Late thrust decisive for Ashkalani

ASCOT'S FESTIVAL OF RACING: : The meeting's highlight rekindles old rivalry but the French raider may devour both protagonists
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The Independent Online
Twelve months ago this weekend Sheikh Mohammed shepherded a bunch of nervous pressmen into a private Ascot chalet and instructed that the coffee should be poured. As the fine bone-china cups rattled in their saucers Dubai's crown prince announced that one of racing's greatest alliances was virtually over as he had lost his patience with Henry Cecil.

The precise reason why this fissure developed is no clearer now than it was that day. There are theories. Sheikh Mohammed certainly considered Cecil was getting a little too big for his tasselled boots and that his wife, Natalie, was straying from his idea of how a trainer's wife should behave (ie smile sweetly and occasionally flick a duster over the Welsh dresser).

One proposition was that the Arab had taken business-ending umbrage at the discovery that Cecil had not been forthright about an injury to Mark Of Esteem. The removal of that colt from Warren Place probably hurt Cecil more than any other as he went on to recover in the Emirates before collecting the 2,000 Guineas the following spring. He now has the capability to damage the Newmarket man still further this afternoon when he contests a quite exceptional Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Ascot. If Mark Of Esteem is successful he will almost certainly help Saeed Bin Suroor, the nominal head of the Sheikh's Godolphin operation, leap over Cecil at the head of the trainers' championship.

Of today's seven runners (an annoying number for a race which could have presented good each-way possibilities) only Charnwood Forest, like Mark Of Esteem formerly trained by Cecil but now carrying Godolphin's striking blue livery, has failed to win a Group One event over a mile this year.

The other domestic Classic winner in the field is Cecil's Bosra Sham, who has been in dry dock ever since she damaged a hoof in winning the 1,000 Guineas. It is the Newmarket trainer's great good fortune that he has surrounded himself with owners apart from Sheikh Mohammed who are not short of a bob or two. Bosra Sham is the property of Wafic Said, who forked out 530,000gns at Park Paddocks two years ago to secure the filly. That money now looks well spent, though there is the suggestion that Bosra Sham may have left her career behind in the race that made it.

For those who like to settle back on the sofa and bathe in their own cleverness about having secured the value option, there is only one alternative. Bijou D'Inde has closely linked form with both Mark Of Esteem and the French challenger, Ashkalani, yet he remains a much larger price than either. This draws a reaction close to anger from Mark Johnston, as Bijou D'Inde's position in the market is not only a comment on the horse, it also implies that the trainer himself is not up to securing a prize of this nature.

As Johnston has already won a Classic it is unworthy for people to look down on him and it is not a bias he much enjoys. "I thought we'd got over all that prejudice by now, but it's everybody else's problem and not mine," the Middleham trainer said yesterday. "I think Bijou D'Inde's price is insulting. If the horse runs up to his Ascot form [when he beat Ashkalani] he's got to just about win it.

"Having said that I'm not as confident as I'd like to be, but that's got nothing to do with the opposition. The problem is getting the horse there in the same condition that I had him at Ascot. The ground on the gallops is rock hard so we haven't really let him down on it and I don't know if his form at home is quite as good as in mid-summer."

If Bijou D'Inde then is hardly surfing into the Group One race on a tide of high expectation, the same cannot be said for the protagonist who arrives for work from over the Channel. ASHKALANI (nap 3.20) is assessed to be in the form of his life by Alain de Royer Dupre, who, for all his outstanding successes on the Continent, has yet to post a winner in Britain.

The trainer must have thought that statistic was going to be left behind in the St James's Palace Stakes at the Royal meeting, when his chestnut swept into the lead a furlong out. But while De Royer Dupre's topper was in the air his runner was clawed back by Bijou D'Inde.

Michael Kinane was blamed (a trifle unfairly) for making his challenge too early that day, though it has to be said that Ashkalani looks a much more potent performer when produced in the dying moments. His last effort was stunningly persuasive as Gerard Mosse, this afternoon's pilot, cut down talented rivals in the Prix du Moulin in a manoeuvre that was close to insolence. Ashkalani has better foes to deal with today, but the reputation and record he brings from France is so awesome that he must be the selection.