Cumani colt cuts in on Ashkalani's big day

Richard Edmondson on an historic weekend ahead for the Aga Khan
Click to follow
Visitors to Ascot on Saturday may be treated to the notable sight of witnessing the Aga Khan's first winner in British after a five-year exile. While victory for his Ashkalani in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes would dominate the afternoon's attention, the course televisions could show a symbolically more significant performance 25 minutes later in the comparatively prosaic Knutsford Maiden Stakes at Haydock.

Whatever Mandilak achieves in his racing career, his name is destined to be immortalised in sports quizzes for years to come as he transports the much-missed green and red colours up the straight at Newton-le- Willows. The colt, who has an alternative engagement at Ascot on Sunday, will be the Aga Khan's first British-trained runner since he withdrew his horses from here over the disqualification of Aliysa from the 1989 Oaks.

The intervening five years have been hurtful to those who are sustained by watching good horses, but the removal was more immediately devastating to the owner's principal trainers in Britain, Michael Stoute and Luca Cumani. Stoute still has none of the Aga Khan's horses, but Cumani, who trains Mandilak, is in possession of 12 juveniles and opens a new era this weekend.

When 40 of the Aga Khan's well-bred beasts disappeared from Cumani's Bedford House yard at the beginning of the decade it was a fearsome blow as he recovered from the effects of the recession and exodus of American owners from his stable. "So it was great news for the yard when it was announced about this time last year that the Aga Khan was coming back," the Italian said yesterday.

Cumani believes the Aga's return is beneficial, not just for him personally but also confers prestige on the whole of the sport in this nation. "If you believe that British racing should be seen as the No 1 in the world, it's very important that the Aga Khan should race his horses here," the trainer said. "We need to have the best horses and the best owners here.

"If everyone believes the best horses in the world are here, they will come to watch the highest standard and come to buy the highest standard.''

Cumani is unsure as yet of the precise standard of the fresh intake. As ever, the batch of Aga Khan horses is not bred to supply a battery of juvenile flying machines. "We knew all along that what we got would not be sharp two-year-olds but horses more likely to excel at three and now we're just getting ready to run a few of them," Cumani said. "There are a handful of promising ones among them but we will have to see how they develop with their races this year and throughout the winter.''

The Aga Khan has in fact had only five runners since his re- entry to the British arena, but all have been sent into play with outstanding chances. It is ironic that Timarida, who has won in France, Germany, Canada, the United States and Ireland, where she is trained, should use the forum of Royal Ascot's Queen Anne Stakes to turn in the worst display of her career.

Similarly, Ashkalani has been beaten only once in his life, but that was on his sole venture to these shores, also at Royal Ascot, in the St James's Palace Stakes.

Ashkalani is well fancied to make repair on Saturday, not least because he is considered among the best horses ever reared by his owner-breeder. The colt is trained on the outskirts of Paris, at the private complex of Aiglemont, by Alain de Royer-Dupre, who may have wished for a first winner in Britain when he blew out the 52 candles on his birthday cake yesterday.

Ashkalani, who was shortened to 3-1 (from 7-2) by William Hill yesterday, did his final piece of serious work on Les Aigles earlier this week and will transport with him heaps of confidence when he travels to Berkshire. He will not, however, be accompanied by his owner, who has an engagement in Pakistan this weekend. The Aga Khan will have to keep in contact by telephone to discover his fate at the Festival of British Racing and, of course, Newton-le-Willows.

QUEEN ELIZABETH II STAKES: Hills odds: 9-4 Bosra Sham, 5-2 Mark Of Esteem, 3-1 Ashkalani, 7-1 (with a run) Shake The Yoke, 8-1 Bijou d'Inde & First Island, 12-1 Charnwood Forest, 25-1 Soviet Line, 33-1 Matiya.