James McDonald’s heart nearly sank when somehow someone had managed to live with the sheer brilliance of Nature Strip and was challenging him in the King’s Stand Stakes with only yards to go before the line.
A quick glance confirmed what the jockey ultimately knew had to be true, that no rival could compete on equal terms with the outstanding Australian sprinter and only the riderless Khaadem was able to come anywhere close to giving him a run for his money.
“I got a bit of a scare at the 50 when the horse came to me,” McDonald said. “I didn’t think any horse could cope with him so when a horse did come to him I was so surprised. It was a relief there was no jockey on!”
It was the climax to what had been billed as a clash of continents between the Chris Waller-trained Nature Strip, the second-highest rated horse in the world, and Golden Pal, the American star who trainer Wesley Ward had spoken about being the best he had ever handled.
Golden Pal’s race was over only moments after it had begun, the front-runner fluffing his line at the stalls, leaving the way clear for Nature Strip to showcase precisely what has catapulted him to the highest echelons of international racing and over £10 million in prize-money won.
The big seven-year-old near enough sauntered into the race, with McDonald appearing to have all the time in the world as the horses blasted along at more than 40mph. He sat into the machine underneath him, waited and ignited the fire just when he wanted to.
In half a furlong he was gone, clear and away from a field of Group 1 sprinters – apart from Khaadem that is, prompting McDonald’s momentary jolt of shock and horror.
“The way he quickened on the rise and executed his gallop was unbelievable – the feeling coming up that rise was something else,” said the rider, who was recording his second Royal Ascot win.
“He’s a brilliant horse. We’ve had an unbelievable year and this is the icing on a very big cake. I don’t think Chris could have him better for this race as he was in such unbelievable form before he even left Australia. Chris knows him like the back of his hand and he just made sure he was so right for the day.
“It’s been a big build up to get here – Ascot’s been talked about for a few years now – so for him to come here and do that is just unbelievable.”
For Waller, who, along with Ward, was fined £1,000 for sending his horse into the paddock late, the victory was the culmination of that long-held plan for Nature Strip to not only test himself far outside his comfort zone but to also provide his ownership group and Australian racing the chance to bask in the spotlight and the glory.
“To win, it means a lot – I’d put this in my top five [winners],” Waller said. “We don’t get the chance to come up here and take on these horses too often, so that’s pretty special. It was breathtaking. It was a good display and he’s a good horse – and he has been for a long time.
“It’s a very important victory. Australia’s got a huge breeding and racing industry and we want to show the world our breeding and racing industries are important. We like to remind everybody of the power of Australia.”
Nature Strip could potentially bid to emulate the Australian great Choisir, and more recently Blue Point, by winning the now Platinum Jubilee Stakes on Saturday, provided connections are happy with him. Waller is also set to saddle Home Affairs in the same contest.
Story originally published on Racing Post.