Racing: Strategic aim keeps Ahern on target

For his trainer, Paul Cole, Strategic Prince represents a nostalgic return to the days when his two-year-olds were among the most feared in the land - never more so than when Generous won the Dewhurst Stakes in 1990. For his jockey, in contrast, the same race at Newmarket on Saturday could prove an overdue breakthrough.

In terms of ability, there has never been any doubt that Eddie Ahern belongs in Group One races. No rider on the circuit has better "hands", and few can aspire to the same marriage of balance and strength. He switches his whip like a card sharp. Some, familiar with his devilry in the hunting field and open, amiable disposition, may have wondered whether his application could conceivably match his talent. Yet these should consider his endeavours over the past year or so, and acknowledge that here is a rider, at 26, ripe for elevation far beyond Wolverhampton, where he rode another double yesterday.

Champion apprentice in Ireland, Ahern was brought to Britain in 2002 by Gerard Butler and for two seasons struck up a particularly subtle rapport with Nayyir. He lost that ride when joining Jeremy Noseda, and fully a dozen jockeys since have fallen out with Nayyir. But Ahern's link with Noseda became frayed last summer, not least because of costly suspensions, and they parted company.

Ahern plunged into the freelance jungle. "It was like getting off the plane for the first time," he said yesterday. "I had to start from scratch. I went back to basics: putting in the miles, riding out, building new relationships wherever I could."

His first dividend was the all-weather jockeys' championship, and Ahern has not released the pedal since. Only Ryan Moore and the specialist lightweight, Chris Catlin, have had more mounts in 2006 and his overall tally of winners now stands at 108.

"But while I have found it quite easy getting on good horses, it's harder to stay on them," he said. "Often I will get a chance because a stable jockey is suspended, or at another meeting. I rode Ouija Board in her first race. You always hope that this time things will be different, that you'll keep the ride, but it doesn't often work out."

Strategic Prince condenses that struggle, as well as Ahern's eligibility to win it. He first picked up the ride when Richard Quinn switched to another in the same Salisbury race. After all, the stout bloodlines in his pedigree hardly qualified the colt to win a sprint maiden in the spring.

"It just shows I'm playing a game where you need a lot of luck," Ahern said. "I was taken off him at Royal Ascot and Frankie [Dettori] rode, but the trip was sharp and I was able to get back on."

They have not put a foot wrong since, cutting down Group Two fields at Newmarket and Goodwood, and Ahern approaches their defining assignment with serenity. "When those stalls open, I ride a horse in exactly the same way, whether it's a seller here at Wolverhampton or a Group One race at Newmarket," he said. "I feel no extra pressure. I see some jockeys who ride handier than normal in Group races, because they dare not drop out, but I just ride every horse which ever way gives him the best chance - whatever the race."

Cole has specified that Strategic Prince will not run on soft ground but otherwise the camp is buoyant. "I worked him round Lingfield the other morning, and he showed a nice turn of foot," Ahern said. "He has such a good temperament: nothing bothers him, and he's always half-asleep in the parade ring. And it's the same in his races, he switches off, travels, picks up. I know we only won a neck at Goodwood, but he had got there very easily and had a good look round in front, and when Mick [Kinane] came to me, he went on again."

Ahern's wife, Diane, gave birth to their second son just a week ago. "We called him Niall," he said. "After the river." Clearly, his puckish spirits are equal to the most momentous responsibilities. No less plainly, however, Strategic Prince faces much his stiffest task on Saturday. Aidan O'Brien, reserving the option not to run Holy Roman Emperor so soon after winning at Longchamp, has eight alternatives with which to tackle Teofilo, who beat that colt at the Curragh last month, while the home defence includes Hamoody, like Strategic Prince unseen since impressing at Goodwood.

The other Group One race on a marvellous card is the Emirates Champion Stakes, for which Pride is 7-2 favourite with Coral from Sir Percy on 4-1 and Hurricane Run on 9-2.

* Soviet Song is to retire to the breeding paddocks. The six-year-old won five Group One races and £1,168,370 in prize-money for her owner-breeders, Elite Racing.

Chris McGrath

Nap: Cleaver (Newcastle 5.25)

NB: Barbirolli (Newbury 5.20)

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