Racing: Connections' confidence justified by a true champion

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The Independent Online

Here was the picture; leaden skies, the threat of heavy rain and the persistent theory that the present crop of three-year-olds had somewhat less quality than others of the recent past.

Alamshar seemed to fit the picture perfectly. Suspicion that the Irish Derby winner might not be able to handle going officially pronounced on the good side of soft after Friday's downpour had such a negative influence, that from being 5-2 favourite he entered the parade ring as a 13-2 chance, capturing little of the assembled audience's attention.

Alamshar is not physically imposing, and by then most eyes were on the five-year-old Nayef who is shortest on the boards, although it was generally felt that conditions underfoot would test all the leading contenders. "Nayef looks up to it," a large man said to his dazzlingly turned out female companion, who was herself struggling to handle the going on heels that could hardly be described as sensible.

In the group watching Alamshar during the preliminaries his trainer John Oxx, a man with a reputation for reticence - "My conversations with John are brief and precise,'' Alamshar's owner the Aga Khan would say - had the look of a man who appeared to know something, doubtless grateful for the accuracy of a report predicting that an approaching weather front would not unload upon Ascot until after the tussle for the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes had been settled.

With so many Group One winners in the field few shared the confidence felt by Alamshar's connections, and thoughts inevitably strayed to the belief of Nayef's jockey, Richard Hills, that it would take an extraordinary opponent to keep him out of top spot in the winner's enclosure.

Stabbing through the early races, hunch players kept groping for a good thing in the feature event. There was support for the Derby winner Kris Kin and it was felt that Sulamani, one of three Godolphin entries, would enjoy the likely strong pace. The personal choice was Nayef although the miserable performance of Ratio, a well-beaten favourite in the Tote International Stakes, didn't suggest a profitable afternoon.

By the time the bell sounded to mount there was plenty of activity around the betting boards and windows although there was no indication of renewed faith in Alamshar as Johnny Murtagh took him down to the start. What then happened would establish Alamshar as a champion in any company. There was class in his performance and poetic justice in the fact that he produced it on ground most considered unsuitable.

It soon became clear that the pace was not up to expectations, producing an untidy race highlighted in the early stages by the tactics employed by Darryll Holland who took the Eclipse winner Falbrav wide towards the far rail in an attempt to gain an advantage approaching the turn into the straight. When it was obvious that Holland's manoeuvre had failed, attention was taken by the control Murtagh appeared to have taken.

As one good judge put it, Alamshar looked the winner from half a mile out. "At that point we'd had a perfect run,'' Murtagh said. "Just where I wanted to be. They weren't going all that fast and he was travelling so well. I waited and then sent him on. When he quickened from the two-furlong marker there was nothing around me, not a sound.''

At that stage it was all over, much to the satisfaction of Oxx, who typically described it as a "No worries race.''

No sooner had Murtagh entered the unsaddling enclosure than the rain began to fall, dampening the shoulders of well-cut suits and sending racegoers scampering for cover. It fell on the parade of emotions, evoking in the Aga Khan's mind memories of Shergar's stunning 1981 King George victory. Even Oxx could not contain his delight at such a comprehensive performance. "If the rain had come earlier there would have been a big worry about how he (Alamshar) would handle the conditions.

"Now it can rain as hard as it likes. Frankly I could not have predicted that he would win as easily as this, but we certainly saw the best of him today.''

As there was nothing to come, I hung around to watch the presentation. Taking delivery from the Queen, the Aga Khan let the trophy slip, her Majesty looked perplexed, much as Alamshar's nearest challengers must have been when Murtagh had pressed the button two furlongs out.