Racing Commentary: Stewart's autumn assault: A trainer who suffered a frustrating summer has nursed his horses back to health and is ready to make up for lost time

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The Independent Online
CONSIDER Michael Roberts's surge away from the previously unpassable Pat Eddery in the jockeys' championship and then reflect on this: the stable - Alec Stewart's - that retains the tiny South African has barely had a runner all season. Eddery, adrift and nearly sunk, will not be encouraged to see that Stewart's horses are rapidly emerging from an illness the trainer compares to ME in humans and concedes that he may have passed round the yard himself.

There is a nest of crows to be found in racecourse bars who hold that any trainer who claims illness in their establishment has really taken to drink, lost the assistant who did all the work or has had all knowledge of horses inexplicably sucked from their brain. The croakiest of those voices will even tell you that Dick Hern - 15 Classics, three Derbys - is just making excuses when he says his string is sick. 'Man's gone', is the odious concluding squawk.

Newmarket ranks somewhere between Hollywood and Wall Street on the professional competitiveness scale, so any trainer in Flat racing's headquarters who contracts an ailment can expect to feel fashion's ejector seat twitching beneath them.

Stewart has been outside the front rank of trainers since he was blessed - and cursed, because of the expectations he generated - with the magnificent Mtoto, but the evidence of the past week or so suggests that his 70-strong team on the Bury Road is galloping towards a profitable autumn.

Stewart's description of the bad months of May, June and July, provides a bracing illustration of how quickly equine skittles can go down. Ironically it was Anghaam, who won at Sandown on Saturday, who betrayed the first signs of infection when running badly behind User Friendly in late April.

'She ran below what I'd expected and then coughed her head off for two days when she got back,' Stewart said yesterday. 'Then Kitaab finished tailed off at Haydock and we realised the horses weren't quite right. Within 10 days of those races, 75 per cent of the horses were really very sick, very quiet. I mean, it was total lethargy.

'Even after a 45-minute walking exercise they were jaded. We stopped them initially for a three- week period, then worked about five or six of them, and they really couldn't manage it. Then we realised it was a very serious situation.'

Stewart believes that in the early stages, before it was diagnosed, a bacterial infection 'was probably passed through the yard by myself going round evening stables and the blacksmith circulating.' By mid-May, he says, he would have been 'embarrassed if anybody had looked round the yard', such was the poor condition of its residents.

From 'a primary infection which caused them to be totally lifeless and listless', these ailing athletes began coughing like Woodbine addicts and left Stewart conveying lengthy explanations to his owners, 'not one of whom put any pressure on me whatsoever, which is important, because when they do start hurrying you along you start cutting corners and making mistakes.' (The fact that his two main patrons have 'Al Maktoum' in their names would largely explain the lack of agitation over lost training fees).

Paradoxically, the misfortunes of the afflicted provide an opportunity to profit for those in search of an autumn betting strategy. Last year, remember, the John Gosden stable could have signed a sponsorship deal with Beechams or Vick in August and September, but returned in the last two months of the season to capture 30 races at a strike rate of 25 per cent.

The art, then, is to spot a leading yard rising from the sea bed, and on the list of candidates for these coming months - where form favours the lightly-raced and late-emerging anyway - Stewart should be placed somewhere near the top. 'They look wonderful in their coats and they really are beginning to train and eat well,' he says.

'I was very conscious in May that things were wrong, and I'm very conscious now that they're right. The younger the horse the worse it affects them, so our strength as far as the two- and three-year-olds go is that we're moving into the autumn with fresh horses.'

Amwag (twice a winner recently) and Shuailaan started the spring as Stewart's two main players, and both are rolling towards big targets in the last third of the Flat season. Revif, a winner of the Rosebery Handicap by a comfortable four lengths way back in April and a favourite of Stewart's, is 'not far off a run', while the five two-year-olds the stable expects to run in the next two weeks should also be considered. Last year Stewart returned a pounds 27 profit to a pound stake on all his first-season runners.

All of which is good news for Roberts - as if he needs it - and bad for Eddery, who on Wednesday appeals against his recent five- day suspension for careless riding. The alliance against him is strengthening.