Glorious Goodwood: Araafa comes of age with downhill racers

Scenic amphitheatre offers a garden-party atmosphere but serious racing as well
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The Independent Online

What is certainly Britain's, and arguably the world's, most glorious setting for a race meeting is now into its third century as a venue. And as they did in 1802, when Pantagruel won the first race (a three-heat contest over six miles in total) held on the third Duke of Richmond's estate atop the Sussex Downs, the English Channel still shimmers silver to the south and ripe, rolling cornfields still glitter gold to the north. Goodwood did not earn its alliterative epithet for nothing.

For the purist, Royal Ascot and York's Ebor meeting may have more strength in depth. But for the tens of thousands who make the Panama-wearing pilgrimage to the five-day garden party on the hill, there is nowhere to match Goodwood at this time of year.

Even failing to back a winner owns a certain charm, for in an environment so magnificent it perhaps matters less who wins or loses as where the game is played. Which may be just as well, for there is no other top-flight course that produces so many genuine hard-luck stories in running. "Idiosyncratic" is possibly a kind word to describe the oddly shaped track, which combines twists, turns, banking, changes of direction and gradients up and down to form something of an equine rollercoaster. It is not only at the flying club on the Goodwood estate that the loop is looped. For the horses, from the massed-rank sprinters who will appear over the rise at the end of the straight and thunder downhill in the Stewards' Cup to the Goodwood Cup marathon specialists who must be able to skip from lead to lead like Astaire, athleticism and balance are at a premium.

Some seem actively to love the downland experience, others loathe it. Undoubtedly it is an essential part of the famed variety of racing in this country, as far removed as can be from the samey left-handed ovals of, say, the States, and a fine spectacle. But for the jockeys whose place of work it is, it provides a challenge, and not always a welcome one. Kieren Fallon, despite being the leading rider at the Glorious fixture four times, has described it as the toughest meeting of the year.

Alan Munro, who has extensive experience abroad, said: "One great attraction here is the variety of choice. There is such a thing as horses for courses, and it's brilliant for trainers and owners to be able to exploit that.

"But for a rider, Goodwood can be a trap. It's a course where you need luck, more than anywhere else. Every race, over whatever distance, is unique, with a different pattern to it and no set formula. Getting into trouble can, of course, happen in any race on any track, but this one is definitely tricky to ride and, depending on how the race unfolds, it can work against you."

It has been well-documented that Munro, 39, has rebuilt his career after a self-imposed four-year absence. Successful in the Far East before his sabbatical, he returned to the British fold last year and is on schedule to top his comeback season's winners' tally. And even if he did not particularly miss tackling Goodwood's precipitous top bend while in foreign parts, the spotlight will be firmly on him this week as the rider of Araafa, the favourite, in the meeting's feature, the Sussex Stakes.

Araafa, trained by Jeremy Noseda in Newmarket, is the colt that has brought back the Group One glory days that Munro enjoyed with Generous and other Paul Cole stars first time round. After finishing fourth in the 2,000 Guineas, the son of Mull Of Kintyre turned the tables on his Rowley Mile conqueror, George Washington, in the Irish version of the Classic and then produced a stunning performance to take the St James's Palace Stakes at Royal Ascot.

Since then, the three-year-old's homework has been of a high order, and on Wednesday he tackles older horses for the first time in the first all-aged pitstop on the élite European miling circuit. Victory would surely entitle him to slap the gauntlet down in front of George Washington, absent since his Curragh defeat but still rated the better of the pair. "Araafa is a proper horse," said Munro. "When I rode him in a racecourse gallop last week, it was as good as it gets. He is going to be hard to beat on the day. Provided, of course, he gets the luck in running."

But then good fortune has attended Munro lately. In the Goodwood Cup he will team up with his other favourite horse, the redoubtable Sergeant Cecil. He will have good rides, too, for Peter Chapple-Hyam.

"For all its trickiness, this is a fantastic meeting to be involved with, one of the big festivals," he said. "I'm riding good horses for good trainers, good friends. Yes, I see myself as lucky."