Racing: Doyen upstaged by better Haafhd

Hills family fortunes boosted as Guineas hero shows a return to Classic form
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The Independent Online

Faith can move mountains, they say, so to influence events on a strip of muddy turf must be a comparatively easy task. And here yesterday Barry Hills's belief in Haafhd and Royston Ffrench's in himself were gloriously justified. Horse and jockey had both fallen from grace in different ways over different time-scales, and a win for each, in the Champion Stakes and Cesarewitch Handicap respectively, marked a step back up the ladder.

Faith can move mountains, they say, so to influence events on a strip of muddy turf must be a comparatively easy task. And here yesterday Barry Hills's belief in Haafhd and Royston Ffrench's in himself were gloriously justified. Horse and jockey had both fallen from grace in different ways over different time-scales, and a win for each, in the Champion Stakes and Cesarewitch Handicap respectively, marked a step back up the ladder.

Haafhd had been hailed as a superstar by his trainer, not a man given to hyperbole, as he stood in the winner's enclosure he graced yesterday after the 2,000 Guineas back in May. But by the time Hamdan al-Maktoum's chestnut returned to action at Royal Ascot, Hills's horses were horribly out of form. There was no doubt, though, about Haafhd's wellbeing on this occasion; he bucked and bounced his way out on to the course out of sheer joie de vivre and showed the same élan on the way back. His rider, Hills's son Richard, hardly had a moment's anxiety as the colt came in two-and-a-half lengths clear of Chorist, with Azamour third.

"From halfway you could see he was always going to win," said Hills, 67, happily. "The horses are running out of their skins now, but we've had a long and painful time along the way. But this fellow has such natural ability and is such a pleasure to have in the yard. It is very difficult to compare horses of different eras, but I stand by my view that this one is very nearly my best."

Haafhd, a diminutive son of two of his owner Sheikh Hamdan's top-notchers, Alha-arth and Al Bahathri, was trying 10 furlongs and really soft ground for the first time. "We thought he'd be fine with some cut, but were slightly worried that there had been too much rain, though then again this track can take it," said Barry Hills. "As to the distance, I'd been looking forward all along to seeing what he could do over it." That was to put a selection of high-class rivals to the sword at a rewarding 12-1. "He was always cantering," said Hills fils. "I had to get a bit stern with him close home, but that was only because he heard the crowd cheering and that took his mind off the job a bit."

Those trailing in behind included the Godolphin pair Refuse To Bend and Doyen, both undone by the ground. More grimly, Mister Monet was pulled up at halfway with a fatal leg injury.

Hills's wish now is that Haafhd, his third Champion Stakes winner after Cormor-ant Wood and Storming Home, remains in his care as he goes into his 37th season. "He's not overraced at the moment and as a mature four-year-old will be some horse. Over 10 furlongs or a mile, he has all the options."

The day otherwise belonged to Mark Johnston, who trained Ffrench's 16-1 Cesarewitch hero Contact Dancer and the impressive juvenile Shamardal, who galloped to clear favouritism for next year's 2,000 Guineas with an all-the-way demolition of Oratorio and seven others in the Dewhurst Stakes.

If fate, in the form of a flu bug, conspired against Haafhd, Ffrench, 29, undid himself. His progress through the ranks was halted by one moment of misjudgement four years ago, when he dropped his hands while winning easily on one of Johnston's charges at Doncaster and was caught close home. He has had to rebuild his career virtually from scratch. "He's had an up-and-down time," said Johnston, "but he's got his feet firmly on the ground down and, credit to him, he's a worker."

Like his colleague Hills, Ffrench always felt comfortable throughout his race, though, with two-and-a-quarter miles to travel, he had longer to enjoy it. "With a race like that you need a horse that can travel well, or luck in running, and one that stays well," he said. "I had it all today. He was running enthusiastically and I didn't want to disappoint him, so he was always close to the pace." Contact Dancer hit the front two furlongs out and strode on resolutely to see off 10-1 joint favourite Mr Ed by half a length, with High Point (50-1) third and Quede (33-1) fourth. By the time the gelding's stablemate Shamardal had triumphed under Kevin Darley, Ffrench was most of the way to Wolverhampton to continue his rehabilitation in humbler surroundings.

Shamardal, now unbeaten in three, drew some flattering comparisons to the stable star Attraction, winner of this year's 1,000 Guineas and three other top-level contests in the same trail-blazing style. "He reminds me so much of her," said Johnston, "though I shan't say he's as good until he has won four Group Ones. But we have always thought a lot of him, though I think that 3-1 for the Guineas at this stage, with the winter to get though, is ridiculous." The colt, like Maids Causeway, winner of the earlier Rockfel Stakes, is from the first crop of the so-called "iron horse" of 2000, Giant's Causeway.

The Dewhurst and Cesarewitch were the upsides of a rollercoaster day for Johnston, who had also brought poor Mister Monet to the races. "Coming here I thought we had big chances in the two Group Ones, and I have to admit the Cesarewitch was not the highest thing on my mind. But you win it and think, yes, a good start. Then look what happened in the Champion. It really was the best of times and the worst of times."

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