Racing: Fabre and O'Brien poised to extend their empires

Flat racing on turf returns to Britain today but, as Greg Wood predicts, the season may be dominated by the French and Irish
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IT IS hard to think of any Flat racing season over the last 15 or so years which could not in one way or another be described as a good one for Andre Fabre, but the campaign which begins on the blustery expanse of Town Moor today could turn out to be the finest yet for the man who can fairly claim to be the most successful trainer in Europe.

The best-known names in Newmarket might bridle at that description, but the statistics are awesome. Fabre has already won his first Group race of the year, the Prix Exbury at Saint-Cloud earlier this month, to take his career tally of Group races to an astonishing total of 359. No other European trainer even comes close.

And there should be more to Fabre's season than mere number-crunching, since the Frenchman prepares the two colts which most punters would nominate as the most exciting in training. In a normal March, it is something of an effort to grope back in the mind, past Cheltenham and an entire jumps season, to find a memory of the previous Flat season which is strong enough to grasp. Not so in 1998, however, since the mental picture of Peintre Celebre's victory in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe has survived the last six months undiminished.

It was not just the burst of speed which he produced at the furlong pole to dart five lengths clear, but also the agility - likened by some to that of a polo pony - which left French and British spectators alike comparing him to Dancing Brave, the winner of the race 11 years earlier, and even the hitherto incomparable Sea Bird.

Unlike the Brave, Peintre Celebre returns for another campaign, and the prospect of Fabre's colt lining up in the King George at Ascot in July will be the finest marketing tool at any track's disposal this year.

And as if one champion were not enough, Fabre is also an even-money chance to take the first colts' Classic in Britain, the 2,000 Guineas, with last year's Dewhurst winner, Xaar. With his easy success in the event, and the Dewhurst-Guineas precedent set by Fabre's other recent Classic winners, Zafonic and Pennekamp, it appears that injury - which is always possible - or an emergent three-year-old wonder horse - which is rather less so - stand between the trainer and yet another Group One winner.

The second-favourite for the 2,000 Guineas is King Of Kings, whose trainer, Aidan O'Brien, will attempt to extend still further the strange symmetry between his own career and that of his namesake, Vincent. The younger model of O'Brien is already installed at Ballydoyle, the yard which the great Vincent made famous, and he too has built a formidable reputation in the winter code. It is barely a week since Aidan O'Brien saddled the first two home in the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham, and it may be little more than a month before he enjoys his first Classic victory in Britain.

A more exciting prospect still for the Irish in general and O'Brien in particular is Second Empire, currently favourite for the Derby in June. In fact, some British punters may wonder if we will keep any of our Classics at home, and the best we can hope for may be the slightly desperate version of "home" which is the Dubai-based Godolphin operation.

The Godolphin horses will arrive in Britain as usual just a few days before the Guineas meeting, among them Embassy and Cape Verdi, two of last year's best juvenile fillies. Both will run under the now familiar name of Saeed bin Suroor, the man who holds Godolphin's training licence, but an interesting new addition to the team this year is David Loder. The Newmarket trainer will prepare 30 horses for Godolphin, a boost to his team which prompted one existing owner to comment that Loder was now "private trainer" to the royal blue silks, before moving his own horses elsewhere.

No-one can doubt Sheikh Mohammed's eye for young training talent, however, and Loder may soon stand shoulder-to-shoulder with his most significant Newmarket neighbours. A former member of the Godolphin team, however, will be setting out on his own. Jeremy Noseda was widely thought to have been the training brains behind the operation's most successful season, when Lammtarra won the Derby, King George and Arc. After a brief spell in America, he is now back in Britain, and while the Sheikh does not figure among his owners, he is surely the obvious trainer to follow.

Look out too for another new arrival, in the shape of "showcase" races. These daily events - almost inevitably handicaps - will be heavily promoted as part of the British Horseracing Board's strategy to promote betting turnover. They should certainly make the business of punting more interesting, but you can also be sure that it will not get any easier.