Perfection the aim as Japanese tackle Montjeu

Colts with a Classic success to their name, not to mention a narrow second-place in the Derby, do not normally fall into the "dark horse" category. Punters studying the odds for the King George at Ascot on Saturday are faced with just such an intriguing proposition, however, in the shape of Air Shakur, one of the leading three-year-olds in Japan, who could just as easily be the best horse in the race as he could the worst, or anything in between. No one knows, and that sort of uncertainty tends to make everyone a little nervous.

Colts with a Classic success to their name, not to mention a narrow second-place in the Derby, do not normally fall into the "dark horse" category. Punters studying the odds for the King George at Ascot on Saturday are faced with just such an intriguing proposition, however, in the shape of Air Shakur, one of the leading three-year-olds in Japan, who could just as easily be the best horse in the race as he could the worst, or anything in between. No one knows, and that sort of uncertainty tends to make everyone a little nervous.

He does, of course, have form in the book, and impressive form too, by his own domestic standards. Air Shakur has finished either first or second in six of his seven races, a fifth place on his racecourse debut being the only exception, and his last two outing have both been in Classics. First, he won the Japanese 2,000 Guineas at Nakayama - which is run over 10 furlongs, rather than the European norm of a mile - by a neck. Next, he was edged out by Agnes Flight in a desperate finish to the Japanese Derby, over 12 furlongs in front of 161,000 spectators in Tokyo. With exemplary Japanese precision, Air Shakur's margin of defeat was recorded as seven centimetres.

But what does it all mean in the context of European form, and in particular that of Montjeu, last year's Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe winner, and the hot favourite for Saturday's race at a best price of 8-11? Only Saturday's race will tell, but it is worth recalling that Montjeu was only fourth to the locally-trained Special Week in the Japan Cup and that the only horse who has forced him to work in recent European outings was Japan's El Condor Pasa, in the Arc. So we can say, at the very least, that the best Japanese middle-distance form is likely to be within a pound or two of the best of our own.

Merely getting close, however, will not be enough for the connections of Air Shakur. "We need to win," Masfumi Matsuda, assistant to the colt's trainer, Hideyuki Mori, said yesterday. "If we are second, fifth or seventh, it's all the same. We need to win." The reason why nothing but victory will satisfy him is that Air Shakur is running as much with a view to increasing his stud value in Japan as he is to claim a share of the £750,000 purse.

"In Japan there is much better money when horses win," Matsuda said. "We want the money, of course, but we don't need it. But if Air Shakur were to win in England, then when he becomes a stallion, he'll be worth much more."

Air Shakur has settled in well in Newmarket, where he is lodging at Geoff Wragg's yard, and he will have a light final gallop today. He may also find the surroundings at Ascot more to his liking than the cauldron of Tokyo racecourse. "Before the Derby he was very nervous," Matsuda said. "There were a lot of people, making a lot of noise, and he didn't relax. Now, he's very relaxed. He likes it here, and I'm not worried that he will get nervous on Saturday. English people know about manners, so I'm not worried."

Air Shakur has not gone unbacked in the ante-post market, and is as short as 10-1 (Coral) for Saturday's race, although the Tote offer 16-1. The only horse to attract money yesterday, however, was Daliapour, the Coronation Cup winner, who is 9-2 from 5-1 with Ladbrokes, although backers of Montjeu will be pleased to hear that Mick Kinane, his regular jockey, is expected to return from a niggling back injury at Naas today, and should therefore be fit to partner Montjeu on Saturday.

Beat All, a stable companion of Daliapour at Sir Michael Stoute's yard, is an outsider at 25-1, but will at least be partnered by a capable jockey following the booking yesterday of Kevin Darley. Beat All was third in last year's Derby, but was beaten a short-head by Endless Hall at Ayr last time, despite receiving 7lb from the winner.

"I thought it was a good run in Scotland," Joe Mercer, racing manager to the colt's owner, Saeed Suhail, said yesterday. "We were a little disappointed he didn't win but everyone may have underestimated the winner. We are hoping for a good run in the King George, he's improving all the time and will be a better horse in the autumn."

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