Breeders' Cup: Ali of the track

George Washington is not just a brilliant racehorse, he is one of the most charismatic and highly-strung thoroughbreds ever to set foot on a racecourse. As he prepares for his greatest challenge at the Breeders' Cup in Kentucky, Chris McGrath profiles a horse with speed and attitude to burn
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The Independent Online

How fitting that two such heavyweights should match up here, in the city that gave us Muhammad Ali. George Washington may bear the name of one American icon, but he is suffused with the character of another - outrageous as he is, this melodramatic champion, this narcissist, this braggart among racehorses. Like Ali, he's so good, he's very nearly as good as he thinks he is.

For all his American resonance, he arrives at Churchill Downs, Kentucky, as the outsider. He has come from Ireland with the impudent intention of giving the most feared thoroughbred in this land a bloody nose. By Saturday, the tough precincts that yielded the Louisville Lip will probably be calling George Washington the Tipperary Tip. But they will still be billing the American phenomenon, Bernardini, as the blistering, searing sun to his Icarus. Locally, their showdown is considered but a coronation, a lap of honour. And even the Europeans are abandoning their champion, who can be backed at 10-1 with the bookmakers for the final race of his career.

Ali once said: "When you can whip any man in the world, you never know peace." And certainly his owners have honoured George Washington's way of doing things - his restless, volatile way - in their choice of target at the 23rd Breeders' Cup. Kept to a familiar distance and surface, he would have been odds-on favourite for the Mile. Instead, he switches from grass to dirt for the Classic, over a distance likely to exhaust his stamina even if he does happen to handle the deep sand, tugging at his feet and spraying his face.

But he runs in the colours of John Magnier, whose commercial flair with horses has built an empire that mocks the clumsiness of the other bloodstock superpower, the Maktoum family. There is a decided antipathy between the two camps. As luck should have it, Bernardini himself is owned by Sheikh Mohammed. Depend upon it, Magnier will only have taken such an audacious gamble, with such a precious horse, for a good reason.

Well, as with everything Magnier does, there are sound, pragmatic foundations to what some are naïvely treating as his folly. George Washington would scarcely add a cent to his value as a stallion by winning the Mile. He would merely confirm his exceptional gifts in a regular environment. If he beats Bernardini in the Classic, however, he can stay in Kentucky and name his price. And he has nothing to lose. With his unadulterated turf pedigree, he would be forgiven failure in a heartbeat, even if tailed off, coasting home with his jockey standing up in surrender.

Perhaps, moreover, even Magnier has deferred to the exotic quality in George Washington, the sense that he is immune to everyday limitations. Racing discovers fresh champions every year. But unquestionably this one has taken everyone somewhere rather different.

"We've never had a horse like this at Ballydoyle," says his trainer, Aidan O'Brien, without a trace of compunction about the many different stars he has previously trained for the Coolmore partners: Derby winners, champion sprinters, the lot. "It didn't arrive over time, either, he's always been different. All the good horses we have had here, none of them would match his pace.

"You could see it months before he ever ran, from the first time he ever went on the gallops. I remember John Magnier was in the jeep with me and he said. 'He's a jet!' It's hard to believe when a horse is so much better. You never see horses travel with such ease, as though he's only doing a hack canter in a Group One race. And because he has been that way all his life, he has developed an ego. He's like those good boxers. George has the gene that makes him extra special, the gene very few horses have. He has the whole package, but the one thing he has is that he's super-intelligent. From the first, you could see the movement and the presence in him, the difference in him."

As a rule, it is unwise to indulge in anthropomorphism with racehorses. It is difficult for outsiders to grasp their individual character, dumb and docile as they are. Certainly, horses gain definition from their physical splendour - and George Washington has always been a gorgeous specimen, indeed he was the most expensive European yearling of his generation - or from their courage in a battle. But only rarely do you find one that can reveal exactly who he is, and what makes him a champion.

George Washington is such a horse. He transcends the mute toil of his breed with a vivid, lucid intensity. He has prompted O'Brien to abandon the hesitant formulae he has always tended to use after winning the Turf's great prizes. Instead, O'Brien has given fans an elaborate education in this colt's singular relationship with the world around him, and the arrogance that stimulates him against other horses.

When George Washington won the 2,000 Guineas at Newmarket in the spring, thrashing the subsequent Derby winner by four lengths, he embroidered his brutal athletic superiority with a bizarre exhibition of egotism. He made O'Brien chase him round the pre-parade ring with his saddle. He pinned his ears back resentfully and swayed across the track when Kieren Fallon had the temerity to use his whip in the race. And he retained enough energy afterwards to refuse, point blank, to enter the winner's enclosure.

The cynics were quick to predict that George Washington would be hastened into retirement before he could do any more damage to his reputation. The horse was plainly off his rocker, and the seething atmosphere at Royal Ascot or, most laughably of all, the Breeders' Cup, would reduce him to a gibbering, foaming pariah. But O'Brien promised that he would mature, comparing him to a gifted but sullen teenager.

"Sometimes he doesn't see your point of view," he said. "But after a while, I think he will. He is like a spoilt child. You would love to give him a clip on the ear, but you can't do that as he would resent it.

"He doesn't believe any horse or any human being should tell him what to do. We never had a colt that had such a domineering instinct. In the barn he can intimidate other horses just by looking at them. Other horses get out of his way. If he was in the wild he would run to the front and then he'd pull up."

George Washington spent midsummer nursing torn muscles in his hip, and when he was beaten on his comeback at Goodwood it did seem possible that the embers might never be stoked back into life. But again O'Brien offered a passionate, articulate insight into the colt's evolution, body and soul. And by the time he won the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Ascot in September, George Washington had shed all his temper. The wildness was still there, the edge of danger, but it was channelled exclusively into his race.

"Everyone saw those signs of mental immaturity," O'Brien said. "It's human nature to be critical, and this horse has been open to a lot of stick. But it is because he is so brilliant that all those traits come with it. We had a lot to lose. It is a very fickle game, people can go off horses very quick."

O'Brien's part in the apotheosis of this colt is perhaps the greatest masterpiece of his own extraordinary career. Whatever happens on Saturday, the decision to go for the Classic is a fitting, transfixing climax to an unforgettable adventure. The many sophists of the Turf love to lament the commercial priorities of owners, claiming that they always go for the soft, flattering option. Here, they must acknowledge, is proof that greed can sometimes spur a general good.

"Obviously we're going into it at a big disadvantage," O'Brien conceded. "But we want to see how far we can push him. We know what he can do over a mile on grass. He's done all that. We just want to explore a little more. It's a challenge, and the odds are against us. But it'll be exciting for everyone to see what will happen."

Is it any less possible for a mere thoroughbred to be flavoured by genius, than for a boxer? Certainly, a horse can reflect the genius of men, in responding to a trainer or jockey. But what of his own intuitions, relative to those of the herd? A futile query, no doubt. Yet it is the sort of thing you find yourself wondering when confronted by such a strange, feral talent.

"He has an air of invincibility about him," O'Brien said once. "And of course sometimes that can get you into trouble." On Saturday, the hubris of George Washington tempts him to the final brink. Whatever happens, it is magnificent stuff at the box office. Again, as Ali said himself: "He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life."

Washington's career moves

1 May 2005, Newmarket

George Washington has first sight of a racecourse but is beaten by immaturity and is only third in a modest maiden race

22 May 2005, Curragh

Off the mark with ease. Follows up a month later in higher grade

7 August 2005, Curragh

Phenomenal eight-length win puts him top of Guineas betting

6 May 2006, Newmarket

Wins 2,000 Guineas in style of an outstanding champion

27 May 2006, Curragh

Beaten by Araafa and the heavy ground in Irish 2,000 Guineas

27 August 2006, Goodwood

Satisfactory return in third after three months out with injury

23 September 2006, Ascot

Revenge over Araafa in QEII Stakes to trounce classy field

Top Breeders and dirt trackers: Europe's Stateside successes and failures

Dancing Brave Breeders' Cup Classic (Dirt), Santa Anita 1986

Fresh from his dramatic victory in a Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe rated one of the greatest of the 20th century, the colt failed to cope with the journey to America, the heat, and above all the dirt as he trailed in fourth behind Manila.

Dayjur Breeders' Cup Sprint (Dirt), Belmont Park 1990

Europe's outstanding sprinter, ridden by Willie Carson, did everything right - except win. With the race in his pocket he spooked at the shadow of the winning post, jumped it but lost sufficient momentum to hand the race to Safely Kept.

Galileo Breeders' Cup Classic (Dirt), Belmont Park 2001

Trained by Aidan O'Brien for John Magnier, ridden by Mick Kinane, trying dirt for the first time. Just like George Washington - but the portents are not good. Galileo didn't like the surface and came only sixth.

Pebbles Breeders' Cup Turf (Turf), Belmont Park 1985

Forever the queen of fillies after becoming the first from Britain to triumph over the Americans in their own backyard.

Giant's Causeway Breeders' Cup Classic (Dirt), Churchill Downs 2000

Trained by O'Brien for Magnier, and ridden by Kinane, but the difference between Giant's Causeway and other Ballydoyle inmates is that he was bred to excel on dirt. The 'Iron Horse' did just that, only to be beaten by a neck by Tiznow.

Arazi Breeders' Cup Juvenile (Dirt), Churchill Downs 1991

Has there ever been a more dramatic winner of a Flat race? Arazi zig-zagged from the back of the field with phenomenal adeptness and speed to stun the locals. Sadly, that performance was a one-off and the French horse never looked so good again.