Back in May, James Fanshawe knew he was in trouble. The celebrity horse in his stable, the former leading juvenile Soviet Song, had not won in six races and over a year in training. The Pegasus Stables trainer imagined a crossroads and vehicles chugging in different directions.
But then came renaissance in the shape of the Ridgewood Pearl Stakes at the Curragh, a precursor to a Group One hat-trick and form which allows Soviet Song to be clear favourite for the main race at Ascot's finale meeting, Saturday's Queen Elizabeth II Stakes.
"In the spring there were a lot of problems, not least the fact that she lost her first two races and there were offers coming in for her. There was serious debate about selling her," Fanshawe said yesterday. "Before Ireland there were some seriously positive offers and I am a very relieved man to have kept her. The fillies - her, Frizzante and Soar - have made the season for me, a season when we have topped £1m for the first time."
Soviet Song has bewitched Ascot before, by collecting the Fillies' Mile, a victory which placed her at the forefront of Classic betting. Her subsequent season, last year's, was strangely barren however, as the filly ran into the brick wall of Russian Rhythm on three occasions at a time when she was never fully capable. "She is more mature now and she had some sort of low-grade infection on her last year," Fanshawe added. "She is really enjoying this season, really loving the game."
The lightning strike of acceleration is back, in no small part due to the ministrations of two jockeys. Mark Denaro, a former rider with Richard Hannon and Luca Cumani, does the morning shift and knows what it is like to nurture proper talent after previous tutorials with the likes of Lemon Souffle and Lyric Fantasy. Soviet Song's regular and now trusted partner at the races is Johnny Murtagh.
"Mark has been very accurate in his assessments of her, which is perfect for a trainer," Fanshawe said. "When Johnny started riding her, after he looked at last year's form in the book, I'm not sure he really believed. But now he does and it works both ways. In the tributes to Brian Clough there was the sense that he managed to put great confidence into his players. Johnny and Soviet Song are like that with each other."
The shape of the opposition to Soviet Song further clarified yesterday. Another Newmarket trainer, Michael Jarvis, confirmed that Rakti would be spreading his talents over a mile for the first time on Saturday. "He loves Ascot," Jarvis said. "It's a step back in distance, but he's a horse with plenty of speed so we are hoping he'll go there and run a good race."
The five-year-old was most recently fifth to Azamour in the Irish Champion Stakes, beaten just under two lengths. "He didn't run a bad race, but he's been better than that," the trainer said. "I think there were two very good three-year-olds in the race, although I was disappointed he didn't finish in front of Powerscourt, which he has done a couple of times."
Norse Dancer was behind Soviet Song in the Sussex Stakes, but David Elsworth, the colt's trainer, has not been cowed by that result. "This season I planned to win three Group races with him and we've managed only one so far," he said yesterday. "But he's been unlucky not to win a Group One and I think the Ascot race will suit him. He got there a shade too soon in the Irish Champion Stakes last time, but if everything drops right he can win the QEII."
The participation of another contestant from Goodwood remains in the balance, even though Haafhd came through his work on Lambourn's Faringdon Road gallop yesterday.
"He worked well this morning but a decision on whether he goes to Ascot will not be made until after I've spoken to Sheikh Hamdan [Al Maktoum]," Angus Gold, his racing manager, said. "We need to be confident that he can recapture the form he showed when he won the 2,000 Guineas and we know that he's a better horse when he's well and at the top of his form. It's a question of whether we run in the Queen Elizabeth or wait for the Champion Stakes."
QUEEN ELIZABETH II STAKES (Ascot, Saturday): Coral: 11-4 Soviet Song, 7-1 Refuse To Bend, 8-1 Rakti, Diamond Green, 9-1 Haafhd, 11-1 Attraction, Norse Dancer, 12-1 Antonius Pius, Nayyir, Ace, 14-1 Le Vie Dei Colori, Bachelor Duke, 20-1 Lucky Story, 33-1 others.
Nap: Miss Trial