Racing: Washington switches to Classic duel

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The Independent Online

The two most magnetic thoroughbreds in the world will meet in Kentucky next month. Reflecting on another epic showdown at Newmarket on Saturday, when Holy Roman Emperor was just thwarted by Teofilo, Aidan O'Brien revealed that George Washington will definitely tackle the American champion, Bernardini, in the Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs on 4 November.

In every respect, this will be a home game for Bernardini: 10 furlongs, on dirt, in his own backyard. The conservative option was to keep George Washington to a familiar surface and distance, but O'Brien will instead saddle Aussie Rules and Ad Valorem in the Mile. Scorpion, the 2005 St Leger winner who recently made an encouraging return from injury, completes his team in the Turf.

"George goes for the Classic," O'Brien said. "We know he would have been short-priced favourite for the Mile, but winning the Classic would open the whole world to him. The one thing they need to do, to handle the dirt, is travel in their races - and that's what George has always done, as much as any horse we've ever had."

Last Friday, the Ballydoyle trainer intended taking George Washington to Southwell to sample the Fibresand. That experiment was frustrated by airport fog, but O'Brien remains confident that the colt's quirkier side will not be provoked by kickback on the dirt. "When we couldn't fly, we took him home and worked him on the Polytrack," O'Brien said.

"Obviously that's not the same, but I do remember in the spring, when the ground was bad, and he had mud kicked in his face working, he never batted an eyelid."

It would be typical of racing if this audacious decision were greeted with bleating about the commercial agenda of George Washington's owners at Coolmore Stud. For it sometimes seems as though John Magnier and his partners cannot please people, whatever they do.

In the spring, George Washington's display of simmering egotism before, during and after the 2,000 Guineas, prompted cynics to predict his disappearance to stud, before he could do any more damage to his value. Instead, having trounced older horses at Ascot last month, he goes to Louisville as a champion in his pomp, his maturity a monument to the skills of his trainer.

Of course, he would have been hot favourite to devour American milers on turf, and his pedigree offers no encouragement that he will adapt to the alien surface. Both Johannesburg and Giant's Causeway, who excelled when switched to dirt at the Breeders' Cup, were bred for the job. But George Washington shares with Galileo, Oratorio and Hawk Wing the turf genes that condemned them to obliteration in the Classic. Even on grass, moreover, his stamina for the longer distance would be a concern. As a result, racing's many pompous sages will condemn a reckless gamble, driven by the hope that George Washington could stay in Kentucky for his stallion career.

Surely, however, this adventure should instead command admiration and respect. If "commercialism" nowadays means taking risks - exactly the reverse of its traditional role in racing - then that is a matter for celebration.

Bernardini, of course, is owned by Sheikh Moham-med, who notoriously has his differences with Coolmore. A sequence of runaway wins has made him a blazing favourite for the Classic, and the bulwark to an underperforming empire. No diplomacy will disguise the frisson derived, in both camps, from his pursuit by the Ballydoyle champion.

But Magnier's gamble is governed partly by a sense that George Washington is immune to the usual rules, and partly by pragmatism. Among European breeders, George Washington has nothing to lose. He would be instantly forgiven if the wheels came off in the Classic. If a son of Danehill could finally break into the American market, however, he would open a priceless new frontier for Coolmore.

Furthermore, O'Brien already has a legitimate hand in the Mile with Ad Valorem and, especially, Aussie Rules - who made an impressive American debut at Keeneland nine days ago.

Kieren Fallon's restricted availability meanwhile continues to vex his patrons. Yesterday the jockey was reported to have decided that he could not ask them to persevere with him, unless corruption charges are dropped before a protracted court hearing. As and when he gives up riding, moreover, Fallon apparently intends to take up training.

In the mean time he will be wondering whether he might have avoided the traffic that detained Michael Kinane in the Dewhurst Stakes. Weaving his way through, Holy Roman Emperor consumed energy very quickly and possibly that - rather than the winner's superior stamina - accounted for the way Teo-filo, having been headed, rallied to win the photo.

Chris McGrath

Nap: Diggs Lane (Pontefract 2.20)

NB: Dan's Heir (Pontefract 4.20)