Early in his career - a long time before earning his status as a record-breaking modern great - Yeats had the world at his feet.
A product of Aidan O'Brien's Ballydoyle academy, Yeats had been successful in the first three races of his career and was set to start a hot favourite for the Derby after winning both the Ballysax and Derrinstown Derby trial in impressive fashion before a muscular injury robbed him of his Classic opportunity.
That injury had long-lasting effects which ruled him out not just of the Derby but also the rest of the season, but Epsom compensation did await the following season, when Yeats landed the Coronation Cup on his second start, beating Alkaased two and a half lengths.
However, when the Epsom runner-up slammed him in the Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud in June, the doubters, like the eponymous birds in the Hitchcock movie, were gathering with menace. Two more unplaced efforts, in the Irish St Leger and the Canadian International, saw even those who had championed him casting aspersions and left Yeats with a tarnished reputation at the end of his four-year-old season.
In Racehorses of 2005, Timeform opined: “the choice of autumn targets indicated how far down the Ballydoyle pecking order Yeats had fallen since his early days. Connections are to persevere with Yeats as a five-year-old but they face a challenge to restore his reputation to the heights it once enjoyed. As a record of eight runs (including one or two puzzling performances) in three seasons might suggest, Yeats appears to be anything but a straightforward horse to train.”
His flop at Woodbine seemed to represent his nadir, as in finishing sixth behind Relaxed Gesture, he was being humiliated by the horse he had beaten comfortably in the Derrinstown a year and a half earlier. It seemed a graphic illustration of how his career had stalled.
2006: SWITCH TO LONG DISTANCES
To illustrate the difficulty he posed his trainer, Yeats was unable to race in the early part of the 2006 season due to an infected joint, which made preparation for the Gold Cup far from easy. It was great credit to Aidan O’Brien, then, that he turned up at Ascot looking better than ever and seemingly at concert pitch. The punters weren’t convinced, however, preferring the claims of Sir Michael Stoute’s 2005 runner-up Distinction, and that year’s Prix du Cadran winner Reefscape, as well as the remarkable Sergeant Cecil, winner of both the Ebor and the Cesarewitch the previous autumn.
In the end, Yeats ran out an easy winner under Kieren Fallon, clearly relishing the marked step up in trip, and utilising his turn of foot to run away from his rivals early in the straight. He went on to beat a new rival in the shape of the ex-French Geordieland to land the Goodwood Cup on his preferred firm ground, before being tried again in the Irish St Leger. Here he confirmed that he was vulnerable at trips short of two miles by losing out to the five-year-old mare Kastoria, and that message was hammered home when he ran creditably, but was swamped for speed in the final quarter mile, to finish seventh under top-weight in the Melbourne Cup.
2007: GOLD CUP & IRISH ST LEGER DOUBLE
Things went remarkably smoothly for Yeats in 2007, in comparison with his rushed preparation for the Gold Cup as a five-year-old, and he was able to land both the Vintage Crop Stakes and the Saval Beg Stakes before heading across the Irish Sea to defend his crown. This year, his main rival appeared to be Sergeant Cecil, who had improved again after a luckless run 12 months earlier, adding the Lonsdale Cup, Doncaster Cup and Prix du Cadran to his CV. Geordieland, who had finished second to Yeats in the Goodwood Cup, was also back for more, and although winless since joining Jamie Osborne, he had run several excellent races in defeat, most recently when second to Sergeant Cecil in the Yorkshire Cup.
In the race itself, the normally reliable Sergeant Cecil performed lamentably, and was never really the same again, and Yeats, this time partnered by Mick Kinane, again won with ease, for all some noted that Geordieland did a lot of running to get within 1½ lengths of the winner having been held up last off a slow pace. In truth, he never really threatened Yeats, who put the race to bed in almost identical fashion to the previous year, only to idle in front which kept his winning margin down.
A proposed tilt at the King George failed to materialise, and rather than defend his Goodwood Cup victory, he was given a break and aimed again at the Irish St Leger. This year it proved third time lucky at the Curragh as he scraped home from stablemate Scorpion having looked in trouble early in the straight, and there were again questions asked as to whether he was simply a better horse in mid-summer than he was later in the season.
Those questions were arguably answered when he ran in a moderate renewal of the Prix du Cadran in October against Le Miracle, who had finished a well-beaten third in the Gold Cup. Le Miracle, beaten several times after Ascot, proved too strong for Yeats, who could finish only third. It was a low-key finish to what had been an almost flawless season, and he went into winter quarters with connections dreaming of equalling Sagaro’s record of three Gold Cup victories.
2008: EQUALLING SAGARO
The next seaon followed a familiar pattern, a workmanlike win in the Vintage Crop Stakes setting Yeats up for another crack at the Gold Cup, and his victory over Geordieland and rising French Star Coastal Path by five lengths and 4½ lengths suggests it was his easiest win in the race, but the margins tell only half the story. Sent to the front slightly earlier than usual to make the most of his stamina by Johnny Murtagh (incidentally, his sixth different jockey), he was strongly pressed almost immediately by the strong-travelling Coastal Path, and it was only at the two-furlong marker that he won that battle, only to be challenged again by Geordieland, who nosed to the front a furlong from home. The race had been run to maximise stamina, however, and Geordieland found his running out before the distance, with Yeats able to pull away from a victory which was hard-won in truth. It was a fitting way in which to match the achievements of the great Sagaro, and unlike that champion, there were no immediate retirement plans in the minds of connections.
Wins in the Goodwood Cup and the Prix Royal-Oak sandwiched another disappointing effort in the Cadran, but the idea of adding that French Gold Cup to his Ascot haul was suddenly of no importance to Aidan O’Brien. There now loomed the possibility of achieving a dream of almost impossible magnitude – winning four Gold Cups, and adding the name of Yeats to racing’s own pantheon. There would be other races for him, but there was now only one overarching goal: victory at Ascot in June 2009 to set the record.
2009: "YEATS IS NOT FOR CATCHING"
The form book will show that Yeats twice met the John Oxx-trained Alandi in 2009, and that he was beaten pointless on both occasions, beaten by an aggregate of 92 lengths in fact, but those abject defeats in the Vintage Crop and Irish St Leger are forgotten because of what happened in between.
The magnitude of the achievement is thrown into sharp focus by those defeats, which suggested that Yeats was no longer a force at Pattern level. Yet the eight-year-old entire, by this stage of his career the most popular Flat performer in training, turned up at Ascot again looking in magnificent order and with his handler confident he would leave his reappearance run behind him.
Geordieland, his old foe, had briefly assumed favouritism in the ante-post market, but the money flooded in to back Yeats on the day, and he ended up the 6/4 favourite. Geordieland, who had defeated 2008 Queen’s Vase winner Patkai in the Henry II Stakes at Sandown in his prep, was preferred to the Stoute runner again. Once again, Johnny Murtagh rode the perfect race to take the lead on the home turn, and while Yeats had to be hard ridden to do so, he was soon in a clear lead, and with Geordieland’s effort shortlived, it was Patkai who gave vain chase in the final quarter mile. The margin of victory was 3½ lengths, with a yawning gap of 15 lengths back to the third, and the description is best left to race commentator Richard Hoiles:
“Yeats is not for catching. All class – one of the greatest stayers of all time – one of the greatest training performances of all time. Four Gold Cups for Yeats.”
I simply can’t imagine anyone disagreeing with that summation, and that begs the question of what constitutes a great racehorse. There should be absolutely no doubt that his exploits at Ascot alone earn him that epithet, but the nature of ratings and their provenance means that he was considered inferior to no less than 20 other horses in Timeform’s 2009 edition of “Racehorses”, and between 3lb and 8lb behind a trio of his own stablemates, namely Rip Van Winkle (134), Fame And Glory (133) and Mastercraftsman (129), all of whom, somewhat ironically, hit their peak ratings in defeat against Sea The Stars.
There is little argument that this triumvirate deserved their lofty status, but greatness is much more than a number-crunching exercise, and to put that in context, the figures tell us that while Johnny Murtagh and Yeats might have pulled at the heart-strings with their historic Ascot win, we should accept the performance of horse and jockey as inferior to that of Gladiatorus and Ahmed Ajtebi in the Dubai Duty Free at And Al Sheba in March of that year. Sometimes, you just have to say “Go home, the figures, you’re drunk.”
In terms of the training achievement, Aidan O’Brien himself admitted it was the one challenge which caused him to feel real pressure, to the extent that it made him physically sick, the knowledge that history beckoned placing a greater burden on him than any Derby before or since.
Somehow, O’Brien had ensured that Yeats, as an entire horse at the age of eight, and in his seventh season to race, arrived for his moment of destiny in arguably the best form of his entire life. The difficulty of that achievement is demonstrated in many ways, previous examples of entire horses holding their form for so long are very hard to find, similarly horses who can win Group 1 races in five consecutive seasons, or indeed win Flat races of any description in seven consecutive seasons.
But rarer still are the examples of horses capable of winning the Gold Cup at Ascot four times, and it’s highly unlikely that the feat will ever be repeated.