Racing: Whipper in the hunt on the first day of business

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The Independent Online

The first serious business of the Flat season will be conducted at Newmarket on Saturday with the running of the 196th 2,000 Guineas. Behind the fun part of the sport - the punting, the socialising, the day out - is a heavyweight industry, and the first Classic of the year is the moment when investments can start to pay dividends. Can, of course, is the significant word, for that business about the value of shares going down as well as up is particularly apposite when the commodity has four legs and a pair of pricked ears.

The first serious business of the Flat season will be conducted at Newmarket on Saturday with the running of the 196th 2,000 Guineas. Behind the fun part of the sport - the punting, the socialising, the day out - is a heavyweight industry, and the first Classic of the year is the moment when investments can start to pay dividends. Can, of course, is the significant word, for that business about the value of shares going down as well as up is particularly apposite when the commodity has four legs and a pair of pricked ears.

The Guineas, an uncompromising test down the straight Rowley Mile, is the first élite marker; not a championship in itself - although the winner may ultimately prove to be a champion - but the initial establishment of a pecking order among three-year-old colts. A good Guineas winner, like Rock Of Gibraltar, will go on to defend his status through the season; an average one, like Golan, will win some, lose some; a bad one, like Island Sands, will succumb ignominiously.

But even if he does nothing else on the track in his life, it will be a case of mission accomplished for Saturday's winner as far as his next career is concerned. He will be a second-season Group One winner over a mile, a highly desirable commodity at stud. If he is wearing the right set of genes, all the better.

Sure, the people involved at the top enjoy their horses, and get that glow of pride from an individual and a performance. But to operate on the scale of John Magnier, the brains behind Coolmore and Ballydoyle, or Sheikh Mohammed, with his Godolphin and Darley operations, hard-headed finances have to apply. There is more than disappointment in the gulf between first and second.

Take the Guineas favourite, One Cool Cat, pride of Ballydoyle. The most precocious and accomplished of the Aidan O'Brien string last year, he has headed the market since his authoritative National Stakes victory in September, his fourth straight win. His sire, Storm Cat, is the world's most expensive stallion at $500,000 a mating; Magnier's investment in the Kentucky-based Storm Cat, a veteran of 21, as a potential sire of future sires for his international bloodstock empire has been huge. One Cool Cat cost $3.1m as a yearling.

The price Sheikh Mohammed paid for Snow Ridge in acquiring him for his Godolphin squad after his impressive Royal Lodge Stakes success has not been disclosed, but it is probably reasonable to assume that six noughts are involved. The son of Indian Ridge, a very good Irish-based stallion, was beaten in his first outing in the blue silks, but that race - the Dewhurst Stakes - was a slowly-run affair that did not play to his strengths, and during the close season he has been sparkling in Dubai.

Neither he nor One Cool Cat has been seen in public in anger this year. Those who have emerged from winter quarters to put their reputations on the line in trials have done so with varying fortunes. For the shock Dewhurst winner, Milk It Mick (who, in stark contrast to most of his rivals on Saturday, comes from a plebeian background, the result of a £1,000 covering by a nonentity stallion), the fairytale appears over: he has been beaten on both his runs this term. Three Valleys, by Diesis, now looks like a sprinter. But Haafhd forcibly demonstrated that he has improved from two to three with a five-length romp in the Craven Stakes. The chestnut's sire, Alhaarth, is one of the most promising of the younger brigade.

Grey Swallow, another Irish contender, won his prep adequately in the face of adversity, coping with muddy ground, a weight concession, lack of match fitness and a bash in the face from a rival's whip. He is from the middle-distance champion Daylami's first crop, and a fine advertisement for his young sire.

Salford City repaid Michael Tabor's perspicacity in talent-spotting him during the winter by taking the Greenham Stakes, despite obvious inexperience. His sire, Desert Sun, is responsible for the marvellous Australian mare Sunline.

The most impressive trial, though, was arguably the Prix Djebel, won by Saturday's sole French challenger, Whipper, who cruised home by eight lengths. The white-faced colt - unfashionably, rather than humbly, bred, by top-class Kingmambo's lesser brother Miesque's Son - was sold for just $4,000 as a foal but is another headhunted for rather more, by Robert Strauss after his Prix Morny success. With the Guineas still six days away and factors such as the draw and going as yet unknown, he appeals as value.

"He's good, it's as simple as that," said his trainer, Robert Collet, who sent the less-talented Zipping over from Chantilly to finish fourth two years ago. Jockey Christophe Soumillon, the talented, mercurial Belgian, was more direct. "We're going to Newmarket," he said after the Djebel, "to kick English asses."

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