after Justanotherbottle's valiant attempt came up just short.
He said: "It's a sickener when you get beat. I knew going past the line we'd lost, but I'm proud of the horse, he's run a cracker and improved.
"If he keeps going the right way surely there's a big one in him. He'll get an entry for the Ayr Gold Cup but he probably wouldn't want really heavy ground – he's a fast horse."
Growl, who like the winner has strong form at Group level, fared best of those sent off at single-figure prices, finishing a creditable third a length and a half behind, while Solar Flair was a half-length back in fourth.
The bookmakers may have cleaned up on Gifted Master but those paying enhanced place terms will have been gnashing their teeth with the fifth, sixth and seventh spots filled by well-fancied trio George Bowen, 9-2 favourite Foxtrot Lady and Spring Loaded.
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