close-up: Lammtarra; Bred to beat the best

Sue Montgomery celebrates the impeccable ancestry and painstaking preparation that combined to make a champion
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IT MAY seem illogical to those not privy to the mysteries of breeding racehorses, but the result of mating a top-class horse to a top-class mare is, more often than not, a dud. Lammtarra, winner of last Sunday's Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, is one of the glorious exceptions to the rule. And when he won the Derby in June, he became the first product of a Derby winner and an Oaks winner to take the premier Classic.

Despite that statistic, a breeder has more chance of producing a champion by putting the best to the best than the worst to the worst. Lammtarra was bred to be the champion he turned out to be.

Heredity, however, is only part of the making of an equine athlete. The other factor is environment, and the pattern of Lammtarra's short but dramatic life has ensured that he has had every advantage.

As a two-year-old last year, he had run only once, and won, when his trainer, Alex Scott, was murdered. Scott's death ensured that the horse was shipped to Dubai to join Sheikh Mohammed's innovative winter-in-the- sun Godolphin venture.

The unprecedented success of the Godolphin horses this season - Lammtarra's Arc was the stable's 10th European Group One win - led to raised eyebrows about the methods employed by the team that trains them. But if they are "giving them something" it is simply more individual high-level attention than any thoroughbred has ever enjoyed before. The Godolphin horses are an elite, hand-picked bunch and Sheikh Mohammed can afford state-of-the- art facilities and the best staff. His is a Formula One operation.

Attitude comes into the equation, too. The Godolphin policy has always been one of attack, pitching the horses in at the highest level,where others might have feared to tread. Lammtarra, having raced only once and making his seasonal debut, would not have tackled the Derby had he remained in England.

In the little chestnut colt Godolphin have had a willing partner in their ventures. Human athletes know all about the glory at the end of a race, but horses do not. They do only what they are asked, and Lammtarra's answers have been of the highest order. He showed tremendous fighting spirit when recovering from a life-threatening respiratory illness that delayed his start to this season, and he has demonstrated the same quality in his races.

He may have raced only three times this year, but he has belied his inexperience each time, digging deep to defeat more seasoned rivals. In the Arc, his generous response to Frankie Dettori's urgings - he took about 15 cracks of the whip in the final quarter-mile - and his determination to keep his head in front of Freedom Cry's brought a lump to the throat. Here was a top-class thoroughbred living up to his age-old genetic heritage in the most courageous way.

Afterwards, Dettori called him a lion of a horse. His devoted Pakistani handler, Malak, who proudly wears a jacket embroidered with his charge's name around the streets of Newmarket, speaks little English. But he has managed to learn the two words that mean most to him: "Lammtarra best".

The three-year-old's feat of winning the season's three top mile-and- a-half races - the Derby, the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes and the Arc - has prompted inevitable comparisons with great runners of the past, including his own sire, Nijinsky, who failed by a head at Longchamp to bring up the treble in 1970, and Mill Reef, who a year later became the first horse to achieve it.

The careers of Lammtarra and Mill Reef are in sharp contrast. Mill Reef was the second best of three outstanding two-year-olds to race in 1970 and was thoroughly tested, winning five of his six races between May and October. At three he repeated the numerical tally, beaten only by another top-notcher, Brigadier Gerard, in the 2,000 Guineas and taking the Eclipse Stakes between the Derby and the King George.

Lammtarra will not race at four, but Mill Reef did, showing brilliance in the Prix Ganay and dogged bravery in the Coronation Cup before a broken ankle ended his career as a runner. And his 12 wins over distances between five and 12 furlongs meant he achieved far more than has the latest idol, whose repertoire at the top has been strictly limited.

But, as Lammtarra's supporters point out, he can do no more than win. This season he has taken all that man and nature have thrown at him, and has come out on top. His immediate future lies in New York, where he will attempt to preserve his unbeaten record against the best of the Americans in the Breeders' Cup Turf, again over 12 furlongs, in 13 days' time.

After that, the breeding-shed beckons, and although he races most resolutely, he is perhaps beginning to show that he is ready for his new career. His sire, Nijinsky, got into a right state before his Arc, and though the people closest to him insist there is not a bad bone in his body, Lammtarra put up a mulish display last Sunday, refusing to join the parade, running backwards and whipping round, before consenting to go to post. It is a not uncommon trait of the descendants of Northern Dancer to fall out of love with racing sooner rather than later.

Luckily for the thoroughbred industry - a business built on dreams and the chance workings of genetics - no one has yet come up with an infallible formula for breeding success, and it is impossible to be dogmatic about the exact source of Lammtarra's talent. His sire, Nijinsky, was a runner of the highest class, but Lammtarra, in looks at least, is not his father's son. Nijinsky, himself untypical of the Northern Dancer breed, was a massive, handsome specimen; Lammtarra is small and unimposing, with the overshot "parrot mouth" often found in members of his distinguished paternal grandfather's family.

He is more like his mother, Snow Bride, another sparely made but tough chestnut. Her dam, Awaasif, was a big, handsome filly who was one of the first horses to carry Sheikh Mohammed's maroon- and-white-silks with distinction at the highest level. When Lammtarra retires to stud, it will be either to the Gainsborough, in Kentucky, where Snow Bride resides, or to Dalham Hall, in Newmarket.

However he is rated as a runner, he will have to start again from scratch as a stallion. With the pick of Maktoum mares at his disposal, he will be given every opportunity to succeed in his new career, but it is a sobering fact that only around 5 per cent of horses, no matter how brilliant on the track, make it as sires.

But all that is in the future. It is enough for the moment to celebrate the exploits - however brief - of a splendid thoroughbred who put his family's Arc record straight in such memorable style last Sunday. We can never know how he would fare against the champions of the past, but if they could have competed against him they would have known they had been in a race.