Racing: Perry makes festival a world event

Royal Ascot: Australia's champion sprinter aims for audacious long-range double
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The Independent Online

Have horse, will travel are the watchwords at Royal Ascot this year. The fixture has long been a national treasure, but this year the meeting takes a real step towards fulfilling the modern dream of those in charge: to make it a truly international festival.

With every passing year the racing world is shrinking, as horses commute from continent to continent in search of prize money and prestige, but it is generally the British who do the sallying forth.

Glory is all very well, but purses here, even in top-level contests, are not generally considered sufficient by foreigners to outweigh the risk of defeat playing away. Some intensive global networking, though, by the Ascot team, led by the astute and charming ex-army type Douglas Erskine-Crum, and a boost to prize values to some £3.8m, has resulted in an unprecedented nine raiders more exotic than the usual travellers from mainland Europe and Ireland.

They have come from the States, Dubai, South Africa and Hong Kong. But the longest road has been from Australia, with the most ambitious target at the end. Choisir, the flying machine from New South Wales, is scheduled to run in both the feature sprints, the King's Stand Stakes on Tuesday and the Golden Jubilee Stakes on Saturday, one of six Group One contests during the week.

The highest achiever in Europe from down under has been the New Zealander Balmerino, who won at Goodwood in September 1977 after only a month under John Dunlop's care, and went on to beat all bar Alleged in the Arc.

He was the prototype globetrotter; his visits to six countries that year would hardly raise an eyebrow now. But, unlike players in virtually every other sport that Britain gave to the world, no Australian-trained horse has ever scored in these parts.

Choisir, the pride of Paul Perry's barn at Newcastle, on the coast 100 miles north of Sydney, has been boarding in Newmarket for three weeks now, accompanied by trainer's son and assistant Shannon and work rider Lyle Weaver. He is the best sprinter in his native land, and looks the part; massively built, bright gold, with two white diamonds on his expressive face, one between his eyes and one on his nose. He is also, perhaps unusually for a high-powered speedball, a sleepy joe behind the scenes, without which trait he would not be here.

"We were supposed to be going to Singapore last month for the big sprint," said Perry Snr, who flew in five days ago, "but the races were cancelled because of Sars. We were asked if we could come on here, and with a different horse you would think long and hard, because in truth the prize money isn't that much different to home, but this bloke is just the ideal horse to do it with. He's so laid-back he's just taken every-thing - the travelling, the change of scene - in his stride. He saves his energy for race-day; he's been super."

It is 30 years since Perry, 53, from a long-standing racing dynasty, took over his business from his father. He has trained 2,142 winners (six have popped in since he arrived in England last Tuesday) and has a barn of 70-odd horses, but despite having been there, seen that, done most on the world stage, he is still tickled at the prospect of donning topper and tails on Tuesday.

"I've had a fitting and I look bloody awful," he said. "But the horse is beaut. I can hardly believe it's going to happen; we hear about the likes of Royal Ascot and Epsom at home, part of the fabric of racing, but they're on the other side of the world. But then, the world is not as big as it once was."

Choisir, who runs in the maroon-and-pale-blue silks of Terry and Diane Wallace (though Perry, who bought him as a yearling, still has a stake), had his final fast spin on Friday morning, testing the undulations of the Limekilns, not unlike Ascot's straight course, under Weaver. On Tuesday it is Johnny Murtagh who will feel the turbo-boost, a g-force that has thrown good riders back off-balance before now.

As well as the home contingent, rivals in Tuesday's five-furlong blitz will include Firebolt from Hong Kong and old Aussie rival Belle Du Jour, now resident with Dermot Weld in Ireland. And the flaxen-maned chestnut will have a technical disadvantage to overcome, too; by southern- hemisphere standards he is aged three, but that counts as four here, and he must thus shoulder extra weight.

"He's strong, though, so he should cope," Perry said, "and the advantage he has is that he loves a straight track. He can run from the front or just off the pace, and is such a trier I am sure he'll be competitive.

"We breed our athletes tough and fast, and I think Australian sprinters are as good as any in the world."

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