By John Scanlon
Johnston Racing enjoyed a day to remember at Musselburgh on April 3 when the yard’s horses won four races on the Easter Saturday card.
The four-timer was initiated when Middleham Park Racing’s Excelebration colt, The Gatekeeper, became the yard’s first juvenile winner of the season in landing the novice event over the minimum distance of five furlongs which opened the card at the East Lothian track.
One of four two-year-olds who went to post for the race, The Gatekeeper was ridden by Ben Curtis and was making his racecourse debut. He was the yard’s second juvenile runner of the year, after Liv Lucky finished fourth of seven at Newcastle on the previous day.
The race did not start ideally for The Gatekeeper as he ducked right on leaving the stalls. However, Ben soon had him in a nice rhythm as he tracked the leader and he may have led the field from halfway. Joined by the favourite Atomic Force with just over a furlong to race, he forged clear in the closing stages to win, going away, by two lengths from Atomic Force, with the third horse, Khunan, almost five lengths in arrears.
A £60,000 purchase at Tattersalls Ireland September Yearling Sale last autumn, The Gatekeeper is out of the Montjeu mare, Cherry Creek, making him a half-brother to Time Shanakill, by Lord Shanakill.
Charlie Johnston was at Musselburgh and told Racing TV: ‘He is not the normal early two-year-old type, as there’s stamina on the dam’s side, but he has been doing everything right at home and has a great attitude.
‘He basically put his hand up and said he was ready to run! The last furlong was his best and he was only going further clear as he hit the line and Ben said he took a bit of pulling up.’
The second race on the card saw Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed’s Eton College in action in the Silver Arrow Handicap, a seven-furlong handicap for older horses . A field of 11 went to post for this competitive heat.
The horse fluffed the start and was slow to pick up at the rear of the field, but jockey Franny Norton didn’t panic and instead crossed to the inner, making up some ground before turning for home.
In the straight, the four-year-old Invincible Spirit gelding gradually crept closer to the leaders, before bursting through a gap into the lead in the closing stages. He won by three-quarters of a length from Marshal Dan.
‘I was cursing Franny when he decided to go through the field,’ Charlie Johnston confessed after the race. ‘But he got a clear run, and as long as he got the gaps he was always going to win.’
This was a visually impressive success for Eton College, and the fourth win of his career. Out of the Elusive Quality mare, Windsor County, Eton College is a half-brother to the French Guineas winner Castle Lady, who was by Shamardal.
The third race on the card was the Royal Mile Handicap, a Class 2 handicap for three-year-olds over a mile, which was contested by two runners from the yard, Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed’s Forest Falcon and Naamoos, a Wootton Bassett colt owned by H H Shaikh Nasser al Khalifa and Partner. Both colts were making their seasonal debuts. The yard won the race in 2018 with The Passionate Partnership’s Book of Dreams.
In all, seven runners went to post, with Franny Norton taking the ride on Forest Falcon while Ben Curtis was on board Naamoos, who carried top weight. From the outset, Naamoos was racing at the head of affairs, pursued initially by Ventura Mutiny. Entering the bottom bend, Forest Falcon raced in fourth, one off the fence. As Naamoos continued to lead against the rails, Forest Falcon made good progress under Franny Norton to challenge for the lead with two furlongs left to race.
Digging deep, Naamoos found plenty for Ben Curtis and kept on strongly in the final furlong to hold the challenge of Forest Falcon by half a length, the pair finishing four and a half lengths clear of Colonel Faulkner.
‘Naamoos got bogged down at Pontefract last time out,’ Charlie Johnston explained. ‘This race tells us where we should be aiming, going forward. The second is nice too, and together they are two exciting Saturday horses for the season ahead.’
Naamoos’s win completed a unique hat-trick for the yard, as Johnston Racing struck in the first three races of Musselburgh’s new Flat season. But the fun wasn’t over. The feature race of the day was the £75,000 Queen’s Cup, with Johnston Racing responsible for five of the 13 runners.
A heritage handicap over a mile and three-quarters, Johnston Racing sent out Austrian School to land the Queen’s Cup in 2019, when it was last run. The team sent from Middleham to contest this year’s event included Themaxwecan (Ben Curtis), Trumpet Man (Franny Norton), King’s Advice (Andrew Breslin), Notation (Oli Stammers) and Hochfeld (Connor Beasley).
It turned out to be a fascinating race. Hochfeld was sent into the early lead by Connor Beasley and set out to make all the running. He was pursued initially by Notation, although that filly was soon passed by Cardano and Hollie Doyle. In the early stages, Themaxwecan, who had been gelded over the winter, travelled in eighth, racing in company with Trumpet Man.
Ben Curtis made a vital move in the back straight, moving Themaxwecan up on the outside to race in third as the field negotiated the sharp right hand bend into the straight.
Hochfeld continued to lead on the rail, but Cardano proved a tough opponent, and the Oasis Dream gelding struck the front with two furlongs to race. Meantime, Ben Curtis produced Themaxwecan on the outer with a determined challenge, and Dougie Livingston’s Maxios gelding nosed into the lead entering the final half furlong. At the winning post, Themaxwecan had won by a neck from Cardano, with Hochfeld a further three-quarters of a length back in third.
Connections were delighted with Themaxwecan’s success.
‘He’s always a horse we’ve thought highly of,’ said Charlie Johnston.
‘He’s been highly tried, but he was due his day in the sun. He’s never been a straightforward horse, so we had been thinking about gelding him for a while. ‘Whether that made the difference, or the fact that he’d slipped down the handicap, I don’t know. Ben made a positive move in the back straight, and it probably won him the race, as the front two weren’t for stopping.’
A mile and three-quarters is very much seen as the bare minimum trip for Themaxwecan nowadays, and the gelding is likely to step up in trip next time in the Chester Cup, a race won by the yard in 2019 with Making Miracles.
The Musselburgh four-timer made it a day to remember for Johnston Racing and, in particular, for anyone who bet all four horses to win at the cumulative odds of 1900-1!
Picture: Naamoos with Lauren Hickin