Racing: Lavery charging up learning curve

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LAVERY PROVED he was learning fast yesterday. Aidan O'Brien's colt showed a devastating burst at the Curragh last month, which would have been more impressive had he not been in the stalls at the time. The son of Royal Academy repeated the performance on the open grasslands of Leopardstown yesterday and it was enough to secure the first Group One juvenile contest of the season, the Heinz 57 Phoenix Stakes.

O'Brien is not as shy about entering horses as he is in post-race press conferences and Lavery, a 14-1 shot, was one of three representatives from Ballydoyle. Last year, the young trainer saddled four of the first seven home.

Team O'Brien left much of the work, however, to the British challenger Polly Mills in the most populated Heinz for eight years. At half-way she was six lengths clear of the Pat Eddery-ridden Access All Areas, who was attempting to give trainer John Mulhern his first Group One success. Then, the picture changed.

"The one in front went very fast and mine picked her up a furlong down, though he was feeling the ground a bit," Eddery reported. "But we had nothing left when the winner came late at us.''

Walter Swinburn, the victorious rider, may have felt a warm sense of deja vu. It was almost two years ago that he sprang another surprise on an O'Brien third string, when partnering Desert King in the National Stakes. "Lavery is a fine, big colt who travelled all the way for me," the jockey said. "I gave him one smack and he accelerated well.'' It was the sort of display that has been conducted regularly to the accompaniment of the early morning birdsong on the Ballydoyle gallops.

"Lavery has plenty of potential and is engaged in all the major juvenile events around Europe," O'Brien said. "He got a fright in the stalls at the Curragh, but he had always shown loads of class at home. He has a high cruising speed so I told Walter to take it handy early on.

"The sky is the limit for this horse and I don't see why he won't stay a mile. He could go to the Prix Morny at Deauville, though I have Hunan, who has already won a Group Three, due to run in it.''

Yesterday's main race during Deauville's summer season was the Prix Maurice de Gheest. The Normandy course provided a landmark occasion here as it enabled Seeking The Pearl to become the first Japanese horse in history to capture a Group One race in Europe.

The four-year-old, who is currently fighting out of Geoff Wragg's second yard in Newmarket, beat Francois Doumen's Jim And Tonic, and the best of the permanently-based British challengers, Mick Channon's Muchea.

Seeking The Pearl will continue her European working holiday when she contests the Prix du Moulin next month. Her rivals then may wish that the wishes of the filly's Japanese trainer, Hideyuke Mori, had been respected. He wanted to keep the horse in his homeland, where she has won seven races and the equivalent of pounds 1.6m in prizemoney.

However, Seeking The Pearl's owner, Akiko Uenaka, has been an Anglophile since a venture to the Newmarket sales. "It was a big challenge coming to Europe," she said yesterday. "But we didn't do it for the money, as the financial rewards in Japan are far greater.''

Ms Uenaka, who is 27, has rented a house in Newmarket for the duration of the filly's two-month stay in Britain. She is not the least photogenic owner in racing and has been commanding her fair acreage of newsprint this week.

The woman from the Land of the Rising Daughter is rather vague about her career, which she refers to as "art in the United States". She bought Seeking The Pearl for $185,000 at the Keeneland sales in 1995 and refers to herself as "an ordinary Japanese girl". It must be rather nice being ordinary in the Far East.

Her filly, who will race in America next season, is a quirky customer. If it rains in her face at the track she stops to a walk. Her idiosyncracies have led punters to call her, according to Uenaka, "naughty yankee girl", probably in much the same way as the terrace alumni will refer to David Beckham as "naughty St Etienne boy" this football season.

Seeking The Pearl's victory was also a reminder of the skills of a man a little vilified in these parts several seasons back. Yutaka Take was the figure in the saddle and followers of White Muzzle will recollect the rider's double act with trainer Peter Chapple-Hyam, which was reminiscent, both in appearance and volatility, of Laurel and Hardy.