Halling humbling the Classic sting

BREEDERS' CUP: The Irish carry the standard for Europe as Britain's challengers fail to add to a meagre tally at the meeting
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The Independent Online
RICHARD EDMONDSON

reports from New York

It was like the darkest days of the Ryder Cup. The British did not simply lose against the Americans at the Breeders' Cup, they were embarrassed, and it cannot go on much longer.

Like the golf contest in the past, the brightest European moment at Belmont Park on Saturday came from a performer from outside Britain, Ireland's Ridgewood Pearl gamely securing the Mile.

Of the 84 Breeders' Cup races now held (admittedly, not represented in all of them), Britain has won precisely three times. Saturday's collapse was all the more disastrous in that the travellers had expected to do well in temperate New York.

Maybe the location lulled the British trainers because yet again the horses looked over-trained yet inexperienced around Belmont's turn. Sayyedati's swan-song third in the Mile was their best result.

Certainly the absence of a combative edge is damaging for spectator levels as the crowd was down 14,000 to 37,000 (albeit on an unpleasant day) on the last occasion New York hosted.

The microcosm for Britain's inadequacy was the Classic, which had been built up to the beams as a head-to-head between America's Cigar and Britain's Halling. In truth, it was as competitive as when a fox gets into the coup. It was a flexing of muscles between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Charles Hawtrey.

Halling had moved acceptably well for the first half of the race when he suddenly began turning with the facility (as Lake Coniston had in the Sprint) of Norman Wisdom negotiating a slippery pavement corner. "I had my danger [Cigar] in front of me and I was just starting to dream, then suddenly the dream went," Walter Swinburn, Halling's rider, reported. "He was travelling well within himself and he was feeling good, then when the racing started he changed his legs and was gone in two strides."

So swift was his capitulation that Halling looked as though he had changed his legs for mine. He finished last and it seemed he had sustained an injury of some significance. However, after being scoped and examined the colt was found to be sound, and he took off for a Dubaian winter with his reputation reduced to ticker tape.

This, however, should not detract from Cigar, who is as good a horse as America has seen for a decade. He is bred like a grass horse, he looks like a grass horse, but his metamorphosis has been on dirt, on which he is unbeaten for 12 races and more than 12 months. The sequence looked unlikely to be troubled from early on Saturday.

The taut-necked five-year-old entered the paddock as if bad intent was on his mind. "He was just growling at everyone, he didn't want to be bothered," Jerry Bailey, his jockey, said. "He was real aggressive.

"I have to work harder at holding this horse than riding him. When I came into the stretch I'd lost the sensation in the tips of my fingers. I went to twirl my stick, but all the blood had rushed out of them."

As often happens, the more successful Cigar has become, the more he is invested with intelligence. Allen Paulson, his owner, described the horse's great interest in aeroplanes as they passed overhead and even suggested he had a sense of humour. The bay japed by picking a baseball cap from his groom's head on the morning of competition. A place at Harvard Business School beckons.

After the success of Cigar, who is named in Paulson manner after an aviation checkpoint in the Gulf of Mexico, there were plenty of the tobacco-leaf versions flourished. Stogies, they call them here. They were in people's mouths, in mounds in the men's rooms and one was behind Bailey's ear, rubbing against a cap bearing the great horse's name.

As Paulson returned to the winner's circle he will have noticed the pivotal figure in a group of beards, one Sheikh Mohammed. The pair collaborated with another headline horse, Arazi, four years ago, and it may be that the Sheikh's cheque book is to be flipped open once more. Cigar will at least run in the Sheikh's homeland as he is expected to stay in training with the Dubai World Cup, the globe's richest event, his target next March.

This will raise a spectre which tends to colour Breeders' Cups. In the Emirates, Cigar will be unable to use either the Lasix or Bute medication on which he has performed so brilliantly in the United States, and if he does not prevail in the Middle East, the merit of his true ability will be questioned. On Saturday there was also the nagging doubt raised by the Turf victory of Northern Spur, who is an improved beast from the one he was in Europe now that Lasix is being injected into him.

Northern Spur's victory frustrated his former trainer, Andre Fabre, who was second with Freedom Cry. The stands were hardly cascading with tears at this. In a land where words usually come easily, Fabre has been a frostily taciturn figure all week and has not made many entries in the column for friends won.

The Turf was, of course, the event Lammtarra should have run in and he would just about have won it, judged on the performance of Freedom Cry, his Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe victim. The chance for the Derby winner to record an unheralded, and probably unmatchable, four-timer was tossed away on the platitude that he had proved all he had to. Try telling that to the folks who saw Cigar.

There was glory for Europe - or more specifically Ireland - though, as Sean Coughlan, the man who came to Britain in 1957 "with a packet of cigarettes in one pocket and not a shilling in the other", once again displayed his bag of tricks in the winner's area. There was no braver horse than Ridgewood Pearl on Saturday, no more ebullient winner than her owner, who charged to meet her with the Irish Tricolour rippling over his head.

There is something about an Irish celebration that would grate if performed by another nationality, but as the Cheltenham Festival has shown, only the mean-spirited (and there were some of them around on Saturday) would not share in the palpable joy.

The race was also a tribute to Ridgewood Pearl's jockey, John Murtagh, who has conquered weight problems to become a riding force both in his Irish homeland and Dubai, and her trainer, John Oxx, who, in his greatest hour, managed to make a glacier look emotional.

This was also a great victory for Catholicism. Coughlan, who prayed at St Patrick's Cathedral on Fifth Avenue on his arrival in New York, tipped Lourdes water he had brought with him in a phial into the filly's bucket. Murtagh went out to ride with a blessed medal in his helmet which the owner had picked up in Knock. Britain's trainers had better start collecting well in advance of Breeders' Cup XIII in Toronto.

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