Racing: Strength of belief gives Oxx his just reward

In the post-race commotion of a King George that transforms Ascot's winners' enclosure into something resembling King's Cross in rush hour, John Oxx could easily be mistaken for a man of the cloth.

While yesterday, the Irish trainer may have been quietly praying that the heavens should not open any more than they had already overnight, what he actually represents is a man with exceptional faith in a horse who has been a constant source of concern to himself and his vets. One suspects that others might have been been persuaded to pack off the Irish Derby winner and Epsom Derby third to stud by now. But Oxx, a quiet and studious man and his long-time patron, the Aga Khan, have been rewarded with a King George triumph that even the colt's fiercest advocates were beginning to doubt in the immediate prelude to the race.

In the pre-parade ring, before participants are saddled and where horses first sense that there is a job of work to be done, you can often separate those who instil doubts, the uneasy and fractious, and those, the relaxed and the insouciant, who inspire confidence.

Alamshar's demeanour may have suggested the latter, but this is not an animal that inspires supreme confidence. He is scarcely the most imposing individual and, as for the underfoot conditions, well, by all estimations, even those of his trainer, the softened ground would not be particularly to his liking.

But going is a strange phenomenon. Beforehand, expert turf analysts amongst us suggested that yesterday's surface would not unduly inconvenience any runner; afterwards there were more excuses proffered by jockeys than are currently being aired by British Airways management at Heathrow.

With what Oxx termed a "no-worries" win, the home-bred colt was never sufficiently examined by his 11 rivals to expose whether that flaw in his superstructure, which has rendered him prey to back problems, would betray him. Nor did he appear troubled by the ground. Having escaped his pursuers immediately entering the finishing straight, the indelible picture which will long remain consists of Alamshar surging emphatically clear, with the jockeys of his rivals obtaining only a fast-receding view of his quarters. Only in the latter stages did the runner-up, Godolphin's Sulamani, and eventual third, Kris Kin, threaten to close on the winner, but all too belatedly.

"The guy who does his back told me he thought he was better than ever before this week, and I thought 'yeah, right'," recalled Alamshar's jockey, Johnny Murtagh. "But he was brilliant with me ­ he just carried me to the two-furlong pole and the only thing I really had to do was make sure I didn't fall off. I walked the course this morning and I thought it would suit him."

Alamshar's trainer had brought his raincoat, but was relieved that it was not required until after the race. "I was a bit worried about the rain, although I was happy enough with the ground," Oxx reflected.

With that domed head and wire-rimmed spectacles perched on his nose, Oxx is a character who tends to shrink from attention. Yesterday, the trainer from Co Kildare allowed himself to revel in his charge's success with a beaming smile. But self-publicity has never been his game. Meticulous, diligent and philosophical are the adjectives that tend to adhere to him.

Those qualities have been brought into play to ensure that Alamshar was prepared for his fifth race of the season. "It's a weakness in his back, part skeletal, part muscular, and he was a little sore last week," the trainer had conceded beforehand. "But for all his problems he has never missed work." As for his constitution, Oxx added: "After the two Derbys, he came home and ate up (as welcome a sign in a racehorse as it is in a human. He is a very tough little colt and you never see him down and out."

Oxx trains 153 horses at his base at Currabeg and certainly does not depend on youth for an addition to his own expertise. The trainer is surrounded by loyal retainers, of the very best sort. Yesterday, Alamshar was led up by Jack O'Shea, who has been with Oxx and his father, also John, before him for 40 years.

In the equine generation game, this year's crop of élite three-year-olds had been all too prematurely dismissed purely on the basis of the Eclipse Stakes at Sandown ­ the first major contest of the season for three-year-olds and their elders ­ when the winner, Falbrav, and runner-up, Nayef, both five-year-olds, had asserted their superiority. Here, those who were so swift to belittle the younger brigade were reminded that three-year-olds are capable of significant development throughout the year.

It has been an unpredictable season, with neither Godolphin nor Aidan O'Brien's stable replicating the successes of recent years. The Irishman didn't even have a runner in the King George. Godolphin had three, and their Sulamani produced a late run to claim second under a galvanising ride by his jockey, Frankie Dettori, who was not discouraged. "If our horse runs like this again, I think we are on course for the Arc at the end of the season," he declared.

If Sulamani goes to Longchamp, he is unlikely to meet Alamshar, whose astute trainer has another target for his charge, the two furlongs shorter Irish Champion Stakes at Leopardstown. Yet, after an afternoon when so much was apparently against him, it's unlikely any future successes will be more impressive than this.

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