All aboard the flight of fancy

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The Independent Online
At 11.30 this morning 14 British-trained horses will leave the tarmac of Stansted airport in the belly of a DC8 bound for the Lester B Pearson International in Toronto. As is the custom with our Breeders' Cup horses, the class of 1996 will be invested with romantic notions that would look unlikely even on the pulp carousel of the airport bookshop. History tells us, however, that on their return the only narrative available will probably be a story from the hard luck shelf.

Just three British horses have returned triumphant from 84 Breeders' Cup races, but as our ratio worsens there is no decline in the optimism that travels with the competitors each year in the cargo hold. In fact, every Breeders' Cup throws up a British contender who is considered a near certainty, and the bearer of this venemous honour for Breeders' Cup XIII at Toronto's Woodbine track on Saturday is Mark Of Esteem.

Esteem for the Breeders' Cup series itself is more heightened in the United States than the other side of the Atlantic. It is indicative of the mild arrogance among British patriots that they believe a Cup race can be collected almost as a lap of honour after a domestic season.

"In America they're not frightened to campaign their horses, but they do point towards these races," says the Newmarket trainer John Gosden, who won the first ever running of the Mile in 1984 with Royal Heroine while he was based in California. "Here there is a very intensive racing programme throughout the year, and if you're training good horses from April through to August, and you're taking in all the top races, then the Breeders' Cup comes very much as an afterthought.

"The French [whose Breeders' Cup record is vastly superior to their colleagues on the slow train side of the Channel tunnel] have an advantage in that they don't quite have the same pressurised programme over the summer and they are prepared especially for autumn campaigns.

"The other reason the French do well is that, like the Americans, they are largely trained on sand and dirt and are taught to show that little turn of foot, that burst, over what the Americans call the three sixteenths [of a mile - a furlong and a half]."

The British preparation for the Sprint invariably lies between the naive and the humorous in its conception and practice. Iktamal has, this time, been the beast prepared for the most unusual and hectic race of his life by being sent round Lingfield's all-weather. As a meaningful rehearsal, this is rather like walking over a plank in the garden and then trying the same journey when the wood is stretched over a chasm.

Others of our boys have been busy this week, so much so that Godolphin's link man with America, their assistant trainer Tom Albertrani, could not even afford time to come to the phone. Team Emirates were "running around like headless chickens", according to one spokeswoman, though it is hoped their preparation has been a little more measured than that.

Godolphin do, though, have Frankie Dettori, who is not only the most powerful force in European racing at the moment but also a man who collected information around American tracks before shaving foam was an ingredient in his overnight bag. "Frankie used to sneak into the track in America in a car, hiding on the back seat," Gosden remembers.

"At Gulfstream and Santa Anita, the tight tracks, you must have an American jockey or a European with experience of riding in the States, but they are at less of an advantage at Belmont and Woodbine. In addition, the tight ovals, with the mile around two bends and the mile and a half round three bends, are the sort of configuration which can unbalance our horses.

"But Woodbine is set out on the flatlands out by the airport. It's a big, sweeping fair track, we have won plenty of races there, and it should be to our liking.''

Were it not for the liberal cab drivers going to the racecourse and the palatable comestibles once you got there you could mistake Woodbine for a British track at this stage of the seasons. Leaves are gathering on the floor, falling through an atmosphere almost permanently full of moisture. Too many British aspirations have shrivelled before on the heated path to California and Florida, an experience which has been rather like going from the icy Alpine splash pool back into the sauna.

A further element to puff up the Union Jack chest is that the American grass horses are said to be of no great account in this generation. "I would expect our horses to take all the beating in the Mile and the Turf, and Singspiel [in the Turf] would be my nap," said Gosden.

Far less qualified men than Gosden have had their hearts sloshing with this sort of jingoistic notion in 12 Breeders' Cups to date and have ended up looking rather silly figures. It may all be different this time, though the general trumpeting sounds disturbingly similar to the noise before the bad beatings that have gone before.