Montjeu still has to win over the world

As Sheikh Mohammed walked away from the winner's enclosure at Ascot on Saturday, the ducklings of his entourage in his wake, he professed indifference to the spectacle that had been played out before him.

As Sheikh Mohammed walked away from the winner's enclosure at Ascot on Saturday, the ducklings of his entourage in his wake, he professed indifference to the spectacle that had been played out before him.

"Montjeu is a good horse," he said, "but Dubai Millennium is special. Good horses come along every year but we might not see another special horse for another 20 years."

It was a perspective, but not one shared by everyone at Ascot who had seen Montjeu humiliate his rivals in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes. It looked a special display from a special horse, but Montjeu's legend is destined to be sung only in a small corner of the racing world.

In Europe, he may be half a king and that is as far as it will go. The match with Dubai Millennium will not happen. The Godolphin horse will run next at Deauville, in the Prix Jacques le Marois, then the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes back at Ascot, before his defining tilt at greatness in the Breeders' Cup Classic in the fall.

Montjeu's task list includes the Irish Champion Stakes at Leopardstown and the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, and he too may run in Kentucky, though his challenge is likely to be in the Breeders' Cup Turf.

But when the cameras mass at Churchill Downs they will be poked at the Arab horse no matter what Montjeu does in the interim. "We heard about Montjeu and how he pulled clear easy but that doesn't mean much to people over here," Steve Haskin, the noted American commentator, said yesterday. "We always prefer horses that do the distances between themselves and the rest and what Dubai Millennium has done counts.

"He's a dirt horse as well, which is the main thing. There has never been so much excitement about a European horse coming to America as there is about him and that includes Arazi after he won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

"Montjeu will get respect but he won't get as much attention."

Despite the matchmaking taking place, it is demonstrably unfair to compare the majestic horses of Europe of the year 2000. Like Mill Reef and Brigadier Gerard in 1971, the latter day duo are champions in their respective fields. Dubai Millennium would almost certainly beat Montjeu over a mile and the positions would be reversed over a mile and a half. Ten furlongs would certainly be a bloody battle.

That prospect should not distract from what Montjeu achieved on Saturday. He looked magnificent and performed similarly.

The French colt was not the most exotic figure in Ascot's paddock. That honour belonged to Japan's Air Shakur, who emerged for play wearing four pink socks and a vivid blue nose-band. His jockey, Yutaka Take, was in a yellow and blue outfit topped off with a bow tie. It was all rather psychedelic. Connections recognised the significance of this noble race in this English setting and took photographs of each other against the Berkshire backdrop to show the folks back home.

Team Montjeu was less animated. Trainer John Hammond, owner Michael Tabor and jockey Michael Kinane smiled and shook hands as if they were meeting for the first time. Their body language suggested there was nothing to worry about. They got it right.

Montjeu freewheeled for most of the race as the contest was set up to mirror the race of the century 25 years ago when Bustino tried to bleed the essence out of Grundy. Highest and Kinglet performed the pacemaking duties that afternoon and on Saturday it was down to Raypour to run his guts out. He accomplished that and Daliapour then did his best to extract the fibre out of Montjeu. It was a fruitless effort.

Montjeu was never taken out of cruise-control by Kinane, who was shocked by the ease of his win. "All I had to do was keep a leg each side," he said.

John Reid, who was on the runner-up, Fantastic Light, was also impressed. "My horse ran a perfect race and would have won most King Georges," he said. "But Montjeu came past me on the bit. He was awesome, a monster, but even so you couldn't say that he would definitely beat Dubai Millennium. That would be the race of the century."

If we have to miss a meeting between the latter-day counterparts of Grundy and Bustino then there may be a blessing in the staggering entertainment which will flow before they retire at the end of the season.

Even the nostalgia bores may have to concede that the vintage year they have told us would never be repeated has finally arrived. Whatever Sheikh Mohammed says, Montjeu is far better than a good horse, even if the sheikh admits no fear of the tall athlete. "I am not frightened by him," he said. "I have confidence in my horse."

Montjeu was reported in good order yesterday following his wander in the park. "He stayed at Ascot last night and will be on the plane this morning and back with us soon," Hammond's wife, Georgina, said.

"You don't expect them to go past horses who are Group horses in their own right as though they were standing still. He didn't have to put any effort in. It was like an exercise canter for him. He's a very, very special horse."

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