Racing: America finally waking up to Dettori's daring

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The Independent Online

Horses foul their stalls on Sundays too. On the back stretch yesterday, a pale dawn echoed to the usual clatter of buckets, hoses, brooms, pitchforks. Wayne Lukas was sitting on his pony, wearing an extravagant pair of frilly chaps, surveying his reduced army like a defiant general. But only a few horses were out on the track, a few projects - gawky youngsters, jogged round by outriders, and maybe the odd galloper, sneaking under the radar while the clockers were for once in bed, or in church.

Otherwise the sense of exhaustion was ubiquitous: the result of too much celebration, in a handful of privileged barns, but more commonly the result of too much hope, too much fear, too much hysteria, too much bourbon. This is also part of the 23rd Breeders' Cup: the 23rd morning after, the 23rd dawn that divides the ecstasy of the few from the deflation of the many.

There were no owners or racing managers swanking around, no huddles of microphones and notebooks. One stall was bleakly empty, a calamitous fall having claimed Pine Island in the Distaff. Over in Todd Pletcher's barn, they were wondering how their 17 starters could raise over $2m (£1.05m) without winning a race. After its communal binge, racing lay dazed and slumped in a doorway.

That is not to say that it had all been an illusion. True, neither Bernardini nor George Washington managed to end their careers with the flourish craved by their owners. But defeat in the Classic did not expose anything fraudulent in either of them.

Bernardini had never previously been required to spit on his hands and fight dirty, but showed admirable spirit in sustaining a premature move round the home turn. He had no answer to the late surge of Invasor, whose profile had suffered from the compelling symmetry between the others making up a vintage field: the schism between the owners of Bernardini and George Washington, the class war between Bernardini and Lava Man.

Yet Invasor himself had only been beaten once in his life - in Dubai by Godolphin's freak, Discreet Cat - and is clearly one of the best champions ever to emerge from South America. He was discovered in Uruguay by scouts who were merely seeking an endurance horse for Sheikh Hamdan, and showcased another Hispanic gem in his teenage rider, Fernando Jara.

As for George Washington, he leaves the stage with honour intact. Five horses beat him, but no way were there five better horses in the field. He travelled slickly over the dirt, and was poised to pounce leaving the back straight, only to run out of stamina going beyond a mile for the first time.

He now retreats to stud, where his genes will transmit brilliance and volatility in deliciously unpredictable measure. Though Aidan O'Brien has been vindicated in his belief that there was never anything sinister about him, the colt did bequeath some final alarms. For a few moments it seemed as though he would refuse the stalls, while he menaced an overcrowded parade ring with mayhem, a saddling box having been declined.

Ultimately, however, this proved the day when Eur-ope's original pin-up retrieved his status. While "Gorgeous George" had everyone drooling, Frankie Dettori spent much of the year in the wings. The Godolphin stable was stricken by sickness in the spring, and much of the admiration since has been reserved for his understudy, Kerrin McEvoy. It is commonly said that Dettori relies for his confidence on the fitful favour of trends beyond his control. On Saturday, however, he owed his fifth and sixth Breeders' Cup winners to the instinct and freedom of a rider in his pomp.

Admittedly all he had to do on Ouija Board was stay calm, so abundant was her superiority in the Filly and Mare Turf, but Red Rocks in the Turf was an authentic masterpiece. Dettori hid from a molten early pace, and then matched his daring with dynamism in the finish.

Brian Meehan has duly book-ended his first season at Manton with two of the most coveted prizes in the world. He started out at Nad al Sheba in March with David Junior, who goes to stud after finishing tailed off in the Classic. "Hats off to my team," the trainer said yesterday. "To travel two different horses, so far from home, at either end of the year, it's just amazing. This horse made the running for Rail Link in Paris in the summer, but when he's dropped out I think he's exceptional. But that took some guts from Frankie, to ride him like that. It showed why he's one of the best - one of the best of all time."

Ouija Board proceeds to Japan and Hong Cup before retirement, but Red Rocks will be rested before resuming in Dubai in the spring. The World Cup meeting also beckons Invasor, whose duel with Bernardini - owned by Hamdan's brother, Sheikh Mohammed - will have sharpened focus on attitudes here to the Maktoum family.

Certainly the decision to keep Invasor in training, maybe to square off with Discreet Cat in the World Cup, will be cited as evidence of their sportsmanship. Last week the national turf newspaper, Daily Racing Form, printed a remark-ably hostile article about "joyless" sheikhs trying to buy the charm out of the American game. After the Classic, Rick Nichols, manager of Hamdan's stud here, expressed the indignation felt by a team devoted to their patrons. "I've got people that work on that farm seven days a week and you have to run them off to make them take a vacation," he said.

Repentance and hope, after all, are abiding themes of the Breeders' Cup. The ghastly fate of Pine Island, for instance, will surely accelerate the spread of safer racing surfaces here. And maybe Street Sense, 10-length winner of the Juvenile, will have better luck in the Kentucky Derby than the previous 22. Who knows? In the circumstances, the Maktoums may even decide not to make an offer for him.

Chris McGrath

Nap: Exotic Dancer (Carlisle 1.45)

NB: Theatre Knight (Carlisle 2.55)

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