Huggins hopes to hog limelight

Sue Montgomery expects Royal Ascot's Gold Cup to trigger a double celebration
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ALTHOUGH the two-and-a-half mile Gold Cup no longer carries much clout in racing's greater scheme of things, it invariably attracts the biggest audience of the Royal Ascot meeting and often provides the best entertainment.

The special talent of the genuine, high-class stayer - as opposed to a long-distance plodder - is appreciated far more nowadays by the spectator than the breeder. The last Derby winner to run in the race was Blakeney, runner-up 25 years ago, and the last Gold Cup winner to achieve real status at stud was the 1949 hero Alycidon. Stayers are produced these days by accident not design, but four of these "misfits" - Moonax, Double Trigger, The Little Thief and Vintage Crop - should make this year's race, which will be run on Thursday, enthralling.

The likely favourite, last year's St Leger hero Moonax, will be the first winner of an English Classic to take part since fourth-placed Bruni in 1977. The Little Thief, who cheated death after breaking his pelvis as a foal, bids to become the first French-trained winner since Sagaro completed a Gold Cup hat-trick 18 years ago. Last year's runner-up Vintage Crop bids to go one better for Ireland, but Double Trigger may outstrip them all.

This flashy, flaxen-maned chestnut is trained at Middleham, Yorkshire, by Mark Johnston, whose string is now flying after a slow start. The horse is owned by Ron Huggins, who is in charge of the tissue company Kleenex, and will be well-placed to provide his supporters with some of life's little comforts.

Huggins, 45, came into racing only four years ago but has lost little time in making a mark, particularly with his horses prefixed by "Double" -Blue, Quick, Eclipse and Trigger. His success with horses owes more to sound business sense than beginner's luck, though there was an element of chance in his link-up with Johnston.

"I was staying in Middleham when I was considering relocating the company from Kent to the North," he said, "and happened to see Mark's string on the moor one morning. Then a week later I met him at Royal Ascot. I had given up rugby and sailing and was looking for an alternative to pushing a supermarket trolley - racing appealed.

"I didn't know much about the sport, so I did what I have always done in a similar situation: I set about finding out, and enlisted the help of the best people."

Johnston and Huggins spotted Double Trigger as a yearling at an Irish auction, and secured him for a shade over pounds 8,000. The intention was to buy a Classic winner, and they came close when the colt finished third to Moonax in the St Leger. "We liked him so much we had thought of a name before we bought him," Huggins said. With his light-coloured mane and tail he looked like Roy Rogers's horse."

Double Trigger again finished behind Moonax in the Yorkshire Cup in May, but an eye-catching win over two miles at Sandown 19 days ago indicated that he will relish the longer distance. If all goes well this week, his long-term target is the Melbourne Cup.

It would give Huggins particular pleasure if Double Trigger could turn the tables on Moonax, who races for the all- conquering Godolphin stable. "I have the greatest admiration for Sheikh Mohammed and the professional way he runs his operation, and we are trying to offer a challenge using the same principles, though on a smaller scale. I would get tremendous satisfaction if we can beat him."

The Maktoum family have won all but one of the Group One races run in Britain this year, and have the opportunity to add to their haul in the St James's Palace Stakes and the Coronation Stakes.

The Maktoums have the first three in the betting for the colts' race on Tuesday, which is scheduled to mark the return to Britain of the Aga Khan after five years of self-imposed exile. But his Adjareli, runner- up in the 2,000 Irish Guineas, may not cope with Vettori, winner of the French version and then sixth in the Derby.

In Wednesday's Coronation Stakes contest, the 1,000 Guineas heroine Harayir will have a tough task to reverse Irish form with Ridgewood Pearl if there is cut in the ground, and both face a serious French challenge, headed by Smolensk.

The King's Stand Stakes on Friday no longer has championship status, but should provide a platform for Mind Games. And two other highlights should be the return of last year's middle-distance champion, Balanchine, in the Prince of Wales's Stakes on Tuesday, and the clash between the flying two-year-old fillies Marl and Blue Duster in the Queen Mary Stakes on Wednesday.