All good things come to those who wait. A month late it may have been but on a June day usually put aside for the Derby, racing hailed a potential new champion when Kameko stayed on strongly up the hill to triumph in the Qipco 2,000 Guineas, the first Classic to be run behind closed doors, at Newmarket.
A first Classic for jockey Oisin Murphy, a first for the colt’s owner and the race’s sponsor Sheikh Fahad Al Thani and a first Guineas for Andrew Balding. Kameko, a 10-1 shot, wore down Wichita, the irresistible combination of Aidan O’Brien and Frankie Dettori, in the last 100 yards to win by a neck.
Pinatubo, the 5-6 favourite, was a length further back in third but if body language counts for anything his jockey William Buick never looked overly confident. Maybe a higher juvenile rating than Frankel added a metaphorical few extra pounds to the colt’s weight cloth.
Buick was one of the first to start nudging his mount along at half way but the Godolphin colt appeared to come back on the bridle going into the Dip. However he was not able to reproduce the superiority he showed as a juvenile and, on the day, was beaten by two better horses.
He is not the first champion juvenile to look a little more ordinary at three, nor will he be the last. But a bit like the junior school all-rounder who is captain of every team but cannot get in a first team at secondary school, his peer group has caught him up and, in the case of Kameko and Wichita, overtaken him.
Alas, one of sport’s ‘I was there’ moments it was not. In the two and quarter century history of the Classics, never can one have been run in front of less people and the victor hailed by so few.
Given that the weather was more Russian Steppe than Newmarket Heath and those who were present were required to remain outdoors all day, it was, perhaps, a good one to watch on the television.
Balding, 47, had had his horses in flying form in the first five days of 2020’s truncated season. Ever since he was born in 1972 he has lived in the shadow of Mill Reef, his father Ian’s Champion, who won the Derby a year earlier.
But in that year’s Guineas Mill Reef bumped into the other great champion of his era, Brigadier Gerard. “The biggest regret of dad’s career was not winning the Guineas, it’s good to have it on the CV,” said Balding who can also have claimed to have trained the jockey who went through the trainer’s apprentice academy.
“It’s a massive thrill. We’ve been looking forward to the race for a long time but the Guineas is the Guineas whenever it is run. I’m thrilled for Oisin, the Qatar Racing team and everyone at Kingsclere.
“He won a Group One last year (Vertem Futurity) which has a good record of producing Guineas winners. The first half of the race went to plan but I’m not sure what Oisin was doing in the second half! The horse got a bit disorganised but I loved the way he finished off so strongly.
“Oisin is an amazing asset to racing, for him to get his first Classic for us is special and I hope Jason Watson (also Champion apprentice when attached to the Balding yard) does the same on Sunday (on Quadrilateral in the 1,000 Guineas).”
Kameko is now the new 3-1 favourite for the Derby. “My current thoughts are that Ascot will come too soon so that’s out of the equation,” added Balding.
“There is only one Derby and he’s the best three-year-old around. There’s a stamina doubt but there’s only one way to find out. I think his optimum trip will be a mile and a quarter but, for one day only, he might stay a mile and a half.”
Speaking about being the only man in the winners’ enclosure to greet the winner, Balding said: “It’s bizarre. But, I promise you, I feel no less elation than I would have done had there been 500,000 people here.”
Murphy, 24, the reigning champion jockey, echoed those sentiments. “There’s not the same atmosphere,” he admitted. “In fact there’s no atmosphere. But it means the same to me. There were only two people shouting towards the end of the race; Frankie and me. Frankie was shouting at me and I don’t know what I was shouting at. But when I look back I won’t remember there was no one there.”
He added: “To do it in these colours (for his boss Sheikh Fahad Al Thani’s Qatar Racing), for Andrew Balding who I started with, by the same sire (Kitten’s Joy) as Roaring Lion (the horse which launched him into the big time though, ironically, he came up short in the Guineas) – you couldn’t make it up.
“For me this is very near the top. I’ve always said the Arc and the Derby were my favourite two races but this is a stallion making race and, taking myself out of the equation, it is a very important win for Sheikh Fahad and Andrew.”
For Dettori it will go down as a near miss. “I thought I had it,” he said, “when I saw Pinatubo off the bridle but then I saw a shadow on my outside.”
Buick, meanwhile, put a brave face on it. “No excuses,” he said. “He was beaten by two better horses on the day.”