Racing Commentary: Friendly's sternest test still lies ahead

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The Independent Online
LET US, for a moment, be churlish, sifting and grading the details of User Friendly's St Leger victory in a way that museum curators or gymnastics judges might understand. In a way, in other words, that negates instinctual appreciation of the race and threatens to turn us into elitists and parlour-room pedants.

How good is User Friendly? It seems a reasonable question after Sunday's pictures of the grinning winning team are lining cat-litter trays or enveloping rotten vegetables. The point in racing, you see, is that enjoyment of the moment is always subordinated to a consideration of things to come. In anticipating all our tomorrows, we surrender all our todays.

So here goes. Maybe User Friendly still has something to prove (though her trainer, Clive Brittain, ought to be free at last from the charge that he is too quixotic to merit comparison with the very best). For sure, User Friendly saved the St Leger from another wave of attacks. For sure she maintained her unbeaten record with that surge away from Sonus and Bonny Scot. But the real test - in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe - is surely still to come.

What User Friendly did at Doncaster on Saturday was restate what we already knew about her while reaffirming Brittain's ability to deliver a Classic contender in the peak of condition. To see this tall and slightly brutish filly in the parade ring was to feel that tidal urge to bet-the-lot washing you hopelessly towards the gurgling drain of the bookmakers. The race was over from the moment Brittain pulled that rug off.

But that is all aesthetic history and if we are to place User Friendly in the proper echelon a closer look at the race is necessary. It is the curse of many top-class racehorses (Nashwan is one) to be judged in relation to those they beat, and by that criterion User Friendly emerges with no great fanfares from Saturday's win.

Sonus, in second, may have been runner-up to Bonny Scot (third here) in the Great Voltigeur Stakes at York, but the hard total of his achievements were wins in minor races at Leicester and Newbury. This was the first time User Friendly had taken on runners of the opposite sex, and in retrospect her opponents at Doncaster can be categorised as way below the top division. 'There wasn't a Group One colt in the race, but there would have been if she (User Friendly) hadn't run,' Brittain said with startling ingenuity. Once you had traced the logic of that statement, you could only agree.

The St Leger, with its will-they- or-won't-they-run charades, needed a performance of such authority to repel the annual assault of those who think it should be dropped, or turned into a handicap, or opened to camels. It also earned a special place in betting folklore, because from the moment Ladbrokes offered 11-4 User Friendly at the start of Saturday trading the bookmakers seemed determined to take every bent penny they could for the favourite.

Before the race Brittain emerged from a short conference with a bookie's rep to say: 'I've just had the bet of a lifetime,' and, agonisingly for all the rationalists who decided it was all too good to be true, so had half the punters in the land. 'I think she was a 3-1 on chance,' Brittain said later, though in fairness he is not well known for traipsing along Newmarket High Street with a sandwich board proclaiming the end of the world.

The most affecting line in Brittain's long and frank debriefing - he is, be assured, a journalist's dream - came when the issue of User Friendly's potential for improvement was raised. She has already won each of her five races, including the Oaks, Irish Oaks and Yorkshire Oaks - a forest of Oaks, in fact - but still there may be more to come.

'She hasn't reached her peak yet,' Brittain said, while claiming to have seized an unassailable psychological advantage in the approach to the Arc. 'Whatever happens between now and then,' he said, 'they've got the collywobbles, not me.'

(Photograph omitted)

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