Racing: Quest for speed king starts with Proclamation

The search for a speed star continues tomorrow, when 17 of the fastest horses in Europe blast down Haydock's straight in the Sprint Cup. But, apart from one possible scenario, there will be the feeling that, whatever the outcome of the race, it may just be a case of Buggins' turn. This is an arena in which they all keep beating each other, which generally equates to non-vintage.

The exception may be Proclamation, who proved his superior, and still-developing, talent last time out by lowering Soviet Song's colours in the Sussex Stakes over a mile, and is dropping back to six furlongs for the first time. Should he prove capable of transferring his class to the shorter distance, he may just be the luminary the division so badly needs.

For good, competitive racing, as provided by evenly matched animals, is one thing; a superhorse quite another. Nothing stimulates public interest better than a genuinely top-class performer, but there has not been a sprinter to take the breath away since Dayjur in 1990. Yes, Mozart and Stravinsky were exciting, but they did not have Dayjur's blistering dominance in a run that took in the King's Stand and Nunthorpe Stakes, the Sprint Cup and Prix de l'Abbaye and ended only in his shadow-jumping defeat by Safely Kept in the Breeders' Cup Sprint.

The notion that sprinters ain't as good as they were - most at the moment are as at home in a high-class handicap as a Group One - is borne out by figures. In the first three post-war decades, there were 15 of them rated 130 or more, including the peerless Abernant. In the following three decades, there have been eight.

Abernant, trained by Noel Murless, was the best sprinter ever to grace a racecourse, beaten only thrice in 17 runs. One defeat came by inches in the 2,000 Guineas in 1949, after which he reverted fast-tracking. At three, he won the King's Stand Stakes, July Cup, King George Stakes and Nunthorpe Stakes by daylight, and repeated the feat in the last three of those races at four.

The mighty grey, also a champion at two, started at the top and stayed there, but the second-greatest, Irish Elegance, worked his way up and earned his place with some astounding weight-carrying performances in handicaps. A massive chestnut, he won the 1918 July Cup at three and at four his victories included the Royal Hunt Cup under 9st 11lb and the Portland Handicap, by three lengths, under 10st 2lb.

Whether sprinters are born or made is a moot point. Stamina, or lack of it, in the thoroughbred is dependent on assorted genetic factors, including temperament and conformation, but an important factor is muscular arrangement and development. Horses own both fast-twitch and slow-twitch muscles; it is the fast-twitch type, which use glycogen rather than oxygen and are able to expand and contract quickly, providing rapid movement for shorter periods, which dominate in a sprinter's physiology.

But the trainer's skill in recognising and developing that physique can be crucial. A type of athlete may well be born, and can be made, but can also be unmade. "Some horses are bred to be fast," said Roger Charlton, who has won Sprint Cups with Tamarisk and Dowsing and sends Prix de l'Abbaye winner Patavellian to the fray tomorrow, "but some are, early in their careers, too weak to be fast. Take a big, backward two-year-old. He's tried over five furlongs, can't do it, so he's upped to seven. We had Dowsing, for instance, who was pretty decent, and we ran him over seven at two and three, when he progressed through handicaps. Then at four, when he's properly mature, he wins a Group One back over six.

"That's why a change of trainer can provide better results. The horse is by then fully developed, the new trainer tries new tactics. Look how good Dandy Nicholls is at doing it.

"There's a danger in assuming that speed equates to precocity, that just because a horse was fast he's going to get juveniles. He may do, but it can also take time for a sprinter to develop into his frame. Maturity and muscularity don't always happen straight away."

The dearth of genuinely high-class sprinters may be a function of the modern programme for milers being more attractive, in terms of prize money and future stud potential, than for sprinters, and many who could be as effective over the shorter trip are kept to the longer. Guy Harwood always swore Dancing Brave could have been a sprint champion and one of Aidan O'Brien's mantras is that his Guineas and Derby prospects own blinding pace at home. "Sheer class can mean speed," added Charlton.

The master of Beckhampton reports Patavellian in exceptional nick. "I've never seen him so good. He's a 33-1 shot for Haydock, and if he's back to his best you would say that is value."

Speed machines: The leading sprinters down the decades

HORSES RATED 130 PLUS

1900s

Delaunay 133, Thrush 131, Eager 130

1910s

Irish Elegance 137, Tetratema 135, Hornet's Beauty 133, Phalaris 133, Diadem 131, Harmonicon 130, Syndrian 130, Volta 130

1920s

Diomedes 134, Mumtaz Mahal 132, Gold Bridge 132, Royal Minstrel 131

1930s

Bellacose 131, Micky The Greek 139, Xandover 130

1940s

The Bug 133, Honeyway 131

1950s

Abernant 139, Pappa Fourway 136, Right Boy 134, Princely Gift 133, Royal Serenade 130

1960s

Floribunda 133, Bleep-Bleep 131, Matatina 130, Song 130, Sound Track 130

1970s

Thatch 132, Balidar 131, Sandford Lad 131, Huntercombe 131, Lochnager 130

1980s

Moorestyle 134, Never So Bold 131, Marwell 130, Sharpo 130

1990s

Dayjur 135, Stravinsky 132, Lake Coniston 130

2000s

Mozart 131

Richard Edmondson

Nap: Dubai Venture

(Newmarket 3.45)

NB: Eilean Ban

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