Celtic Swing's credentials put to the test

2,000 GUINEAS: The new wonder horse of British flat racing has acquired such a high reputation that there is talk of him matching Nijinsky's Classic Triple Crown of 1970. This afternoon the colt faces the first leg at Newmarket. Richard Edmondson reports
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Newmarket has no cinema and there is seldom much of any interest to watch elsewhere. Even on the town's raison d'tre, the racecourse, there is usually space to go for a stroll. All that, though, changes this weekend.

The stands at the end of the Rowley Mile will be packed as never before, as the first Sunday race day with betting features the 1,000 Guineas and the first Classic of the season, this afternoon's 2,000 Guineas, features the most publicised horse of modern times.

The unbeaten Celtic Swing has captured four races by the cumulative distance of over 25 lengths, but, more than that, he has captured the imagination. The handsome, near black colt, has quickly nourished racing's hunger to find a new superhorse, an animal to compare with the great beasts of the past.

And, despite his relatively flimsy credentials, there are many who have already reserved a place for him in the pantheon's stabling block, alongside the likes of Nijinsky, Mill Reef and Shergar. Celtic Swing, they say, will not only win the 2,000 Guineas, but also the Derby and St Leger to become the first Triple Crown winner since Nijinsky in 1970.

Those who have shaped the heroes of yesteryear would like to believe Celtic Swing is thehorse who should be pulling a chariot across the heavens. But there are doubts also.

Geoff Lewis rode Mill Reef to many memorable successes, including the Eclipse Stakes, in which he beat the much-vaunted French horse, Caro, by four lengths. "It is no disgrace to be beaten by a great horse," Albert Klimscha, Caro's trainer, said that day. "And Mill Reef is a great horse, greater than Nijinsky." Lewis, then, should know what he is talking about.

"Celtic Swing's got more credentials going into this Guineas than Brigadier Gerard and Mill Reef had going into theirs," he said. "The horse has got every attribute. It will be very hard to surpass horses like Mill Reef and Nijinsky, but this horse has done everything right so far.

"I think the Guineas will be his day, but he's by no means the certainty they say he is to win the big treble. He's a big horse and I don't think he's a certainty to handle Epsom as well as other horses might. As well as that, he looks just a bit too free-running for the longer distances, he's a little bit hard on himself. This is a very, very good horse, but I don't feel he's met the best yet."

The freewheeling style of Celtic Swing's running sends different messages to different people. Walter Swinburn believes the Guineas may be on the sharp side for the colt and that he will prosper more in the Derby.

The jockey has enjoyed Celtic Swing's wide-margin successes as they have reminded him of the 1981 Derby and his record-breaking 10-length victory on Shergar. In the most one-sided of Blue Ribands, only five of Shergar's 17 rivals finished within 20 lengths of him.

"It's very difficult to compare Shergar and Celtic Swing because one came 14 years before the other and was never prepared for a Guineas, but you definitely couldn't knock Celtic Swing at this stage because he's a very exciting horse," Swinburn said. "I'd like to be riding him.

"All the boys in the weighing room like the horse and they're trying to be the first one to beat him. It's so far, so good, but he's got to go on and prove all the hype. If he doesn't win on Saturday it won't be the end of the world because I think he'll win the Derby."

If there is a vein that runs through all the opinions of those in racing, it is a desire for Celtic Swing to prove himself as brilliant. This thought, though, invariably comes wrapped in scepticism. "He must have an outstanding chance, but it's definitely not a one-horse race," Clive Brittain, who has trained both a Guineas victor and Britain's first winner at the Breeders' Cup series, said. "There is nothing certain in racing and at the moment I would say this is a good horse suffering from hype. The Guineas will tell us if he's a great horse."

Mark Johnston trained Mister Baileys to win the Guineas 12 months ago. "Celtic Swing is the favourite on merit and he's done everything asked of him," Johnston said.

"Racing needs champions, so I'd love to see him win. But this is the big test as it's the first time he's come up against the best of the rest so let's hope he can do it. It's early days yet, but if this horse can prove himself it will be what racing has been asking for."

Newmarket was a nothing place until Charles I ventured it would be the best venue to prepare his horses. His son, Charles II, ordered the construction of the course Celtic Swing will race on today, and he remains the only British monarch to have ridden a winner on the Flat.

However, their contribution to the sport's immediate history will not be as memorable as Celtic Swing's if the colt fulfils his promise.

"He deserves to be stuck up there on that pedestal, but he's up there to be shot at. We've been here so many times before and you can't rule out the fact that he might not be as good as people have made out," Johnston said.

But everyone hopes that Celtic Swing is, for this horse is the single most powerful weapon to popularise the sport. It is as if he is the Trojan horse wearing a sandwich board. Whether Celtic Swing, like the wooden beast, proves cruelly deceptive will become known at 3.45 this afternoon.

Racing, pages 42 and 43