Racing: Lahib freshens old Arc theory

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The Independent Online
Houghts turn already this morning from Ascot to Sunday's Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe and the Breeders' Cup meeting beyond. Different continents, different disciplines, but all the talk and action on Saturday confirmed that one question unites these festivals of autumn. Which of the best are still with us, which are walking in sleep.

The urge to hibernate was evident in so many of the runners at Ascot last week (Marling was perhaps the best example) that panic is the overwhelming impulse when it comes to deciphering the last of the Flat season's finest offerings. Dr Devious, St Jovite, User Friendly, Rodrigo De Triano. Where do you find the sell-by date?

The issue of a horse's longevity is never more pronounced than in the Arc, where the corrosive effects of past endeavours are so often illustrated by the sight of eminent runners being devoured by the herd. Into the Paris skyline we have peered for Generous, for Salsabil, for Reference Point, and seen only hard lessons re-daubed. For certain, Selkirk was unlucky in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes on Saturday, but still, Lahib was the fresh horse, undimmed by perpetual conflict.

Nobody should infer from this that horses must race only three or four times before being powdered and pampered at stud. The reservations about the Arc are justified, though, when you consider that St Leger winners (see User Friendly) have a poor record at Longchamp, and that Dr Devious and St Jovite knocked seven tunes out of each other in the Irish Champion Stakes earlier this month.

St Jovite's trainer, Jim Bolger, has made a sport out of deflating questions about his horses, and at Ascot on Saturday had a pin ready-sharpened for the inevitable are-you-confident line. 'I'm not confident of anything. I'm just hoping to turn him out in the same form he was in for the Irish Derby,' Bolger said. 'Confidence doesn't enter into it. I'm not running.'

Fair enough, but what exactly of the favourite's condition? 'He's very well,' Bolger says. 'He worked with Christy (Roche, his jockey) over seven and a half furlongs this morning and yes, I'd say he's back to the form he was in at The Curragh.' Bolger is convinced that St Jovite was more impressive there than in the King George VI and Queen Eliazabeth Stakes where 'he wasn't as spectacular because he wasn't asked as much'.

With the late-season timing of the race, the invariably strong gallop and the likelihood of soft(ish) turf, each of the participants at Longchamp on Sunday will be asked to empty their bodies of effort in pursuit of what Bolger calls 'the European championship'. For User Friendly, that test represents a sharp escalation in the amount of energy she has had to expend to maintain an unbeaten record.

Clive Brittain, still stomping through his most successful season (as witness Ivanka on Saturday), is as certain as Bolger that time has not yet staked a claim for his stable's most able performer. 'I wouldn't think so,' Brittain says. 'She'd done very little galloping between her races, so we've been able to keep her sweet. We were very pleased with her work this morning (Saturday). She's fit, she's well, and she's just got two and a half kilos to lose, and that'll be her.' A mile and a quarter workout in Newmarket on Tuesday will ensure that the last few pounds are shed.

It could be one of those winters in which we argue the merits of our favourite horse against a host of competing claims for the title of divisional leader. Nowhere is this more likely than in the milers' league, where Selkirk, Marling, Rodrigo De Triano and now Lahib - who has run just seven races in three seasons - will all be recommended for a gong when the year expires. Depends which race, which point in a constantly changing season you choose.

While Lahib's dodgy knee is returned to straight-course racing for the Champion Stakes (Newmarket version) on 17 October, Brief Truce, whom he beat on Saturday, will be prepared for a meeting with Rodrigo De Triano in the dollars 3m Breeders' Cup Classic at Gulfstream Park, one of only two races at the world's richest meeting to have eluded European challengers (the other is the Distaff).

And we think the Arc is tough. Gulfstream Park is a tight little hare-track in sub-tropical Florida, so trainers will be asking their horses to travel from a wintry Europe - at the end of October, remember - to a clammy hothouse in which the home team will have untold advantages. At least Brief Truce's coach, Dermot Weld, can claim to be the most successful overseas explorer from Britain or Ireland, having been the first on this side of the Atlantic to win a major American race on dirt (the Belmont Stakes, with Go And Go).

At Ascot, Weld provided a fascinating address on the strategy for sending a horse to a place like Gulfstream. He said he would be working Brief Truce on dirt to get him used to the kick-back factor, then encouraging him to weave between rivals, thereby escaping the spray.

Weld, who is also a vet, has calculated that three to four days is the 'optimum' acclimatisation period for a horse transferring to America ('people will be writing about this in the next century,' he says), and believes that racing on dirt requires a particular model of an athlete at variance with conventional wisdom. He says: 'A lot of people think you need a long- striding horse, but I don't. You need a horse who can grab (the surface) a little, and this one (Brief Truce) does.'

It was Weld, too, who provided the most telling assessment of Lahib after the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes. 'He was the one who stood out in the paddock,' he said. 'He was the one who really looked horse-trained.'

On Saturday, then, the evidence of the eye held true. Let us hope for the same in Paris.