Racing: Sheikh Mohammed and Coolmore send out big guns to square up in New York
To give Dylan Thomas his first start on dirt against a champion on that surface as formidable as Bernardini might appear to be looking for trouble. You can rest assured, however, that any perception of impudence or belligerence will not be recognised by the owners of either colt when they meet in New York this weekend.
For the antipathy between the two superpowers of the Turf is in danger of taking on a life of its own. Certainly both the Maktoum family and Coolmore Stud will be relieved to restore their competition to the racecourse, as their encounters elsewhere - in tribunals and auctions - have been inflating misapprehension in a damaging way.
Talk of a feud between the camps undoubtedly spices up the decorous world in which they seek their different types of fulfilment. But while clear divisions persist at the yearling sales, insiders insist that the theatrical events of recent days should not be treated as evidence of a broader schism.
Late on Tuesday evening, the disciplinary panel of the Horseracing Regulatory Authority decided to allow - in part, at any rate - an appeal by Seamus Heffernan against a 14-day suspension from the Ascot stewards for "team tactics" in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes. Heffernan's riding of Ivan Denisovich, one of three runners saddled by Aidan O'Brien, had incensed Frankie Dettori, who was caught wide on Librettist while George Washington, the chief hope of Ballydoyle, threaded his way through on the inside.
Emotions ran high at the hearing, notably when O'Brien gave vent to his indignation over the allegations. Dettori, in contrast, was sullen and curt in his evidence. In exonerating Heffernan of the specific charge the panel appeared to have been won over by the trainer's unusually demonstrative contribution. Yesterday, however, they confirmed that Heffernan would still have to serve six days for careless riding.
They did accept that Ivan Denisovich was running on his merits, and also that Heffernan had sought to avoid poached ground on the inside. But they rejected the core defence submission that Ivan Denisovich had drifted wider as a result of a bump from Araafa, who ran out of room between him and Librettist. In recording their deliberations yesterday, they asked: "If the horse on his outside had been George Washington rather than Librettist, would Heffernan have carried him wide? The Panel does not believe he would, and if he had, he would not have received the enthusiastic endorsement of his riding that O'Brien gave."
Heffernan yesterday expressed disappointment, but added: "The original charge was a serious allegation that would have been damaging to my career. They were wrong and they had to be proved wrong. It was a very small thing that got blown out of proportion."
Dettori remains angered by what happened on the day and by theories about his motivation. These have ranged from self-pity, to paranoia, to embarrassment over the way he exposed his mount on the outside.
Though he can justly note that he found degrees of support from the two inquiries, it remains that Dettori was the catalyst to a graceless, unnecessary melodrama. He was not encouraged in his protests by his employers, though they respect his resentment. And they emphatically deny suggestions that Dettori has been told by Sheikh Mohammed or anyone else that he is "not allowed" to ride for Ballydoyle.
Dettori, or someone on his behalf, has certainly given O'Brien that impression. Before the Ascot race, the trainer had noted the incongruity that Dettori was free to ride Coolmore horses trained elsewhere, and indicated that the Italian would have been a valued addition to the short list of substitutes for Kieren Fallon during his suspension from British tracks. If Dettori feels stricken by the crossfire, nobody can pretend he has imagined it. But his patrons vehemently reject the notion he has become a pawn in a petty game of point-scoring.
In terms of the game's reputation, the irony is that John Magnier, the Coolmore boss, and Sheikh Mohammed bring true sportsmanship to the track. And such will certainly be the case at Belmont on Saturday.
Bernardini is much the best colt to have emerged from the American wing of the Maktoum empire - though they have a second freak on the roll in Discreet Cat - and the Jockey Club Gold Cup will provide O'Brien with evidence of Dylan Thomas's competence to follow him to the Breeders' Cup Classic next month.
Michael Tabor, one of the Coolmore partners, yesterday compared the experiment to George Washington's comeback run prior to that stunning win at Ascot. "That's what Aidan is all about," he said. "As with George Washington at Goodwood, Saturday will not be this horse's Derby. Obviously you hope to win, but the main thing is you're training an athlete and the priority is to have him cherry-ripe on the big day."
Tabor revealed that the door is open for Dylan Thomas to return to familiar ground in the Breeders' Cup Turf should he fail to convince on Saturday. That race had been on the agenda for Hurricane Run, but he is now likely to run in the Emirates Champion Stakes at Newmarket. "For Dylan Thomas, this is a test to see whether he acts on dirt," Tabor said. "We haven't had the best experiences with Danehills [offspring] on that surface, but if he can do himself justice he'd go on to the Classic."
Nap: Spanchil Hill
NB: Beautiful Night
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