We might argue all night long about 2018’s horse of the year in Europe, but there will be less debate about who trains it.
Whether your preference is for stunning dual Qipco British Champion Stakes hero Cracksman, his contemporary, the dual Qatar Prix de l’Arc winner Enable, or the 3-year-old four-time Group 1 winner Roaring Lion, the answer is the same. And it’s the same, too, if you were to opt, not unreasonably, for champion stayer Stradivarius.
With due respect to the heroes and heroines of the summer, including Masar, Poet’s Word, Alpha Centauri and Laurens, the strongest candidates nearly all reside at the same address, for it has been another extraordinary year for John Gosden, and Qipco British Champions Day, with its three winners, a second and a third from the four championship races that the stable contested, was its crowning glory.
That it has been anything but plain sailing for the trainer and his team with all three principals makes it all the more extraordinary, with Enable ruled out until September by injury, Cracksman’s bright start to the year stalled by the driest summer in modern times and a distracting penchant for the fillies, and the immature Roaring Lion taking time to grow up and fulfil the outstanding promise he had shown at two.
Cracksman’s six-length defeat of King George runner-up Crystal Ocean was the clear highlight of Champions Day. It was arguably the performance of the season, not just the day, even with the usual allowances for the timing of the meeting, when some are past their best for the year, and for soft going tending to exaggerate margins.
He had looked a shadow of the horse who lit up last year’s Qipco Champions Day when struggling to land the odds in Epsom’s Coronation Cup and then being trounced by Poet’s Word at Royal Ascot, but it was clear he had been training well as last Saturday approached and the torrential rain that drenched the track the previous weekend could not have been more timely. The application of what his trainer termed ‘semi-blinkers’ was the finishing touch, and typical of the fine detail that Gosden applies so successfully when the stakes are high.
The proximity in third of Czech-trained outsider Subway Dancer, whose main claim to fame was a 2016 success in a Group 3 in the French provinces, puts a slight asterisk against the form, but Cracksman beat him the best part of seven lengths and it would have been further but for Frankie Dettori’s showboating near the finish.
A resounding thumping to Crystal Ocean, Capri and Rhododendron provides sufficient ballast for most to accept that this was another performance from the very top drawer - perhaps even one Cracksman’s sire, Frankel, would have been proud of.
Whereas Cracksman’s claim to be recognised as the horse of the year rests firmly on one race, as does Enable’s, Roaring Lion has accrued a bulging portfolio of top-class wins since his underwhelming return in the Craven Stakes.
Gosden has never ducked a challenge with him, and Saturday’s success over a mile on soft going in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes following three over a mile and a quarter on fast ground confirmed versatility that was perhaps lacking in Cracksman and also in fellow four-time Group 1 winner Alpha Centauri, although her change of gear is as impressive as any we have seen this year.
It was not quite Roaring Lion’s finest moment, and it is not difficult to pick holes in the form, with I Can Fly, only fourth to Laurens a fortnight earlier, beaten only a neck in second under two pounds overweight and Century Dream and Stormy Antarctic, both regularly found wanting at the very highest level, hard on their heels.
However, it was an achievement to win at all from an unhelpful draw under conditions that plainly did not play to his strengths. He is better judged on his earlier wins in the Coral-Eclipse, the Juddmonte International and the Qipco Irish Champion Stakes, with his wide-margin York defeat of King George winner Poet’s Word the pick of them and not far short, if at all, of the level Cracksman achieved at Ascot.
If one judges the horse of the year by what an individual has brought to the season as a whole, then Roaring Lion’s claims are far stronger than those of Enable and Cracksman, but what about Stradivarius?
The Weatherbys Hamilton Stayers’ Million set a challenge worthy of the prize and one that few imagined would be achieved in year one, if ever, but Gosden plotted his route to the bonus with precision timing and Stradivarius proved the perfect vehicle.
It would have been easy to have drawn stumps with the fourth leg duly achieved at York, following success in one of four preliminary targets and then the Ascot Gold Cup and Goodwood Cup, so it is a measure of the horse that he was able to come back two months later to overcome very different ground and land what is now the richest staying prize in the calendar, bar two handicaps, the Ebor - the finish of which was dominated by two more Gosden-trained runners, lest we forget - and the Cesarewitch.
Stayers remain far more popular with the public than with breeders, and, while the new bonus is just one of several measures put in place recently to encourage competition over longer distances, it is still a division that lacks strength in depth. It is not the fault of Stradivarius, who has been more than a match for everything put in front of him and showed real bravery in squeezing through the narrowest of gaps on Saturday, but if truth be told he has not had a lot to beat.
Others have claims obviously, but you would be hard pressed to nominate one with credentials for horse of the year as strong as any of Gosden's four, unless of course you were to consider two-year-olds.
While that would be unusual, it would not be unreasonable. Yet we would still not be straying outside of that same immediate postcode, for the season’s outstanding juvenile, of course, also resides at Clarehaven in Newmarket.
We might argue the relative merits of the others, but on that there can be no debate at all.
If Too Darn Hot is not your idea of horse of the year this time, he might well be in 2019.
The Cartier Awards, generally recognised as the most prestigious annual racehorse awards in Europe, will be announced in London on November 13. John Gosden has been responsible for three of the last four winners of the Cartier Horse of the Year award - Enable (2017), Golden Horn (2015) and Kingman (2014). The 2016 winner was Minding.