Nicci Garner: Horse of the Year Legal Eagle “has taken the run well” after arguably his toughest race to date in last Saturday’s L’Ormarins Queen’s Plate at Kenilworth and it’s all systems go for the Sun Met celebrated with G.H. Mumm champagne in 2½ weeks’ time, says his trainer Sean Tarry.
Legal Eagle seemed to have no chance of fetching Captain America, who had a substantial lead at the 200m mark, but an impressive turn of foot carried him to a gallant, if narrow victory in the country’s premier 1600m race. It was his third Queen’s Plate win in succession.
Those exertions do not seem to have adversely affected the champion, who is “enjoying himself in Cape Town”.
As for his immediate regime, Tarry said: “We’ll assess him on a daily basis, see how he’s responding to his work and how he’s eating up, it’s as simple as that. We can’t have a hard-and-fast programme. But it’s all good. He is still going well.”
He added: “The new weight-for-age conditions of the Met will be right up his alley.”
Legal Eagle’s regular rider Anton Marcus commented in the post-race interview that “on paper Legal Eagle seems vulnerable as soon as he goes a yard further than a ‘mile’, despite the fact that he won the Derby in the slop as a three-year-old”, and the Met – a race in which Legal Eagle has twice been beaten – is over 2000m.
Tarry has always disagreed with negative comments about the gelding’s reserves of stamina. He responded: “I’ve got my opinion, other people have theirs and we’re never going to find common ground. But I’d like to have a few more horses who are questionable over the distance with a record like his!
“Besides the Durban July, when he got cleaned up, it’s not like he’s ever finished third.”
Legal Eagle’s record over further than 1600m since winning the 2000m Derby Trial in 2015 reads: first in the 2450m SA Derby, first in the Jubilee (1800m), fifth in the 2015 Durban July (2200m), second in a 1800m Allowance Plate (following a layoff), second in the 2016 Met (giving Smart Call 2.5kg), first in the 2016 Champions Challenge (2000m), second in the 2017 Met (giving Whisky Baron 2.5kg) and second in the Champions Challenge (giving Deo Juvente 1kg).
“You don’t have to be Einstein to figure out his record over 1600m is unblemished. But his record over further is not far off. Yes, he is vulnerable over 2000m, but that’s fine. We can’t come into the Met overconfident but we will be there.”
Riding tactics in the Met will be left up to Marcus because “he has worked the horse out now. He’ll ride him according to the pace and if he ends up in front, that is not an issue”.
Tarry, a normally taciturn man before big races, was ebullient before the Queen’s Plate, saying Saturday’s race was “quite straightforward”.
That is not quite how the race played out, though. “At the 200m mark I thought I’d been cheeky, overconfident, because it looked like he wasn’t going to get there. But he dug deep and found another gear. The rest is history!
“When they crossed the line, I felt more relief than anything else. It wasn’t a great surprise that he won, but we had our anxious moments over the last 200m.”
There have been hints that Legal Eagle might be sent overseas after the Met. After all, shortly after he changed hands new owner Braam van Huyssteen hinted that the Cape’s biggest race might not be on his agenda and his Queen’s Plate win gives him an automatic berth in the Breeders’ Cup Mile in the USA in November. Export protocols would mean at least a month locked up in quarantine.
Thankfully, Tarry does not believe the six-year-old will be going anywhere except back to home base at Randjesfontein. “He’s already done well this season, winning the Grade 2 Green Point Stakes and the Grade 1 Queen’s Plate, and he’ll probably go the same route as last year after the Met – into the Horse Chestnut Stakes (which he won last season) and the Premier’s Champions Challenge. I’m hoping he’ll crack another one or two big races.
“It’s been a privilege working with him. So I’m grateful to Markus Jooste and Mayfair Speculators for giving him to us to train. And his new owners, Braam, Billy Henderson and Hedley McGrath, are lovely guys. It’s still a happy camp.”
Looking forward to his other big hopes on Met Day on 27 January, he said: “It’s been a tough Cape season the whole way through and we’re thankful for whatever falls our way. There’s nothing I’m really bullish about.
“I’ll probably have a couple in the big sales races and Safe Harbour will probably run in the Met rather than the Majorca Stakes – I wouldn’t want her taking on Snowdance if she draws No 3 and Safe Harbour draws No 16. The draw is essential over the Kenilworth 1600m and the draws will be done after acceptances, so I’d rather take my chances in the Met with the filly.
“I also have a couple for the Cape Flying Championship, including Trip To Heaven, who runs this weekend in the Khaya Stables Diadem Stakes.
“He’s a slow starter and is never one you can confidently back, but he’s doing well enough and he could repeat last year’s win.”