Racing awaits its wonder horse

Champion or just a shooting star?
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The Independent Online
After his brilliant career as a two-year-old, Celtic Swing holds the racing world in his thrall. Richard Edmondson gets a first glimpse of the colt this season, while Greg Wood (right) explores the mystery of his Classic potential

The racecard will tell you that Celtic Swing has nine stone on his back if he canters to post for the 2,000 Guineas on 6 May, but there will be considerably more than that. This colt from a second-class family will also be shouldering a weight of expectation unprecedented in British racing for two decades. If hopes and desires were pounds and ounces, he would surely collapse in the parade ring.

In racing, as in so many other pursuits, talk is cheap. The difference on the turf is that talk is the only thing that is cheap, and horses are often acclaimed as future champions or all-time greats, on evidence as ephemeral as the betting slips which hit the floor as soon as their next race proves otherwise. It is quite possible that the claims and predictions made for Celtic Swing, who has to date spent less than five minutes actually racing, will fare no better.

Those five minutes, however, include one of the finest performances by a two-year-old in living memory. In the Racing Post Trophy at Doncaster last October, Celtic Swing sauntered away from a very useful field to win by 12 lengths, the largest margin in the history of Group One juvenile events in Britain. Despite the lack of opposition from two furlongs out, the winning time was remarkable. If Celtic Swing retired tomorrow, his status as an outstanding juvenile would remain.

But that would be a little like being the best cricketer never to play for England. In flat racing, enduring greatness is conferred only by the Classics; the contests for three-year-olds over a mile (2,000 Guineas), a mile and a half (Derby) and a mile and three-quarters (St Leger), which have established the best horses of each generation for more than two centuries.

To win all three - the Triple Crown - requires a horse with a mixture of speed, stamina and fitness which appears maybe three or four times each century. Nijinsky, in 1970, was the last horse to complete the set. Peter Savill, Celtic Swing's owner, has been making it clear since before Christmas that his colt will set out to be the next.

It is a bold - some would say rash - statement of intent when injury or misfortune are a constant threat, but a racing public which has not seen a great champion since the days of Mill Reef and Brigadier Gerard in the early 1970s has taken it so seriously that anything less will now seem like failure.

If such is the verdict when the season draws to a close, the only consolation for Celtic Swing's connections will be that his life sentence in the file marked "nearly horses" will certainly not be served in solitary. The list of brilliant two-year-olds who failed to maintain their dominance at three is long and inglorious.

The publication Timeform has been rating horses since the late 1940s, and it does not trouble itself with rumour or speculation. The theories behind its calculations are fairly complex, but its figures still offer a useful indication of Celtic Swing's place in the post-war racing order.

Following his campaign as a two-year-old, he achieved a Timeform rating of 138, which has been surpassed only once in the publication's history - by Windy City in 1951, who was rated 142. Other outstanding ratings of the past 25 years include Apalachee (137 in 1973), Arazi (135 in 1991) and Tromos (134 in 1978).

The bad news, particularly for the punter who has staked £5,000 at 7- 1 with Ladbrokes that Celtic Swing will complete the Guineas-Derby double, is that not one of that quartet managed to win either Classic the following season.

Windy City went, somewhat appropriately, to race in the United States, but broke down early in his three-year-old season and did not compete again. Apalachee did at least run in the 2,000 Guineas, but was beaten at odds of 4-9. It was his last race. Tromos had just one outing at three, finishing second of three in the Craven Stakes. Arazi ran well down the field in the Kentucky Derby, and never won at the top level again.

As a rule, it would seem that great three-year-olds are very good - but nothing more - as juveniles, Nijinsky, Mill Reef and Brigadier Gerard being prime examples. In human terms, horses are adolescent at the age of two, and develop just as unpredictably as any teenager. Dominant juveniles may simply be more mature than their contemporaries. Six months later, horses with a superior engine may have acquired the adult physique which allows them to exploit it.

Celtic Swing may prove to be an exception, since experienced judges of horseflesh have long believed that his frame and musculature have considerable room for growth and improvement. His form last season was so exceptional that he may not even need to improve significantly to win either the Guineas or the Derby. But if he could progress further - 8-10lb is not unusual between two and three - he could be not just the best horse we have seen, but the best anyone has seen.

It is a thought which is disturbing the sleep of countless racing fans at present. Here is another. Celtic Swing had a half-sister called Cissbury Ring, who won her first race by 10 lengths. In her second, she broke down too badly to be saved. Celtic Swing is a few months and several big "ifs" away from joining, perhaps even surpassing, the finest racehorses in history. It is a mighty burden to bear when disaster is never more than a stride away.

THE SIX GREATEST HORSES

OF THE POST-WAR ERA

1 SEA BIRD II

Won the 1965 Derby in a canter, then treated one of the best fields ever assembled for the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe with equal contempt.

2 BRIGADIER GERARD

The winner of 17 of his 18 starts, which included the 1971 2,000 Guineas. Was probably the best this century, winning the King George, Eclipse and Champion Stakes (twice).

3 MILL REEF

Second in Brigadier Gerard's Guineas, and never beaten again. Won Derby, King George, Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, Eclipse and Coronation Stakes in 1971. Last horse to complete Derby-Arc double.

4 NIJINSKY

Last winner of the Triple Crown, in 1970, with the King George ("a formality", according to Lester Piggott, his jockey) and Irish Derby thrown in. Offspring included Golden Fleece and Shahrastani, both Derby winners.

5 RIBOT

Unbeaten in 16 races. Two successes in the Arc, in 1955 and 1956, the second by six lengths from a field of such quality that the 1956 Irish Derby winner, Talgo, started at 100-1.

6 DANCING BRAVE

Won 1986 2,000 Guineas, and beaten only by his jockey's bad tactics in the Derby. Went on to win the Eclipse and King George, and an Arc which included the unbeaten French Derby winner, Bering.

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