Racing: Azzilfi tables his Leger claims

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The Independent Online
THE prestige that the St Leger once enjoyed has gone beyond recall - though last week's decision to change its off-time to accommodate live chess coverage seems a little extreme. Yet, while Azzilfi, winner of the Geoffrey Freer Stakes here yesterday, is at least a stone behind the best of his generation, his determination alone will make him a worthy challenger for the fifth Classic.

Sonus, the Goodwood Cup winner, was a strong favourite as the five runners left the stalls. Michael Roberts, his jockey, was confident, deciding to lie up several lengths off Azzilfi's steady pace. So it stayed to the three pole, where Assessor struck for home, and Azzilfi, for the moment, appeared ready to drop tamely away.

Willy Carson, though, must have sensed that his mount was keeping something back. Soon, his urgent pushing was finding a response, and Azzilfi stretched again, squeezing past Assessor at the distance. Even then, Carson was hardly about to put down his whip and Azzilfi needed to be driven out to the line, but Assessor a thoroughly one-paced stayer, could find nothing more. Sonus made late progress into third but started from too far back.

With no worthwhile prep races in the meantime, Azzilfi will now go straight to Doncaster. Although yesterday's going was on the fast side of good, his connections feel that some cut in the ground would increase his chance still further. When it comes to application, few will be his equal.

The same is true of Kevin Darley, who maintained the momentum of his improbable challenge for the jockeys' title on Heaven-Liegh-Grey in the sprint handicap. Victories do not come much narrower, and the fast-finishing CatherineofAragon was in front a fraction of a second later, but Darley's total still rose by one. With Pat Eddery riding at Deauville, he is now just four behind.

The day's most fortunate rider was Richard Hills who partnered Ihtiraz in the Silver Trophy Handicap. Two out, Ihtiraz was going well but going nowhere, his passage up the stands rail blocked by a wall of horses six wide. Even in the grandstand, you could almost hear him saying his prayers, and his patron saint is clearly a powerful one. A gap opened, and Hills stole gratefully through to win going away.

How Lord Carnarvon would welcome a return to such good fortune. His lucky streak, stretching back to Lyric Fantasies remarkable 1992 season, has not so much gone into reverse as performed a handbrake turn, with the death of his best runner, Niche, in a freak accident and an injury disrupting plans for her apparent successor, Lemon Souffle.

Pommes Frites was made 9-4 favourite to stop the rot in the Saint Hugh's stakes. At half-way she lost her action and dropped away with Lester Piggott peering at her legs for signs of lameness. She was found to have chipped a near-fore knee bone, will undergo an operation shortly, and be out of action for the rest of the season.

Lord Carnarvon's only comfort is the tradition that says misfortunes come in threes.

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