Racing: George Washington faces day of truth

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If 2006 is to be remembered as a vintage year on the Turf, this weekend may prove essential to the fermentation process. Within hours, against perhaps the most gorgeous backdrop available either side of the Atlantic, two of its defining performers face a crucial examination.

Today, among the woods and lakes of upstate New York, Bernadini bids to prove himself the outstanding American three-year-old in the historic Travers Stakes at Saratoga. His merciless performance in the Preakness was soured by injury to the Kentucky Derby winner, Barbaro, but a nine-length success in the Jim Dandy Stakes has since confirmed him the first real champion to have emerged in the United States for Sheikh Mohammed.

Bernadini is 5-2 favourite for the Breeders' Cup Classic with Coral, and Churchill Downs in November is doubtless the ultimate focus for George Washington as well - though in his case the Mile would seem the obvious target.

This captivating colt makes his first appearance since May in the Totesport Celebration Mile at Goodwood tomorrow. He emerged from defeat in the Irish 2,000 Guineas with a hip injury, and anyone who witnessed his theatrical display at Newmarket three weeks previously will be desperately hoping that his talent survives pristine.

That day George Washington sprinted away from Sir Percy, who then won the Derby itself, with Araafa, himself a dual Group One winner since, back in fourth. He also behaved in infamously eccentric fashion, refusing to enter the unsaddling enclosure, and it must exasperate his connections that the only jockey to have ridden him has since been suspended from British racecourses.

Kieren Fallon will have briefed Michael Kinane in what he can expect, unpredictable as the colt may be. By all accounts he behaved very civilly on a recent excursion to Naas races, and, in fairness, he has always - until last time - been dependably brilliant once the gates open.

Regardless George Washington has provided fresh insight into the delicate talents of his trainer. It will be particularly edifying if Aidan O'Brien can restore the colt to his peak, his defeat in Ireland having prompted so much wiseguy cynicism about the impossibility of a precious stallion prospect being risked again. If anything, his owners were recklessly sporting in letting him run in atrocious ground at the Curragh, and they deserve the chance to see him perplex the Americans in Kentucky.

With a pacemaker in his service, George Washington only has four rivals on his comeback, but they do include Soviet Song, who made the first two in the Sussex Stakes here for the third time running. "He's ready to go racing again, though we are bringing him back quicker than we normally would, with a horse that's had an injury like his," O'Brien said. "It will be a big learning curve for Mick. The horse was very good and relaxed at Naas, and he's settling down."

The holiday weekend opens with some fairly frivolous fare today and the most interesting race is the Iveco Daily Solario Stakes at Sandown. Furnace beat a big field in good style on his debut, but it is Drumfire (2.35, next best) who has the runs on the board. Thousand Words looks suspiciously like one of the very best juveniles in Britain, and this colt made him work hard at Newbury last month.

La Mottie (2.05) is arguably unlucky not to have a perfect record since joining Jeremy Noseda, having been nailed in the final stride at Royal Ascot and then found heavy traffic at Goodwood. Her form at this stage remains more solid than that of her most progressive rival for the Blue Square Atlanta Stakes, Wasseema. Fabrian (3.10) is 9lb higher than when winning at Chepstow in July, but there are sound reasons for that and he fully deserves the Blue Square Prices Handicap.

Channel 4 also pay brief visits to Chester, where the worst draw for Jamieson Gold (3.25) in the Raymond Corbett Handicap is not the impediment it would be over other distances, and Newmarket, where easier ground should bring out the best in North Walk (2.20).

The best bet of the day, however, is Cream Cracker (3.15 nap) at Newton Abbot. This mare only had her first run for Robert Alner in the spring and really seems to be thriving now, impressing over course and distance on her chasing debut - the placed horses unbeaten since, in three starts between them - before putting up an improved effort back over hurdles last time.

Chris McGrath

Nap: Cream Cracker (Newton Abbot 3.15)

NB: Drumfire (Sandown 2.35)