Racing: George Washington in gamble for world supremacy
Saturday 04 November 2006
He is named after the first President but the adventure he embraces today was described best by the 36th. "This is what America is all about," Lyndon Johnson said. "It is the uncrossed desert and the unclimbed ridge. It is the star that is not reached and the harvest sleeping in the unploughed ground."
In Europe, George Washington has mastered every threat, without and within. There is no thoroughbred in the Old World to match him, for talent or magnetism. True, there was a time when he seemed menaced by demons of his own, but none that saw him here yesterday could fail to recognise the way he has matured since the spring.
Today, seeking the richest prize in America, he races for the last time before taking those autocratic genes to stud. And 10 furlongs of sand in the 23rd Breeders' Cup Classic represent his uncrossed desert - a new surface, a new distance, and a new status as outsider.
George Washington finally emerged from the quarantine barn as the glass and spires of the grandstand blazed vainly against a bitter blue dawn. The puddles were clotted with ice. The opulent colt strode calmly through the communal chaos of the backstretch - steaming heaps of straw, Hispanic labourers trussed up like eskimos, horses being meekly hosed down, photographers running backwards - and stepped on to the dirt track. Not even Ouija Board and Frankie Dettori, who looked like Zorro with a black scarf wrapped beneath his eyes, could wrest attention away.
George Washington was escorted by Ivan Denisovich and their ponies, one of which was ridden by their trainer, Aidan O'Brien, and barely cantered during a single circuit before retreating to the privacy of the enclosed barn. He floated round, of course he did. At such a half-hearted tempo, "Gorgeous George" would glide over marbles. Clearly, however, things will be rather different when the gates smash open in the Classic, a shrill bell ringing in his ears. In a vintage field, that alarm must guarantee doom for at least one champion.
For all his charisma, George Washington is being dismissed locally as a curiosity in a race dominated by Bernardini, who has won six consecutive races by an aggregate of 40 lengths. Michael Dickinson, whose achievements either side of the Atlantic command automatic respect, is already saluting him as peerless. "Bernardini is the best horse in the States by a long way," Dickinson said. "And after Saturday we may be talking about one of the best in the last 50 years."
Tom Albertrani, who trains Bernardini for Sheikh Mohammed, admits that the colt faces much his toughest task. Willing opposition has been steadily diluted with every run, but this deeper field will surely yield a rival capable of engaging him, mano a mano. "But I think there's more that we haven't seen," Albertrani said. "If someone looks him in the eye, he's going to dig down and find more. I've always felt he has that determination, that he wants to be in a fight."
Albertrani is comfortable with the possibility that greatness beckons his charge. He was working for Bill Mott when he had Cigar, and for Godolphin when Dubai Millennium was around. The New Yorker married Cigar's exercise rider, and he tells their daughters: "Enjoy it while you can - there may not be another Bernardini for a long time."
Of course, the fact that Bernardini represents an overdue triumph for the Maktoums' colossal investment here lends extra spice to the boldness with which George Washington's owners are rolling the dice. Even a purse of $5m (£3.3m) seems almost incidental to what is at stake, if Coolmore could introduce a son of Danehill to its American farm, down the road at Ashford.
Certainly there is confidence in their camp, but elsewhere there seems to be only scepticism. Even the fact that George Washington's mother is by a dirt champion offers only vestigial comfort, as Alysheba's progeny typically showed a European penchant for turf and distance. At least George Washington's pedigree offers encouragement that he might find adequate stamina today: his dam won over a mile and a half and has already produced Grandera to prosper at this distance.
Grandera ultimately seemed to implode temperamentally, but O'Brien has plainly produced his magnum opus in George Washington, who simmered so dangerously in the spring. O'Brien has already saddled Johannesburg to thrash dirt horses in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, but that colt was born for the job, and so was Giant's Causeway, foiled in that desperate duel with Tiznow when the Classic was last staged here, six years ago. But Sakhee, Tiznow's second heroic victim in this race, had a pure turf pedigree and Godolphin also went close - and should have gone closer - in the 1998 Classic here with Swain, a son of Nashwan.
The forgotten horse is David Junior, who was discovered by Brian Meehan galloping over dirt in a breeze-up sale in Florida. Kept for this race since the Eclipse, he has already won one huge prize after a long lay-off in Dubai. There are those tempted by a match bet with George Washington, on the basis that Michael Kinane will surely drop his hands if things are not working out. But anyone who has followed the theatrical career of George Washington will surely be imploring him to loom upsides Bernardini on the home turn. Only then will we see whether he can climb that ridge, whether he can reach that star.
10.20 Churchill Downs
BREEDERS' CUP CLASSIC (Group 1) £2,824,859 added 1m 2f (Dirt) Penalty Value £1,569,767
1 114442 BROTHER DEREK (28) (Cecil Peacock) D Hendricks 3 8 10 Alex Solis 1
Classy performer on the faster dirt surfaces on the West Coast but found Bernardini too good in the Preakness Stakes and a similar story is likely here
2 131515 PREMIUM TAP (35) (Kline, George, Alevizos) J Kimmel 4 9 0 Edgar Prado 2
Big-price winner in a Grade 1 race at Saratoga in September but is unproven over today's distance and will probably be running for a place only
3 111111 BERNARDINI (28) (D) (Darley Stable) T Albertrani 3 8 10 Javier Castellano 3
Three-time Grade 1 winner and unbeaten in his last seven starts. Has been in imperious form and although this is tougher, he looks the real thing
4 1-1231 GEORGE WASHINGTON (42) (Mrs J Magnier, M Tabor) A P O'Brien (Irl) 3 8 10 Michael Kinane 4
Stylish winner of the 2,000 Guineas and Queen Elizabeth II Stakes. Talented but has his quirks and facing a tough task on dirt debut against these
5 111012 LAWYER RON (42) (BF) ( Estate Of James T Hines Jr) T Pletcher 3 8 10 Patrick Valenzuela 5
High-class three-year-old over a mile whose only poor race this year came over this course in the Kentucky Derby over today's trip. Has plenty to prove
6 202242 PERFECT DRIFT (35) (C) (D) (Stonecrest Farm) M Johnson 7 9 0 Garrett Gomez 6
Fourth in this last year and has lost the winning habit having failed to score on his last 10 starts. Better effort on latest start but others preferred
7 11-141 DAVID JUNIOR (119) (D) (Roldvale Ltd, D Sullivan) B Meehan (GB) 4 9 0 Jamie Spencer 7
Champion Stakes winner at Newmarket last season and has added a Group 1 in Dubai and this year's Eclipse Stakes to his win tally. Dirt-bred and could figure
8 111111 LAVA MAN (28) (D) (STD Racing Stable) D O'Neill 5 9 0 Corey Nakatani B 8
Better than ever this year having won all seven starts including four Grade 1 races but has yet to score outside of California. Maybe today is the day
9 -35153 GIACOMO (28) (CD) (Mr & Mrs J S Moss & Stronach Stables) J Shirreffs 4 9 0 Mike Smith 9
Last year's Kentucky Derby winner but has chased Lava Man home three times this year and simply does not look good enough to take this
10 42-100 FLOWER ALLEY (63) (D) (Melnyk Racing Stables) T Pletcher 4 9 0 John Velazquez B 10
Usually runs his race in this grade but has plenty to find with Invasor and Premium Time judged on his latest couple of starts. Up against it
11 1-4111 INVASOR (91) (D) (Shadwell Farm LLC) K McLaughlin 4 9 0 Fernando Jara 11
High-class winner in South America before joining current connections and has carried on his winning ways this year. Could figure in the finish
12 -66110 SUAVE (63) (C) (D) (Jay Em Ess Stable) P McGee 5 9 0 Kent Desormeaux B 12
Beat Perfect Drift at Arlington in July but put in a poor effort behind Premiun Time on his latest start. Much more needed to figure in this
13 012223 SUN KING (63) (T Farmer) N Zito 4 9 0 Rafael Bejarano B 13
A fair performer at this level and not beaten far by Invasor two runs ago. Could go well at big price today if staying the trip
- 13 declared -
BETTING: evens Bernardini, 5-1 Invasor, 6-1 Lava Man, 8-1 George Washington, 10-1 David Junior, 25-1 Premium Tap, Lawyer Ron, Sun King, 33-1 Brother Derek, Perfect Drift, Giacomo, 40-1 others
2005: Saint Liam 5 9 0 J D Bailey 9-4 fav (R E Dutrow, Jr) drawn (13), 13 ran.
BERNARDINI may be the meeting's banker. He took the second-leg of the Triple Crown at Pimlico in May and has won four times since, including a couple of Grade 1 races. Detractors point to the lack of competition, but he can only beat what is put up against him. It would be a surprise if Invasor, David Junior, Lava Man or the brilliant miler on turf, George Washington, prove good enough to stop him.
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