Racing: Etlaala helps Hills scorn mediocrity

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The Independent Online

Sometimes high-class horses are like certain forms of public transport. But unlike with buses, when a second potential champion trots into a stable yard in the wake of the first, there is no sense of redundancy. And it is horses like Haafhd, and now Etlaala, runners in tomorrow's Champion Stakes and Dewhurst Stakes respectively, who gets someone like Barry Hills up in the morning.

Hills, 67, has seen the game from base to apex over more than half a century. He started in 1952 as an apprentice, set his training business up in 1969 on the proceeds of astute wagering, and most in the game would be delighted to have learned the bits he has forgotten. He has seen changes, too, not all for the better. And this is one grumpy old man whose views are worth heeding. "If all I had was horses for this regional racing I wouldn't still be doing it," he said. "What keeps you going is the good horse. And I don't like what I'm seeing, the way things are going in the industry.

"There is so much mediocrity down the line now. There have always been bad horses, but not in the quantities around now, and there weren't the opportunities for them. But now they are catered for, which means that they will continue to be produced. Yet a horse like Calcutta, rated 100, I can't find a race to run him in.

"Bad horses do no-one any good, not the owner or the industry. Racing is the survival of the fittest. Horses who are not fit to be racehorses should not be in it."

Hills may well go into his 37th season with the favourite for the 2,000 Guineas. On a card with definitely no 45-rated beasts Etlaala, unbeaten in two runs, is due to face 10 rivals, including his Classic market rival Shamardal from Mark Johnston's yard, the Godolphin pair Perfectperformance and Librettist (a possible non-runner) and Oratorio from Ballydoyle. Haafhd, the winner of this year's 2,000 Guineas, is on something of a retrieval mission in the Champion Stakes, in which he is also due to face 10.

Twelve months ago, Haafhd came to the Dewhurst Stakes, in which he finished third, off a third place in the Champagne Stakes. Etlaala (whose name mean "arrival") won his Champagne Stakes, pouncing late to beat Iceman half a length after finding all sorts of traffic problems.

"It is very difficult to compare horses from different years," said Hills. "This season we've generally had an appalling time with them, which is why Etlaala didn't appear until August.

"But we've had a clear run with him since then, no hiccups whatsoever, and he's a very uncomplicated easy horse. He didn't learn much when he made all to win at Newbury, he just outclassed the others. To win the Group 2 race on his second start was some feat, though perhaps the way the race panned out did help him and it taught him a lot. From what I've seen him do, he's a serious horse."

As a son of Selkirk, Etlaala is not seen as likely to be inconvenienced by the rain-softened ground at Newmarket. "You could even argue with his breeding he's be better on it than firm," added Hills, whose stable was on the mark yesterday with 13-2 winner Flamboyant Lad.

In the Champion Stakes, Frankie Dettori's choice Doyen is now challenging the Irish raider Azamour, who missed the York International because of soft ground, for favouritism. Azamour's trainer, John Oxx, said: "If it was on the soft side of good I'd be happy but if it is truly soft we'll have to see nearer the time."

With a victory yesterday on Sundrop, who started at a generous and, for a 1,000 Guineas runner-up in a Listed contest, rather insulting 11-8, Dettori increased his lead to 17 over Kieren Fallon in the jockeys' title race. Fallon, injured in a fall on Monday, will resume the chase today with five mounts at Newmarket to Dettori's eight.

* Totesport yesterday reported a £4,000 each-way bet via the internet on Doyen for tomorrow's Champion Stakes and cut the colt's odds to 7-2.

Champion Stakes (Totesport odds): 7-2 Azamour & Doyen (from 4-1), 9-2 Lucky Story & Mister Monet, 15-2 Refuse To Bend, 8-1 Haafhd, 10-1 Norse Dancer, 20-1 Mingun, 25-1 Chorist, 33-1 Salselon, 100-1 Naheef.