Racing Commentary: Opera in pursuit of an encore in Paris: A Derby winner's credentials are questioned as the King George victor is made favourite for the Arc

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The Independent Online
IT IS AN oddity of racing that the future means more than the present. Dwelling time was again down to a minimum at Ascot on Saturday after Opera House had posted the finest moment of his career in taking the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes.

As the horse stood steaming in the winners' enclosure, the King George was not the first race on the mind of most. They wanted to know about the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe.

The linking of Britain's high-summer championship and the European showdown in Paris's autumn occurs annually, yet seldom have there been two top races less worthy of being bracketed. Only four horses have ever won both events in the same year and three of those - Ribot, Mill Reef and Dancing Brave - are among the best examples the species has ever produced.

The French are so convinced the King George is a graveyard for the rest of the season that they do not send runners any more. 'Top races in July are fatal for three-year-olds,' Francois Boutin, the French trainer, has said.

Michael Stoute, Opera House's trainer, knows the pitfalls, particularly as the best horse he has ever trained, Shergar, went off the rails after his 1981 King George victory.

'It's difficult but not impossible to win both,' he said yesterday. 'It's difficult to win the Arc no matter what you win beforehand, and I think it's particularly difficult with three-year-olds who have had a Classic programme.

'I shall make no predictions and say that this horse is going to win the Arc, but I'm going to get him ready for it and we shall have to wait and see. Longchamp's a long time away and we've got to try to find another peak.'

The five-year-old Opera House has at least detonated one King George preconception: that the conditions of the race favour the Classic generation. Three-year-olds do have an admirable recent record, but that is more because their best representatives are sent into play against those left over after breeding syndicates have had their pick of the older horses.

More vexing is the question of both Opera House's merit and the worth of the three-year-olds who finished behind him, White Muzzle and Commander In Chief. Last year, Stoute's horse was a bystander rather than an influence in Group One races, yet this season he has now won three of the sport's leading races in succession.

Stoute insists his animal has improved, but this is a performer who has always run with utmost consistency and it is hard to believe he has taken his general level of performance up by a great degree. The Newmarket trainer himself refuses to eulogise about Opera House. 'You know my style,' he said. 'I let them do the talking.'

Stoute does very little talking at all in public. In true political fashion, his answers have little regard for the questions that precede them, and there is the impression that interrogators would have to replace the light bulb several times before they got anything out of him.

Opera House's understated career has therefore suited the trainer perfectly. 'The great thing about this horse is that you fellows have never rated him, so I've never had to answer many questions about him,' he said.

Stoute is happy to leave the evaluation of the three-year-olds to others, but the suspicion has now been planted that Commander In Chief, the dual Derby winner, is not the powerful beast his Classic wins had previously suggested.

Only two of the last 11 Derby winners to run in the King George have failed at Ascot and ominously for Henry Cecil's colt they were the forgettable Snow Knight and Shahrastani. The Newmarket trainer had found only small crumbs of comfort by yesterday. 'He probably would have finished second if the winner hadn't crossed him,' Cecil said. 'But on the day he was beaten by a stronger horse. Commander In Chief did everything right except win. He is in the Arc but will have a rest before we decide what to do with him.'

Crops of racehorses cannot, biologically, vary greatly from one year to the next, but then neither can they be the same and the sight of the previously yeoman Opera House disposing of this year's cream suggests this is not the greatest batch.

Stoute, though, prefers to consider the result a different way and points to the horse who finished 10 lengths behind Commander In Chief. 'Look where the fourth (User Friendly) was,' he said. 'If he (Opera House) hadn't been there, everyone would be saying how good the three-year-olds were because they would have taken User Friendly (last year's Oaks and St Leger winner) as a line.' The trouble is, though, that Opera House was there.

However, his name cannot be removed from the record book, and, whatever he achieves from here, Sheikh Mohammed, the horse's owner, has been rewarded for his decision to keep the son of Sadler's Wells in training.

'People should stop, think, look at the form and give the horse credit,' Stoute said. 'He's won three Group Ones and I hope for his sake they'll now give him some credit.' Unlike most at Ascot on Saturday, Michael Stoute was very happy to live for the present.

PRIX DE L'ARC DE TRIOMPHE (Longchamp, 3 October): Coral: 5-1 Opera House, 8-1 Commander In Chief, Hernando & Wemyss Bight, 10-1 Armiger & Intrepidity, 14-1 User Friendly & White Muzzle; Ladbrokes: 5-1 Opera House, 7-1 Wemyss Bight, 8-1 Commander In Chief & Hernando, 10-1 Armiger & White Muzzle, 12-1 Intrepidity & User Friendly; William Hill: 5-1 Opera House, 6-1 Wemyss Bight, 7-1 Commander In Chief, 8-1 Hernando & White Muzzle, 9-1 User Friendly, 10-1 Armiger & Shemaka, 14-1 Intrepidity, 16-1 Apple Tree, Modhish, Serrant & Vert Amande.

(Photograph omitted)