Peak time nears for a superstar

Sue Montgomery analyses how Celtic Swing will prepare for the 2,000 Guineas
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The Independent Online
TODAY, Britain's most valuable athlete will be served breakfast in bed, go for a leisurely stroll before lunch, have a snooze in the afternoon, pay a visit to the beauty salon, and snuggle down in hand-crafted comfort after a hearty supper. A typical Sunday for a racehorse, and Celtic Swing, hot favourite for Saturday's 2,000 Guineas at Newmarket, will enjoy it with his 72 stablemates at Lady Herries' Angmering Park.

Tomorrow, the final countdown begins towards his biggest challenge yet, and therein lies one of the huge differences between the preparation of a horse and a human. Linford Christie or Sally Gunnell can psych themselves towards a goal, but the concept of "next Saturday" has no meaning to Celtic Swing, and it is up to the skill of the people around him to bring him to his peak.

And for all the advances in science, the training of racehorses is still, after 300 years, an art. Technology can help with blood pictures, weight assessment, feed analysis and physiotherapy, but in the final count the trainer's eye makes the judgement. The gaze of the racing world has been on Celtic Swing for some time now, but nothing like as intensely as that of Lady Herries. Over the winter, she has watched her charge, the equivalent last year of a schoolboy champion, develop from a lanky teenager into a man.

The colt's impressive seasonal debut in the Greenham Stakes eight days ago shook off his ring-rustiness, and now only the fine-tuning remains. On Thursday he will do his last serious gallop, a short, sharp pipe-opener, in company with his lead horse Crackhill Farm. And early Saturday morning he will be loaded into the horsebox for the five-hour road journey to Suffolk.

A racehorse thrives on routine, and Celtic Swing is no exception. His mornings begin at around 5 o'clock when the yard's head man Dan O'Donovan starts doing his rounds. Little and often is the watchword when feeding horses, but their natural fodder, grass, is not enough to support the energy demands of racing and training. Each day Celtic Swing will consume around 18lb of high-protein food, mostly oats, supplemented with vitamins, minerals, tasty things like carrots or molasses, and roughage in the form of hay.

A horse is what he eats, so a good feedman is worth his weight in gold to a trainer, and the healthy shine on Celtic Swing's near-black coat is testimony to O'Donovan's skill, and that of 62-year-old stableman Bob Mason, whose life-time experience goes into the daily grooming of the colt. The brushing, buffing, polishing, and sponging is therapeutic as well as cosmetic, tantamount to muscle-toning.

Lady Herries' string has done most of its work this year on a new artificial surface called Polytrack, a non-slip mixture of sand and tiny shreds of rubber. The mile-long Angmering strip is against the collar most of the way, rising 100 feet in a left-handed curve to the top of the Sussex Downs, and has been a godsend this dry spring. Celtic Swing was able to build up his fitness week by week without punishing his imperfect forelegs on too-firm ground. His powerful hind quarters, once gangly, now muscled in all the right places, take him up the hill with ease.

After exercise, the two-mile walk back to the stable yard through the private Angmering estate provides total mental and physical relaxation. Horses are not supposed to care about scenery, but it is easy to believe that Celtic Swing's laid-back temperament is a product of the idyllic environment where he has spent most of his life.

For a thoroughbred, he is judged to have above-average intelligence, and in the parade ring before the Guineas next Saturday will undoubtedly react to the atmosphere of the big occasion. It will take just more than a minute and a half on the track to show whether he really has the superstar talent to go with his looks and personality.

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