Racing: Swing's high gives way to the Singspiel era

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Celtic Swing was hailed as a wonder horse when he annihilated Singspiel at Ascot three years ago today. But although defeated then, Singspiel's durability has sealed his place in history.

There was little room for argument after Celtic Swing sauntered away with the Hyperion Stakes at Ascot exactly three years ago today. All but the most cynical spectators were convinced: they had just seen a horse of outstanding talent and promise, a colt who would surely go on to compile one of the most successful careers in British turf history.

And so they had, only the animal in question was not the one carrying the claret and blue silks of Peter Savill. The horse who finished runner- up to Celtic Swing that afternoon was eight lengths adrift, so far behind the winner that few gave him a second look. He was a two-year-old trained by Michael Stoute, whose future appeared to hold, at best, a chance in a decent handicap, or perhaps a minor Group race in Italy. His name: Singspiel.

It is a form book entry which tells us a great deal more than the bare fact that the 1994 Hyperion Stakes, which does not carry even Listed status, was one of the best juvenile races of its year. Leaf through a decade of records and you will not find a better example of the capricious streak which makes this sport at once both irresistible and infuriating. It is distilled in a list of six runners in a pounds 10,000 event. This is Essence of Racing.

Within weeks of the Hyperion Stakes, Celtic Swing had won the Racing Post Trophy by 12 lengths and was quoted at just 12-1 to become the first horse since Nijinsky to complete the Triple Crown. The final leg, the St Leger, might be a little close to the Arc, but hey, he could always win the Arc at four. As a hundredweight of expectation was loaded on to Celtic Swing's young shoulders, Singspiel slipped quietly into his winter quarters. The Timeform annual rated him joint 34th in his generation, 30lb behind the colt who had beaten him at Ascot.

Who then could have imagined how their respective careers would unfold. Three years on, Celtic Swing is in Australia, taking a working holiday at the Collingrove Stud while he waits for the new British covering season to begin. He ran his last race just nine months after the Hyperion, finishing unplaced in the Irish Derby, while his pursuit of the Triple Crown went no further than the 2,000 Guineas, in which he was narrowly beaten by Pennekamp. A leg injury ensured that there would be no chance to recapture his juvenile form as a four-year-old.

Singspiel, though, is still earning his money the hard way, and how. No horse in British turf history has won even half as much as the pounds 3,660,622 which Singspiel has accumulated to date (Pilsudski, his stable-mate, is the second-highest earner, with a mere pounds 1,698,523). He has won four Group One races, including the Japan Cup, Coronation Cup and International Stakes, not to mention the Dubai World Cup, which has no Pattern status but is as close as you can get to a racing world championship.

He will run at the Breeders' Cup next month (the Turf, in which he finished second last year, is favoured over the Classic on dirt), while a final farewell to British punters in the Champion Stakes next Saturday is also being considered. No matter what inflation does to prize-money levels, his earnings record seems sure to stand for years to come.

"Before the Hyperion, we thought he was a nice horse," Anthony Stroud, Sheikh's Mohammed's racing manager, recalls. "He had ability and we thought he would get better with age, but the reputation of Celtic Swing was awesome and I think that we really saw a superb horse that day. He absolutely thrashed Singspiel, he skated in.

"Even at the end of Singspiel's three-year-old career, you wouldn't say he was a great horse, he kept finishing second. He's just a very tough thoroughbred with great determination and courage and a wonderful consititution. He loves racing, he's been superbly trained and it's a testament to keeping a horse in training at five. He's come a long way since Ascot, and that's the wonderful thing about racing, you never know what's around the corner."

For the connections of Celtic Swing, though, there is nothing but the thought of what might have been. "It was a great performance at Ascot," Nick Babington, Peter Savill's racing manager, says. "It was just a shame about his injury. A lot of people have said that Singspiel improved a lot after that and he probably did, but I know that Michael Stoute rated him very highly that day. But he stayed a sound and fit horse and unfortunately Celtic Swing had his leg problems."

For punters, the lessons of the 1994 Hyperion Stakes are clear. Never take anything for granted, particularly when it comes to ante-post betting. And no matter what wins the race this afternoon, or by how far, make a very careful note of whatever finishes second.