First step to celestial heights for Galileo

The King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes, due to be run for the 51st time at Ascot on Saturday, is the big one. The Open golf, Wimbledon, an Ashes Test, the Tour de France. A midsummer all-comers' contest that has more often than not in its half-century of existence identified the horse of the year ⓠcertainly more regularly than the autumn championship pretender in France, the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. It is the occasion that produced a legitimate contender for the race of the century, a race that is certainly the one most people living would name as such, the epic struggle 26 years ago when Grundy beat Bustino.</p>Six days hence the 2001 running is scheduled, and with it comes the possibility of another seminal moment. The unbeaten three-year-old Galileo, consummately easy winner of Derbys at Epsom and the Curragh, will be entering the crucible of open-age competition for the first time. The colt has swept all before him in his five races, but before he can be mentioned in the same breath as Nijinsky or Shergar he must defeat the best of the older brigade over this classic mile and a half. If he can crush a horse like Fantastic Light, a battle-hardened five-year-old who has won 10 of his 22 races and produced a career-best effort last time out to capture the Prince of Wales's Stakes at the Royal meeting on this course with a tremendous burst of speed, we can acknowledge not just a very, very good horse, but a great one.</p>The sub-plots in this Group One head-to-head between the two great superpowers are of pride and revenge. Galileo, trained by Aidan O'Brien at Ballydoyle, runs for the Co Tipperary-based John Magnier-Michael Tabor axis at Coolmore Stud and Ballydoyle stables, Fantastic Light for Sheikh Mohammed's Newmarket- and Dubai-centred Godolphin operation.</p>This season the Irish have been in the ascendant, with eight Group One wins to Godolphin's four. The Godolphin team have the outstanding modern King George record, Saeed bin Suroor having saddled four of the last six winners: Lammtarra, Swain (twice) and Daylami. But Fantastic Light had to settle for second place last year behind Tabor and Magnier's breathtakingly easy winner Montjeu.</p>A double helping of humble pie is a possibility here, but it was the Godolphin colours which were the first to be planted in the Ascot turf this time round. "All the hype over this race aside," said their racing manager, Simon Crisford, "the facts are that Galileo is the undisputed best of the three-year-olds and Fantastic Light is the best of the older horses. We're up for the challenge, they've picked up the gauntlet. Game on." The increasing globalisation of racing, with large purses up for grabs, has encouraged the retention in training of horses beyond their three-year-old careers. Fantastic Light, who raced in five countries on three continents in taking last year's World Series (the £750,000 King George is the second leg), is a typical Sheikh Mohammed late developer, in the mould of durable idols like Singspiel, Swain and Daylami.</p>His task on Saturday, in a contest where the young generation get their most generous weight concession of the season, will be merely to rescue the campaign for his side and scupper the world title aspirations of the opposition. "By our standards it has not been a great year," said Crisford. "In the first part of the season, when the focus is on three-year-old racing, not having a Classic contender puts you out of the game. But this race is what Godolphin is all about, as our record might indicate. Our horse is in great shape and is a proven, durable contender, who has been on the circuit for four seasons, can take the rough with the smooth and is better this year than last. But whatever the result, racing will be the winner."</p>Both Galileo and Fantastic Light are superbly-bred products of serious investment in massive bloodstock business empires. And the search for the next generation of star runners and potential stallions went on as egos collided last week at the yearling auctions in Kentucky. Sheikh Mohammed spent some $16 million, Coolmore nearly $10m.</p>No one has yet identified the blueprint for a champion, embryonic or otherwise. Fantastic Light, bright bay with a distinctive crooked blaze, is a shade under 16 hands, nearly half a ton of rangy athleticism with a professional mind that has been, this year, absolutely up for it. Both his parents underachieved on the track considering their $2m apiece cost, but have made up for it at stud. Galileo, also bay, with an arrow-shaped mark on his face, is cast from a neater mould but with depth and power and a tremendous swagger to his walk and is, at home, a perfect gentleman. Both his sire and dam were exceptional performers.</p>Callow, brilliant youth or the hardy old pro? The age statistics are split down the middle: 25 three-year-old winners, 25 older horses. So is opinion on the Newmarket gallops. "Fantastic Light," said Henry Cecil. "He's proven, and improving. Perhaps Galileo is just much the best of an ordinary crop of three-year-olds." For Sean Woods, the Big G is the one. "They've put the gun to his head at the top level twice and he's hardly come off the bridle."</p>Galileo will start odds-on favourite: of 18 in that category, 12 have won, though the shortest of the lot, Santa Claus at 2-13, got beat.</p>Galileo would be the seventh dual Derby winner to triumph, after Nijinsky, Grundy, The Minstrel, Troy, Shergar and Generous. Fantastic Light would be the third horse to run second and then win, after Aureole and Pentire.</p>Sport rarely sticks to the script and, horses being horses, one of the big two might have an off-day, or lose a shoe, or get boxed in, and there will be at least half-a-dozen other high-class runners ⓠFrench Derby winner Anabaa Blue, for one ⓠready to stick their oars in. But anticipation is sweet, and the showdown will draw nearly 40,000 of the faithful to Berkshire. Crisford's opinion of the identity of the winner is right. </p>