Racing: Charlton fine tunes Three Valleys for the Phoenix

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The Independent Online

The perceived heirarchy among the youngest generation will have its first examination at the top level at the Curragh on Sunday, when Three Valleys takes on the pick of the Irish in the Phoenix Stakes, the race that launches the Group One juvenile season in Europe. Of the 12 entries in the six-furlong contest, nine are from Ballydoyle, with Aidan O'Brien likely to rely primarily on One Cool Cat to give him a sixth successive victory after Spartacus 12 months ago, Johannesburg, Minardi, Fasliyev and Lavery.

Three Valleys, trained by Roger Charlton for Khaled Abdullah, has been ante-post favourite for next year's 2,000 Guineas since his eight-length romp in the Coventry Stakes. One Cool Cat, who took the Anglesey Stakes over Sunday's course and distance in July, is second market choice for the Classic after support this week.

When Three Valleys, a chestnut by Diesis, scored at Royal Ascot, he not only equalled Mill Reef's winning distance but also lowered the juvenile course record. Yet Charlton was not absolutely sure going into the race that he had a potential superstar on his hands.

"I knew he could go," he said yesterday, "and we sent him there to run well, not just for a day out. I even thought he might win, because it didn't look a particularly strong edition of the race, but it was still might. I never in my dreams thought he'd win like he did."

Charlton, now more bullish (and his prognosticatory skills were spot-on with Patavellian in Saturday's Royal Hunt Cup), considers that the colt has improved markedly, physically and mentally, in the past seven weeks. "In theory, all he has to do to win again is repeat his performance at Ascot, never mind any progress," he said. "Either it was a fluke or it wasn't. I don't think it was but we'll soon know."

Three Valleys, a February foal, always stood out as being a likely sort among last autumn's yearling intake at Beckhampton. "He is an attractive, athletic mover," Charlton said. "Movement is one of the first things that catches your eye. It's not an infallible guide, because nothing in this game is. But you look for easy movement, combined with temperament and constitution and then speed. The ones who seem to use least energy going from A to B are the ones you want."

The balance between maximising potential and risking burnout can be a fine line with two-year-olds, essentially just teenagers. "You don't always discover a horse's strengths immediately," said Charlton.

"I know some trainers have horses labelled early, though. I'm sure Fred Darling [the legendary incumbent at Beckhampton until 1947] would have known by February which were his Ascot and Goodwood two-year-olds and which his Derby horses. Aidan O'Brien can probably tell John Magnier the same.

"But I think that you can do damage by pigeonholing, though if you've got enough soldiers in your army you can probably be a little more aggressive. And with training two-year-olds there are other factors.

"If the three-year-olds aren't much good then perhaps you have to put more pressure than ideal on the two-year-olds, which may well win but won't last as long. And nowadays the people who are rewarded with the most horses to train are often those who produce two-year-olds, because people want to win quickly."

Charlton treats each youngster according to circumstances. "We tend to be patient. But some you can get on with, like a little filly we have, Tentative. She's strong, tough and sound and won't be in training next year so we can do it, and she's already won three."

The clash of the top two-year-olds in the Phoenix Stakes shares the spotlight on Sunday with the likely seasonal reappearance of last year's Derby winner High Chaparral. O'Brien's charge is among 17 declarations for the 10-furlong Royal Whip.