Old warrior gives Hart and soul in epic Epsom
WHEN trainer James Cummings made the decision to set Hartnell for the Epsom Handicap, most felt it would be a bridge too far for the ageing Godolphin warhorse.
But Cummings had confidence in Hartnell, the support of stable staff and the comforting advice of respected form expert and racing authority Dominic Beirne, who reminded the trainer there was no substitute for class.
"I told James of some of the great older horses that had been written off but bounced back to win big races at 20/1 and 30/1 like Super Impose (Cox Plate),'' Beirne said.
"I even mentioned Kieren Pierkins in the 1500m freestyle in the (1996 Atlantla) Olympic Games - everyone had written him off but again class prevailed.''
And so it proved at Royal Randwick on Saturday when Hartnell won a memorable Group 1 $1 million TAB Epsom Handicap (1600m) before a healthy crowd of 14,087.
This was a case of the old and the new - veteran Hartnell, the eight-year-old gelding shouldering the top weight of 57kg and contesting his 44th race, against the glamour grey four-year-old D'Argento, lining up for only his 10th start but with a 3.5kg weight pull.
If the Premiere Stakes and Flight Stakes has produced exciting finishes, the Epsom continued the trend with a classic conclusion as Hartnell wore down his rival for a famous win.
Hartnell ($20) edged out D'Argento ($4.40 equal favourite) to win by a half head with an unlucky Unforgotten ($4.40 equal favourite) less than a length away third.
"I just really can't believe it, but you know you have belief in your horse and he's a super horse Hartnell,'' Cummings said.
"He's just had a great build up to this race, had him here third up, it was a bold move running in the Epsom when he could have run at a weight-for-age and been a strong chance in the Hill Stakes.''
Cummings revealed the Epsom came into his thinking after Hartnell ran only fourth in the Dato Tan Chin Nam Stakes in his previous start.
"I thought he was a fraction big that day,'' Cummings said.
"But I realised he would cherry-ripe for his next run and I was convinced it was time to run him in a good race like the Epsom.
"There was robust discussion about it but the proof is in the pudding. The horse is performing, he does so every preparation and he is just a wonderful horse.''
Hartnell, the former English galloper who has called Australia home for four years, scored his 13th win, his fourth at Group 1 level and took his prizemoney over the $5 million barrier.
"I had a heap of pressure training this horse when I took him over. He had been winless for a while but he has won for him every single preparation now,'' Cummings said.
"He's won two Group 1 races, a Group 2 - this is just a huge moment and a privilege to have a horse of his calibre under my care.''
Hartnell gave champion jockey Hugh Bowman his first Group 1 win in Godolphin's famous royal blue colours.
"It is nice to have Hugh on Hartnell, he's been the fly in Hartnell's ointment for a long time when riding Winx, but he's probably paid Hartnell back in the spades there winning an Epsom on him,'' Cummings said.
"In classic Hugh style, he just through everything at him, I think class got him over the line."
Bowman said he meant a "great deal" to him to ride a Group 1 win for the Godolphin stable.
"I know I wear the all blue when I ride Winx but I am very proud to represent the Sheikh Mohammed in the Godolphin colours, it's my first Group 1 win in them,'' Bowman said.
"I ended up with a really nice run and I was able to work into it. I did see James (McDonald) go through and hit the lead and I thought I am not going to catch that horse (D'Argento) because I know the talent that he has got.
"I didn't rush through my gears, this horse has to be balanced to be at his best so I didn't rush I just let him get organised and I could sense I was going to get to D'Argento.
"I was surprised I didn't beat him a bit more comfortably to be honest in the end, but I am just so proud and so excited.
"In the car on the way here, (wife) Christine asked me why I wasn't on Unforgotten and I said it has 52.5kg but she said I will tell you something.
"I have a real good feeling about Hartnell today and she never says that so it's really quite special to be honest."
Trainer Chris Waller had to settle for second, third and fourth placings with D'Argento, Unforgotten and Shillelagh.
James McDonald, rider of D'Argento, said the grey "went unreal, I can't believe he got run down."
Unforgotten's effort to finish a close third was outstanding. "It was a big run,'' jockey Kerrin McEvoy said,
"She had trouble with the tempo up the back and we had to make up a lot of ground in the straight.''