Iron horsestands on verge of greatness

Giant's Causeway is one victory away from setting a remarkable record
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Giant's Causeway, a phenomenon of the new racing century, is just three days away from an extraordinary European record. On Saturday at Ascot this powerfully-built chestnut three-year-old will attempt to become the first horse to win six Group One races in a row in a season. Ten days ago he notched number five, a unique achievement itself; now all that stands between him and immortality is the green mile of the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes.

Giant's Causeway, a phenomenon of the new racing century, is just three days away from an extraordinary European record. On Saturday at Ascot this powerfully-built chestnut three-year-old will attempt to become the first horse to win six Group One races in a row in a season. Ten days ago he notched number five, a unique achievement itself; now all that stands between him and immortality is the green mile of the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes.

Since the Pattern system of grading élite races was introduced in 1971 only Mill Reef, the superb middle-distance champion, has won six at the top level in succession, but his were spread over two years: the Derby, Eclipse Stakes, King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes and Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe at three and the Prix Ganay and Coronation Cup at four. Before Giant's Causeway, only the mare Triptych had won five, though not on the trot, in the same season.

Giant's Causeway's sequence began three months ago today in the St James's Palace Stakes. That was his last venture against his own age-group; since then the colt, trained by Aidan O'Brien at Ballydoyle in Co Tipperary, has repelled all comers in the Eclipse Stakes, the Sussex Stakes, the International Stakes at York and the Irish Champion Stakes at Leopardstown. In the face of a variety of tactics, he has put his head down and implacably shrugged his rivals aside. He stands as fast against their attacks as the rock formation after which he is named does against the sea.

The "Iron Horse" has become his soubriquet and it is not inappropriate, for he owes his talent to his engine, powerful but invisible. He does not have the mighty 25-foot stride of a Secretariat at his disposal. But what he does possess is an extraordinary aerobic capacity. When it comes down to it, the performance of any athlete will be limited by his or her oxygen intake; as soon as fuel is in short supply to the muscles, running begins to hurt. Humans understand this and can rationalise the need to push themselves through the pain barrier and on to glory. But horses have no comprehension of competition in our terms and it is a rare one who will go beyond the wall more than once or twice.

The fact that Giant's Causeway keeps bouncing back from apparently tough battles and close finishes - his five top-level wins have come by a head, a head, three-quarters of a length, a head, and half a length - is perhaps an indication that he is not actually finding it all as difficult as those who anthropomorphise about courage would like to believe.

There is no doubt that Giant's Causeway has, for a horse, a highly-developed competitive instinct and is willing to join battle when Michael Kinane asks him. But the bottom line is that he is better than the opposition and so far has found the reserves to deal with them without painful effort.

His trainer Aidan O'Brien confirms that the colt's winning streak is more to do with physiology than psychology. The chestnut stands 16.1 hands, bigger than your average thoroughbred but not a giant. He has, however, exceptional depth through his chest, allowing room for a piston-pumping heart and lungs like forge bellows. And he has a wide, clear airway to get oxygen down to the engine room at the rate of a breath every stride. "He is most unusual with his breathing," O'Brien said yesterday. "This is a horse who just doesn't blow. His nostrils never flare like other horses, there is never a noise from him, he doesn't make a sound. It's in the lungs and its the same thing as we noticed in Istabraq. They are both the most clean-winded of horses."

Giant's Causeway has put on weight and muscle since the spring and is, according to O'Brien, still doing so, another indication that his physical capabilities remain unbottomed. He is not a horse to overdo himself at home, but neither does he have to be nagged. "He does what he is asked," said O'Brien. Mind you, the brilliant young Irishman has admitted that he asked a little too much in preparing for the 2,000 Guineas earlier in the season and once that pressure was removed the chestnut came into his own. "He swelled up in a week," he said.

Some horses will cave in mentally in the face of constant demands but this one seems to have been blessed with a laid-back mind as well as his other attributes. "He takes everything in his stride," said O'Brien, "and so long as he does, you can keep asking."

Winning a lot of Group One races is not always an indication of quality. Like pigs, some Group Ones are more equal than others; races in Britain, France and Ireland generally carry more status than those in Italy and Germany. Giant's Causeway's wins have been in the best and he is very, very good, but he is not yet, in the cold light of ratings, a champion. Not one of his efforts so far has been that of a megastar.

But he is a superstar. He excites an old lag like Kinane for his athletic ability and generosity, he excites us who watch him. The modern trend is, happily, for top Flat horses to become old friends: Singspiel, Pilsudski, Bosra Sham, Daylami, Montjeu. If Giant's Causeway wins on Saturday, he will be off to Kentucky to carry the European flag at the Breeders' Cup. Let us celebrate him while we can.

THE TEN COMBATANTS: THE HORSES WHICH HAVE WON SEVEN OR MORE GROUP ONE RACES

MIESQUE

A champion in each of her three seasons, the top miler on two continents and the first to double up in a Breeders' Cup race.

Group One wins (10): 1986: Prix de la Salamandre, Prix Marcel Boussac. 1987: 1,000 Guineas, Poule d'Essai des Pouliches, Prix Jacques le Marois, Prix du Moulin, Breeders' Cup Mile. 1988: Prix d'Ispahan, Prix Jacques le Marois, Breeders' Cup Mile.

TRIPTYCH

Iron mare with mercurial temperament. Towards the end she had to be kidded to do her best, but still holds the European Group One record.

Group One wins (nine): 1984: Prix Marcel Boussac. 1985: Irish 2,000 Guineas. 1986: Champion Stakes. 1987: Prix Ganay, Coronation Cup, International Stakes, Irish Champion Stakes, Champion Stakes. 1988: Coronation Cup.

DAHLIA

One of the first of the élite globetrotters and only mare to win two King Georges.

Group One wins (nine): 1973: Prix Saint-Alary, Irish Oaks, King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes, Washington International. 1974: Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud, King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes, Benson & Hedges Gold Cup (now International Stakes), Man O'War Stakes. 1975: Benson & Hedges Gold Cup.

ALLEZ FRANCE

Big, masculine and powerful, she was the best filly ever trained in France. She was a contemporary of Dahlia and beat her five times.

Group One wins (eight): 1972: Criterium des Pouliches. 1973: Poule d'Essai des Pouliches, Prix Diane, Prix Vermeille. 1974: Prix Ganay, Prix d'Ispahan, Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. 1975: Prix Ganay.

MONDRIAN

All of his Group One victories came in his native Germany, where racing is less competitive and frankly he could not be rated within a stone of the best.

Group One wins (seven): 1989: Deutches Derby, Grosser Preis der Berliner Bank, Aral-Pokal, Grosser Preis von Baden. 1990: Aral-Pokal, Grosser Preis von Baden, Europa-Preis.

DAYLAMI

Brilliant grey who ended the racing century on a high note with his flashing successes at Ascot, Leopardstown and in Florida.

Group One wins (seven): 1997: Poule d'Essai des Poulains. 1998: Eclipse Stakes, Man O'War Stakes. 1999: Coronation Cup, King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes, Irish Champion Stakes, Breeders' Cup Turf.

ACATENANGO

Easily the best of his era in Germany and proved well up to standard elsewhere. Finished seventh in Dancing Brave's Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe in 1986.

Group One wins (seven): 1985: Deutches Derby, Aral-Pokal. 1986: Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud, Grosser-Preis von Berlin, Aral-Pokal, Grosser-Preis von Baden. 1987: Grosser-Preis von Baden.

IRISH RIVER

Top-class two-year-old and three-year-old miler in France. But not quite as good as Kris, his contemporary, who dominated mile races in Britain in 1979 and 1980.

Group One wins (seven): 1978: Prix Morny, Prix de la Salamandre, Grand Criterium. 1979: Poule d'Essai des Poulains, Prix d'Ispahan, Prix Jacques le Marois, Prix du Moulin.

SIKESTON

Virtually unbeatable among Italy's soft pickings, but only a Group Two horse elsewhere. Won a Queen Anne Stakes.

Group One wins (seven): 1988: Gran Criterium. 1989: Premio Parioli. 1990: Premio Vittorio di Capua. 1991: Premio Vittorio di Capua, Premio Presidente della Repubblica, Premio Roma. 1992: Premio Presidente della Repubblica,

LANDO

A doughty campaigner, who set a European earnings record when he became the first ever German winner of the Japan Cup in 1995.

Group One wins (seven): 1993: Deutches Derby, GP von Baden. 1994: GP von Baden, GP del Jockey Club. 1995: GP di Milano, Preis der Privatbankiers, Japan Cup.

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