After winning the Goodwood Cup on Stradivarius for the third year running last summer, Frankie Dettori suggested that one of the great stayer’s secrets is economy of effort. “He’ll never be flash and win by 10 lengths, but he gets the job done,” the jockey said.

Dettori can never have been as delighted to be proved wrong as he was at Royal Ascot on Thursday afternoon, when Stradivarius produced one of the best – and flashiest – staying performances of this or any era to win a third Gold Cup. By 10 lengths.

On ground that had apparently turned against him after nearly 20mm of rain in 24 hours, Stradivarius cruised up to the leader, Nayef Road, with just over a furlong to run and powered clear in a few strides, stretching his lead all the way to the line.

It was a magnificent and unforgettable piece of racing theatre, regardless of the fact that, uniquely, there was no audience in the grandstands to revel in it. When the race is replayed, as it will be, in 20 or 30 years’ time, few will recall that this was a winning favourite with no supporters to cheer him home.

Dettori was not the only member of Stradivarius’s supporting cast to be taken aback by the manner of his success. John Gosden, his trainer, had borrowed a line from Muhammad Ali a few hours earlier, as rain continued to fall at Ascot, suggesting that his horse’s normal “float-like-a-butterfly” approach would switch to “rope-a-dope” on the deteriorating ground. Instead, his sting was sharp and decisive.

The Gold Cup at Ascot was first run in 1807 and Stradivarius is now one of only three horses to win the race three times, after Sagaro (1975‑77) and Yeats, who went on to add a fourth straight win, at eight years of age, in 2009. Stradivarius, with three wins as a six-year-old, has a year in hand on Yeats, and is already among the greatest staying horses that Ascot has seen.

If he is to return next summer and attempt to emulate Yeats, hopefully with a full house of 75,000 people in attendance, it may be Stradivarius’s mind that needs training as much as his physique. “I must change my aftershave,” Gosden said, “because he got quite coltish when I was saddling him.” A career as a stallion is starting to beckon, and Stradivarius is beginning to think that he would like it to start now.

The pre-race sense that the favourite’s attention might be elsewhere contributed to a drift in his odds which had begun with the first drops of rain overnight. From 4-7 on Wednesday evening, Stradivarius set off at an almost insulting 4-5, his chance seen as little better than a coin-toss by the market.

Dettori was still not wholly convinced as he moved towards the leader in the home straight. “On this ground, they can empty on you,” he said. “I was worried about the rain, and he actually really surprised me because he went like a hot knife through butter, really. I had everybody covered by the four, then was surprised that I didn’t have anyone to challenge me. There is always a scary moment when you get to the furlong marker, whether you will pick up or not, but he did and stretched away by 10.”

Dettori, as expected, performed a flying dismount in the winner’s enclosure – “even with no crowd I’m feeling quite emotional,” he said – and will be as eager as anyone to get a chance to do the same in front of a full house in 2021. Whether Stradivarius returns to Ascot in 12 months’ time will depend on Bjorn Nielsen, his owner and breeder, but there are ambitious plans too for the remainder of the season including a possible run in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe in October.

“Sagaro was trained by a great friend of mine, François Boutin, and ridden by Lester Piggott,” Gosden said. “I remember watching all his races and he was something. Yeats was a phenomenon. To have a horse mentioned in that bracket is what it is all about.

“[Bjorn Nielsen] is very passionate about his breeding and broodmares. For him, it is profoundly fulfilling as much as it is for us. We will look towards the Goodwood Cup and a fourth win there. There is talk of running in an Arc. He ran brilliantly in the Coronation Cup [over the same 12-furlong trip at Newmarket earlier this month] and maybe an Arc on autumn ground is not out of the question.”

Stradivarius is quoted at 5-1 by bookmakers to win a fourth Gold Cup next year, which adds to the feeling that he is more likely to be an ex-racehorse by then. But even if he leaves the stage as a three-times Gold Cup winner, Stradivarius has already done more than enough to be remembered as one of the greats.