Sakhee steps out in footprints of giants

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The Independent Online

It was a magical morning here yesterday when daybreak revealed a bed of mist floating effortlessly over the infield at Belmont Park and under pastel blue skies.

It was a magical morning here yesterday when daybreak revealed a bed of mist floating effortlessly over the infield at Belmont Park and under pastel blue skies.

There was the calling of geese from behind the topiary work of the centre of the track, the chevrons of fowl overhead, and, out on the dirt, the thumping of horses, good horses.

But then Belmont is no stranger to magical moments. When the likes of Galileo, Fantastic Light and Sakhee match themselves against the Americans here in Breeders' Cup XVIII on Saturday, they will be attempting to carve into the glorious history of racing around the big oval.

Man O'War, "the mostest hoss that ever was", made his debut at Belmont and also won the Belmont Stakes of 1920. He lost just once in two seasons, and never started at odds against. Three times his starting price was 100-1 on.

Yet not even Big Red created the most memorable display here on the outskirts on New York. That distinction belongs to the horse who also inherited his sobriquet, the magnificent Secretariat. The Belmont Stakes of 9 June, 1973, stands as perhaps the greatest performance in the history of horse racing. Secretariat, the 10-1 on favourite, was out to secure the Triple Crown which had not been completed since Citation 25 years previously.

Big Red, in his trademark blue and white checked blinkers, swiftly took Ron Turcotte to the lead. And then he kept going and going. Going and going. By the post he had won by 31 lengths, but he was not finished. By the time Turcotte pulled up the raging beast beneath him, Secretariat had also broken the world record for 13 furlongs. "He could not have moved faster," observed the great racing writer Charlie Hatton, "if he had fallen off the grandstand roof."

Those present that day understood that they had witnessed the abnormal. In the wake of the Belmont 5,617 tickets worth $14,597 were not cashed. They were presumably kept as souvenirs.

This then is the template of greatness against which Europe's horses must measure themselves and the growing impression seems to be that the one horse that may be able to shape up is Sakhee. Galileo and Fantastic Light appear to be locked into a personal, fortune-twisting match, but the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe winner has been out on his own recently.

Sakhee is neither big nor red, but there is undisputed potency in his little bay form. It remains to be seen, however, in which race he will deploy his skills. The conundrum is this: the four-year-old is apparently a virtual certainty for the Turf, but that is a peak Godolphin have already scaled (with Daylami two years ago). Up above cloud base, the Classic is the tallest peak in Saturday's eight-race card.

The Classic offers more glory, more danger, as it is run over a dirt surface that Sakhee has never encountered competitively. He has trained well on the track since his arrival here over a week ago, but that is almost entirely inadmissible evidence. Proof positive will come only if he is tested around the main track at the weekend.

"Sakhee's doing well and when you watch him he looks like he's getting a hold of it [the dirt], but you don't really know until they race," Tom Albertrani, the Godolphin assistant trainer, said yesterday. "I've ridden a lot of turf horses that would always work well on the dirt, but it was different when they raced on it.

"You can't get a horse used to it. You could train on it for years and if they don't want to, they won't like it. Either they like it or they don't."

This was the downside yesterday outside Godolphin's barn no.6, where there were pigeons on the roof and hawks on the ground. The Arab team have hired two minders for the meeting to make sure nobody gets silly around their boxes.

Albertrani, a New Yorker, was wearing cowboy chaps, and addressed the media infantry from the vantage point of his palomino hack, Doc Trouble. After the caveats, the warm noises about Sakhee's chances slowly seeped out. "He's never been better since he has been here," Albertrani said. "He looks as well as he has all season."

A decision on which races the Godolphin horses contest (both Sakhee and Fantastic Light are in the Classic and the Turf) will be made tomorrow after some gentle five-furlong work. They will not be manoeuvres well received by the local clockers and bettors, people who like to see lines of fire being left behind on the racetrack even during gallops.

"I think the media want to see bullet works," Albertrani added. "But you can't tell me that the horse with the fastest work is going to win every Breeders' Cup race. It just doesn't work that way."

The time for shooting out of the gunbarrel, or falling off the grandstand, the time to join the greats does not really arrive until the lights are switched on on Saturday evening.