Racing: Charm on another offensive

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The Independent Online
WHEN YOU learn about Bob Baffert, America's leading trainer, the expectation is of a man with long hair and a tank top, a guitar tucked under his arm. There are few men who prepare horses in Britain who have baptised their children in the names of Canyon, Forest and Savannah. Drizzle, Quagmire and Smog might be more appropriate for children of swinging parents in old Blighty.

But then Baffert, whose silver coiffeur leads him to be nicknamed "the Silver Fox", is no ordinary man. His lowly beginning was on a chicken and cattle ranch in Arizona, so he knows about the desert conditions he will encounter in Sunday's $5m Dubai World Cup, the richest race in the world.

Baffert's Silver Charm is the first horse to return to the Emirates to protect a World Cup crown and if he succeeds he will be within snorting distance of the great Cigar's earnings record. He is favourite and reported in peak condition by his team. The grey endured a six-hour stopover in Amsterdam on the way to the Middle East and may have popped into a coffeee shop during the sojourn, as he was reported to have arrived in an unusually relaxed condition.

Silver Charm's work has been solid, but there is a residual suspicion that the many hard races he has endured in a 22-race career have eroded him. The five-year-old has lost his last two races and even connections believe he might now be vulnerable.

The horse is owned by Robert and Beverly Lewis, who know how to keep their friends. Two years ago, when Silver Charm was just a Belmont Stakes away from completing the North American Triple Crown, they chartered a plane to fly 100 to New York and then put them up in Long Island's Garden City Hotel. There were plenty of shoulders to cry on when Touch Gold wore down their hero in the last 70 yards.

Baffert won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes again last year with Real Quiet, but his attempts to join the Hall Of Famers was tripped up by Victory Gallop, another of Sunday's contestants. Victory Gallop was bred by the Tall Oaks Farm of Ivan and Irene Dalos. They first became involved in the game in 1986. "Our first horse finished 27 lengths back in last place in my first time as an owner," Ivan says. "That one was a total disaster but I think we've improved from there.''

Favourite for last place on Sunday is Philip Mitchell's Running Stag, who drew the No 8 stall yesterday and is expected to finish in the same place. Allocation of stalls positions for a mile and a quarter contest with just eight runners may seem a limited factor, but there was much fanfare yesterday. Representatives of each horse selected their berth by pulling hoods from the heads of solid silver falcons. Bo Derek was there. The whole affair just about outshone Graham Kelly and his bag of balls.

Sunday's other runners include a third American consideration of Richard Mandella's Malek, plus the formidable home quartet of Godolphin's High- Rise, Daylami, Almutawakel and Central Park.

High-Rise, the 1998 Derby winner, is the choice of Frankie Dettori for a combat under floodlights which will be witnessed by 30,000 on course at Nad Al Sheba and a further 200m television viewers in over 200 countries.

n The Dubai World Cup will be shown live at 5.15pm on BBC2's Sunday Grandstand. There will also be live coverage of the Dubai Duty Free at 4.30pm.