There was barely a dry eye on the racecourse when Sean Tarry-trained Legal Eagle scored one of the gutsiest wins of his career in the R1.5-million L’Ormarins Queen’s Plate (Grade 1) over 1600m at Kenilworth on Saturday.

In winning his third Queen’s Plate running, he seemed to have very little chance as the horses came through the 400m mark, being an estimated four lengths behind pacemaker Captain America, but when Anton Marcus pressed the accelerator and started riding in earnest, the son of Greys Inn, racing for the first time in the silks of Braam van Huyssteen, William Henderson and Hedley McGrath, closed him down.

Hearts were in his supporters mouths as the line loomed large and it seemed he might not get there, but Captain America’s stride shortened and Legal Eagle, the 7-10 favourite, got his head in front by 0.40 lengths, in spite of chugging outwards into the crop. Outsider Copper Force flew from last on the inside for second ahead of Captain America, Sail South and Marinaresco, who ran a cracker over a distance short of his best. Less than a length covered the first five past the post with the others in a different race,

It was Van Huyssteen’s first Grade 1 win after nearly a decade in the game.

Legal Eagle’s regular rider Jockey Anton Marcus, winning the Queen’s Plate for the seventh time, thanked L’Ormarins and Drakenstein Stud’s Gaynor Rupert, main sponsor of the Queen’s Plate weekend, which started on Friday with the Cartier Sceptre Stakes. “This is what racing’s all about,” he said. “We come here once a year to the Queen’s Plate and feel special. We can’t thank her enough. It’s great to feel part of something – long may it continue with Gaynor, L’Ormarins and her entire team.”

Switching to talk about the race and the horse who has become something of a cult hero in racing circles, he said a quick early pace had not been ideal, “but I kind of anticipated that especially after the way Captain America ran last time (when leading to close home and finishing third behind Legal Eagle in the Green Point Stakes). Corne Orffer rode a superb race on him today. And I felt the Snaith outfit (with African Night Sky) would want a pace. 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. 

“I felt Captain America was going to make this a true-run race – plus the Snaiths also wanted a true-run race so I had anticipated it. It’s never easy when you’re making the pace yourself in a Grade 1, it’s not ideal.

“I was wary (at the 300m when Legal Eagle moved into second). I’ve got a lot of respect for Captain America. It’s a fine line – you can’t reach him too early, but if you let him slip you’re not going to get to him at all. He’s such a courageous and gutsy horse so I did have my reservations. But I was sitting on a very special horse.”

An emotional Sean Tarry was interviewed afterwards. “I felt the least pressure than I’ve ever felt with this horse because everything just went so smoothly. If you’ve got to start worrying about his ability at this stage of the game then something’s horribly wrong. I had a lot of confidence in him today. My team was supremely confident – they’ve done everything perfectly, so I’ve got to thank them. I couldn’t do it without them.”

He thanked Legal Eagle’s new connections for leaving the gelding with him.

“I was just a passenger today,” gushed jockey Grant van Niekerk after beautifully bred three-year-old Australian import Oh Susanna, owned by Rupert’s Drakenstein Stud, beat a strong group of fillies in the R1-million Cartier Paddock Stakes (Grade 1) over 1800m at Kenilworth. The L’Ormarins Queen’s Plate Festival is the Rupert’s brainchild, so it was a double celebration for the filly’s connections.

The 7-2 second favourite behind Nother Russia – described by her jockey as a “tough, difficult filly” – disputed second place as Goodtime Girl set the fractions with Nother Russia a couple of lengths behind her. Van Niekerk gave Justin Snaith’s charge permission to extend her stride about 400m from home and she led 50m later, going away to win impressively. Lady In Black finished second ahead of Fresnaye, who just edged Nother Russia out of third place.

“I thought I might have sent her a little bit too early but I was one of only few carrying 54kg in the race – the others carried top weight,” said Van Niekerk. “I let her stride – tried different tactics today. I wanted to give her a little bit of a chance. She loves to come from off them. I think if I’d been a little bit closer last time (in the Cape Fillies Guineas) I would have finished a lot closer to Snowdance. She came out well and I was there and I elected to let her use her action. I got one to cover me and it was all pretty easy from there. I was just basically a passenger. When I pulled her out she quickened and she just kept going. She’s got a massive stride on her, that helped a lot. She won so easy. If they had to come again she would have quickened again.

“She’s a lovely filly, a filly who’s very close to my heart because I ride her all the time at work. She gives me a tough time but we work well together – we’re both a bit ‘dill’. I’m glad it worked out well.

“I said earlier in the day that if I win this one for Mrs Rupert, my day is made.”

The form seriously franked the Cape Fillies Guineas, won by Snowdance with Oh Susanna second from a wide draw.

Justin Snaith said: “Unfortunately she’s just had bad draw after bad draw. Today for the first time she had a good draw but she also over-raced a bit. So there’s a lot of merit in this win. She wasn’t quite settled.

“When she ran in the Fillies Guineas, I said the only one who could be Snowdance would be her.

“With this pedigree to get the Grade 1 – and it’s not just any Grade 1, it’s the Paddock Stakes – you can’t get better.”

He added: “Grant has his own way about him, but he’s such a good young rider and horses really run for him.”

Our Emperor won the R250,000 Heineken Chairman’s Cup (Grade 3) over 3200m for trainer Brett Crawford and jockey Greg Cheyne, while the R400,000 Glorious Goodwood Peninsula Handicap (Grade 2) went the way of Grade 1-winning three-year-old Eyes Wide Open, the mount of Anthony Andrews and from the stable of Glen Kotzen.