Racing: Ezzoud shows courage of the genuine article: York Ebor Meeting: A favourite, if enigmatic, whipping-boy responds to pressure and lays to rest once and for all the coward's stigma

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The Independent Online
EZZOUD has been called more names than the fat boy in the school playground, but yesterday his band of detractors slimmed drastically after the five-year-old's courageous victory here in the International Stakes.

Over four seasons in training Michael Stoute's horse has attracted a definitive, if unflattering, reputation. He is meant to be unreliable and cowardly when the sinews begin to ache at the end of a race, a stigma that endured until yesterday despite the fact he had two Group One successes in the locker.

Ezzoud hardly helps himself in this respect. In the paddock he is not an inspirational figure as he jogs around nervously, his head at the angle of an aircraft spotter's and obscured by a visor. In addition, he does not provoke a drum roll of the pulse in his morning work, when he is so unwilling to break himself out of torpor that he is made to work with the maidens. The messages he gives are those of an athlete turning up for competition with a dog- end in his mouth and shoelaces undone.

But all the beliefs that had been built up before were met by a wrecking ball in a single moment yesterday. Having taken over from a wallowing King's Theatre a furlong from home, Ezzoud was then challenged repeatedly by the blue- stockinged Muhtarram. This was a time when everyone in the crowd, and even Walter Swinburn, the horse's partner, anticipated an inglorious capitulation. But it did not happen as Ezzoud repelled each thrust by his opponent.

'Every time he heard the other horse he just kept picking up,' Swinburn reported. 'I had seen Willie (Carson, Muhtarram's rider) going so well and I thought let's commit my horse and find out if he battles once and for all, let's see if he is genuine or not. And he did it.'

It was never going to be a comfortable journey for the jockey, however. Following his experience in the King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot last month, when Ezzoud dislodged him soon after the start, Swinburn was well prepared. He had sprayed Ralgex on his knee as Ezzoud is liable to rub himself against the side of the stalls, and the guard was up. 'I will admit I had both hands on him when we came out of the gate and I wasn't looking up,' the rider said. 'I was concentrating.'

If this result saw a reversal of one opinion, it further vindicated another: that Swinburn has few peers when it comes to the business of riding in the ocean-bottom pressure of Group One events. On the way up to York in his aircraft, Swinburn was hardly a babbling ball of nerves. Just as he had done on the morning of Shergar's victory in the 1981 Derby, he fell asleep.

'I knew that was a good sign,' Stoute, his fellow passenger, said. 'Wally gave the horse a most tremendous ride and there is no better man to have on your side on these big days.'

Swinburn's phlegmatic nature did disappear, though, once his mission had been accomplished. He threw his whip into the crowd in joy, and would have been at the saddlers this morning had a woman not retrieved it for him.

King's Theatre, who finished third and completed a family frame for the Maktoums, now has a reputation to retrieve once more. 'They crawled round and then sprinted, didn't they?' Henry Cecil, his trainer, commented in typically rhetorical manner. 'In hindsight, we should have gone on.'

John Gosden, the man behind Muhtarram, observed that his horse was impeded on the turn into the straight and will hope for better fortune when the five-year-old goes for the Arlington Million on Sunday week.

But for Michael Stoute there was little thought of the future. He was content to bathe in Ezzoud's success and wag a finger at the critics. 'He's a triple Group One winner now, so what happens from here doesn't really matter,' he said. 'We all enjoyed this, I can assure you.'

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