Racing: Charm's jaunt to foreign sands

Sue Montgomery looks at the pride of America going down a storm in the desert
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SILVER CHARM, warm favourite for Saturday's third running of the Dubai World Cup, is following in famous - but extremely rare - hoofprints. His presence in the field for the world's richest horse-race makes him only the second Kentucky Derby winner in history to venture outside North America for competition, the first being Omaha 64 years ago.

The 1935 Triple Crown hero came to England as a four-year-old to tackle the top staying events and went down by a short head, after a titanic battle, to the Oaks winner Quashed in the Ascot Gold Cup. The first prize for that contest was pounds 6,700; next weekend's winner will earn nearly pounds 1.5m. It took Omaha seven days to cross the Atlantic, in the liner Aquitania; Silver Charm flew to Dubai in 18 hours.

The big, handsome grey came agonisingly close to becoming America's 12th Triple Crown winner (Omaha was the third) when, after taking the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes by a pair of whiskers, he was a three-quarter- length runner-up to Touch Gold in the Belmont Stakes.

He comes to the World Cup on the back of two victories this year and has given the race the star quality it needs to maintain its credibility as a top-level international contest. Those who know him well say that he lives up to his name in every possible way, from his dappled steely coat to his polite, laid-back character. But Cigar and Singspiel will still be hard acts to follow.

Silver Charm's trainer, Bob Baffert, arrived in Dubai at dawn yesterday and within half an hour of touching down was trackside at Nad El Sheba to see his pride and joy canter a steady lap of the course under his work- rider, Pepe Argon. The four-year-old Silver Buck colt, who has bloomed in the Dubai sunshine, will step up a gear this morning.

Baffert, 45, a former history teacher, was brought up on his parents' horse and cattle ranch in Nogales, southern Arizona and has not previously been out of the States. Like his rather better-known colleague D Wayne Lukas he cut his teeth on quarter-horse racing, first at local county fairs and later the top Californian tracks, and conspicuous success with the two-furlong flyers prompted backing for a move to thoroughbreds 10 years ago. In 1992 his Thirty Slews won the Breeders' Cup Sprint at Gulfstream and Baffert has not looked back.

In 1996 his first Kentucky Derby runner, Cavonnier, was beaten a few inches; Silver Charm was his second. He prides himself that his horses are rarely expensive or particularly blue-blooded, and Silver Charm, a Florida-bred sold for $16,500 as a yearling, is no exception. He describes himself as an "ordinary Joe", and prefers beer to champagne, which is probably just as well, as Silver Charm's 72-year-old owner, Bob Lewis, is chairman of a company that ships Budweiser to watering holes throughout the West Coast.

Baffert, approachable and extrovert, may take his job seriously (and his results show that he does) but eases off where the rest of life is concerned. He once wore a plastic pumpkin on his head into the winner's circle on a Hallowe'en night (and his four children are named Taylor, Forest, Canyon and Savannah) and one certainty about this year's sandfest is that he will enjoy the traditional fancy dress "Arabian Nights" desert party that Sheikh Mohammed and the World Cup committee lay on for their guests.

Silver Charm, due to be partnered by Gary Stevens, will have 10 opponents, including four of the first seven home in the Arc, in the $4m (pounds 2.m) 10- furlong Group One contest; his compatriots Behrens - whose jockey Jerry Bailey has ridden both the previous winners - and Malek; the Sheikh's locally trained Godolphin pair Predappio, second favourite on the strength of his progressive form and local knowledge, and Swain; Loup Sauvage from France; Ireland's reliable Oscar Schindler; the up-and-coming Germans Oxalagu and Borgia; the ubiquitous globetrotter Luso, Britain's sole representative; and the rank outsider from Japan, Kyoto City. Peintre Celebre apart, and the race was never on his schedule, it is as representative a field of older horses as could be mustered from Europe. But dirt runners from the States have had an overwhelming advantage so far.

Closer to home, attention switches to Flat racing this week as Doncaster stages the traditional launch of the turf season, but what the Lincoln Handicap lacks in glamour it makes up for in history. Saturday's running of the mile cavalry charge will be the 145th, but a new twist to a race often decided by the luck of the draw will be that connections will be able to choose their own stall in an order decided by ballot at a public ceremony on Tuesday.