Racing: Lameness could rule out Anthem

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BRITAIN'S HOPES of registering a victory in the Breeders' Cup series were, like Royal Anthem himself, severely diminished yesterday when Henry Cecil's colt was found to be profoundly lame at the Churchill Downs racetrack.

The huge colt was the short-priced favourite for the Breeders' Cup Turf over a mile and a half on Saturday, but betting on the race has been suspended and any recurrence of the lameness would lead immediately to his withdrawal.

"If he has another day like he had yesterday then he won't run," Cecil said. "Everything was right, he'd been really enjoying himself and he was in better condition than before the King George. Then we found him as lame as a cat."

Royal Anthem, who beat his galloping partner by 30 lengths on Saturday, will now be fitted with stick-on shoes to protect his tender feet. Cecil, who has been charming the American media in recent days, responded phlegmatically to the damage done to his best chance of breaking a Breeders' Cup duck. "He might run yet," he said. "He might still win."

Everything they hold dear the Americans seem to keep in Kentucky. Some way north of here lies the gold bullion depository of Fort Knox and, in Louisville itself, exists the less tangible treasure of the United States' racing spirit.

The twin towers of Churchill Downs, like a similar arrangement in north London, stand guard over a national home. The Kentucky Derby, its mint juleps, its rendition of my ol' Kentucky home, its sprawling and brawling crowd, has coloured this somewhat monochrome part of the States since Aristides first did the business in 1875.

The Kentuckians, the Americans as a whole, are proud of this prime track and they like to show it to their visitors as often as possible. Saturday will be the fourth time Louisville has hosted the Breeders' Cup. No other location has been used as often.

There have been 16 European winners since the series began at Hollywood Park in 1984 and six of those have come at Churchill Downs. The record certainly needs beefing up this weekend because next year the one-card fiesta will be held in the Turkish bath of Gulfstream Park, where no European horse has won a Breeders' Cup event.

The Bermuda Triangle lies just off Gulfstream's Fort Lauderdale home and is stuffed with the exhausted reputations of many of Europe's finest equine talents. Kentucky, on the other hand, offers conditions regularly available at our front doors.

"I think in order of track suitability for our horses the order on the Breeders' Cup roster is Woodbine, Belmont and then Churchill Downs," John Gosden, who has split his training life between Britain and America, says. "The climate is so good that we always have a chance.

"Churchill can be a little cuppy sometimes. That means that, when a horse puts its foot down, the ground just tends to break away. It cups out. But most of the guys who train out there say it's a great surface.

"The two-turn mile is not ideal because at Woodbine and Belmont it's just one turn, so it's a tighter track, but it's fair and it's been quite good historically for the Europeans. I think, as usual, we're strong in the turf races, and the dirt races are again in the lap of the gods."

There is almost certain to be a story of dramatic impact at Churchill Downs this weekend. There always is. Last time we were here, in 1994, Barathea for Luca Cumani and Frankie Dettori set a new course record in the Mile. Three years earlier Sheikh Albadou had beaten North America's top sprinters by three lengths.

Louisville's debut in the series, in 1988, witnessed filthy weather but another spotless performance from Miesque, who won her second successive Breeders' Cup Mile to become the first horse to win two championship races. That was the night Alysheba won the concluding Classic in conditions as dark as his taught, bay hide.

However, the most memorable race this venue has given us came in 1991, when Arazi won the Juvenile (or joover-null in Bluegrass speak). That is almost certainly also the most staggering effort the Breeders' Cup has offered. It also has a shot as the most potent horse race ever.

The little colt with the skewed white blaze was ridden that November day by Pat Valenzuela, a jockey who had suffered drugs problems. At 2.29pm, Arazi emerged from the outside, gate 14, and probably led Valenzuela to believe that not all the pharmaceuticals had been flushed from his system.

Arazi sliced through the entire field into the far turn until he had just the American champion Bertrando in front of him. A titanic duel was briefly anticipated. But in never happened. "And Arazi just runs right by him," Tom Durkin said in the commentary box.

Arazi was never the same after that, but then no horse has been the same after that performance. Yet the expectation is now beginning to grow that this most celebrated of equine sites may add to the legend.

The weather here has been in the mid-70s, though the conditions are expected to change slightly as the bulk of Europe's runners begin to gather. The temperature will be going down. It will pass the warmth of anticipation going in the other direction.


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