‘Maverick’ Shaq knew just when to attack

By Sports Desk December 24, 2023

It has been a stellar year that will live long in the memory of Julie Camacho, as Shaquille’s seismic rise to sprinting stardom catapulted the Yorkshire handler to the top of the sport.

The Star Cottage operation has always been respected when it comes to handling speedsters, Judicial’s longevity was the proof in that particular pudding.

However, in Shaquille, luck had brought a rare diamond to Camacho’s door and over the course of 2023, her team honed that burgeoning talent to perfection.

Little under two miles away from where John Quinn prepared Highfield Princess to thrive in 2022, the Malton air proved ripe for propelling another fledgling speedster to the highest level, as Shaquille went from unheralded handicapper to Group One superstar.

“Shaquille was wonderful and it culminated in the two Group Ones, which were obviously unexpected when you are starting a horse off in a handicap at the Guineas meeting,” said Camacho’s husband and assistant Steve Brown.

“It’s all been a bit of a blur and when it is not as busy and we are on holiday, we might sit down and reflect on what a fantastic year we’ve had.

“At the time, it’s on to the next day and you have got to be concerned about all of your horses, it’s just another day on the treadmill really.

“It’s been beyond our wildest dreams really and has moved our yard to another level. Obviously, there were other good results, like Significantly winning the Ayr Gold Cup, and it has been a wonderful year and we don’t really want it to end.”

It is fair to say that Shaquille had his own style of getting from A to B, often leaving connections and punters sweating at various points in a contest, but when the winning post approached, his athletic prowess would come to the fore and he was always at the peak of his powers when it mattered most.

“He’s a horse who is a little bit unconventional in his running style and at times has made life that little bit harder for himself, but ultimately everything stops with the result and the results were positive and there were some great days,” continued Brown.

“I think he is a really gifted athlete and time proved that. I think he has great capacity and a great ability to maintain his speed.

“Often, horses show speed for a certain amount of the race and then gradually wither away – but he could maintain his speed and I think he is a horse of great athletic ability, which he showed for most of his career.

“He was unconventional but very effective. We all love a maverick in life and I think he had a touch of that about him, but he certainly had plenty of brilliance on his day.”

Despite winning three of his four two-year-old starts, there were few clues to suggest that over the next 12 months, Shaquille would develop into one of the season’s leading performers.

His three-year-old campaign got off to the worst possible start when withdrawn at the start on All-Weather Championship Finals Day, but once dominating a field of useful handicappers at Newmarket’s Guineas meeting, the momentum began to build and build before reaching a Group One crescendo during the height of summer.

“His rate of progression was unbelievable really and he stepped up to Listed and then to the Group Ones and he proved himself to be a very good horse and we really enjoyed the ride,” said Brown.

“When he won three of his four two-year-old races, he always looked very good but not to the level that we ended up racing at, we thought he would just be what you would call a ‘nice horse’ level, not a Group One horse.

“He did catch us by surprise, but the one thing I have always said was when he would come back in after he won, he never came in tired, he was always a fresh horse afterwards.

“He always galloped out well after his races and you always felt there was more there, but at what level, we weren’t sure. It’s lovely when you can just progress a horse quietly through the grades with no pressure.”

There was soon no hiding place for Shaquille, as victory in Newbury’s Carnarvon Stakes left connections with little option but to take a shot at the Commonwealth Cup at Royal Ascot.

Even so, Camacho and Brown were still refusing to feel the pressure, as they set about enjoying rubbing shoulders with the best.

That laid-back approach seemed to be inherited by Shaquille himself, as he reared and then sat dozily in the stalls as the best three-year-old sprinters were already making their way up the Ascot straight.

Eventually getting into stride under Oisin Murphy, he worked his way back into the contest before his raw power took him past Aidan O’Brien’s big-race fancy Little Big Bear in the closing stages.

“He went from his novices to a handicap, to a Listed and then the programme book forced you up to Group One and we sort of thought it was worth a go,” explained Brown.

“We went to Ascot feeling no pressure, because the Coolmore horse was a hotpot and we just thought we would go and have a lovely time – and if he ran well, we would be delighted. Of course, it was such a great day, to win it was wonderful.”

He went on: “It was a totally different feeling to the July Cup, because then you had expectation, whereas we were pretty cool at Royal Ascot and thought if we hit the frame, then everyone has had a great day out and we’ll go home still having a progressive horse.”

With a first Group One in the bank and a day to remember etched into the memory, the pressure Camacho and co declined to feel heading into Ascot suddenly weighed massively on their shoulders as Shaquille was tasked with backing up his impressive Commonwealth Cup in Newmarket’s July Cup.

He was sent of the 5-2 joint-favourite alongside his Ascot rival Little Big Bear and, while the Coolmore charge sank under the weight of expectation, the son of Charm Spirit grew in stature to deliver an utterly devastating display.

Again, Shaquille gave his rivals a glimmer of hope and all associated with him palpitations by rearing at the start and exiting the stalls in his own time.

However, whereas at Ascot he worked his way gradually into contention, this time around the colt carted his substitute rider Rossa Ryan to the head of proceedings and never let up as he galloped out to back-to-back big-race triumphs.

“Newmarket obviously came with pressure, but you also had the realisation that this can be achieved,” continued Brown.

“You have suddenly got a very good horse and it was sort of ‘why can’t we think we can go and win the July Cup’ – and fortunately he did.”

There was a sting to the tail in the Shaquille story, as he was unable to back up his Ascot and Newmarket heroics when bidding for a third Group One triumph in Haydock’s Sprint Cup.

It was the final time the champion sprinter was seen on a racecourse before heading off into retirement and stallion duties at Dullingham Park Stud, with that Merseyside flop the only black mark on his phenomenal journey to the top of the sprinting tree.

“We still never found a satisfactory explanation for that,” added Brown.

“The horses weren’t in good form and I suppose that is the most plausible reason, but I have it in the back of my mind that he put so much into Ascot and Newmarket and did that just have an effect on him on that day at Haydock.

“We will never know unfortunately, and the only shame is his career ended on a bit of a low, as the rest of it was magical.”

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