Racing: Mighty Zafonic zooms from zero to hero

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The Independent Online
IT WAS easy - much too easy for those with an aversion to the hype. Zafonic was both resented and revered before he won the 2,000 Guineas yesterday, but now the only choice is to hail him as one of the elite. The loud mouths were right all along.

A record time clinched the argument. Never has a horse covered the Rowley Mile faster than Zafonic did yesterday, beating a previous best that had stood since My Babu's Guineas win in 1948. The race was over from the point three furlongs out when Pat Eddery looked as if he was posing for a sculptor on Zafonic. No movement from Eddery, no chance for the rest.

Seldom has a horse inspired such extremes of feeling in those who follow the circuit. The lucky few who backed him long ago at 8- 1 have waved their vouchers mercilessly in the faces of the rest of us. Remember the fallen Arazi, we told them churlishly. Zafonic was merely the latest in a succession of precocious two-year-olds who would be overtaken in their second season of racing. But this time the talent has survived, and the great bores of yesterday can relish their triumph.

Zafonic's win was in the Dancing Brave and El Gran Senor league of 2,000 Guineas victories. If you take his finishing time alone, this was a new high-water mark for the race. My Babu's note in history was erased firstly because Silver Wizard and Nominator set such a fierce early pace, but more importantly because Zafonic was still in canter mode when he drew upsides Barathea racing into the dip.

Then you knew a space would have to be vacated in racing's premier league. In the Dewhurst Stakes here last autumn, Zafonic veered alarmingly across the track when he hit the front but this time Eddery was able to head straight towards the finishing line with a burst of acceleration that made clothes horses of all bar Barathea. Sheikh Mohammed's main contender was three and a half lengths back in second with Bin Ajwaad, a 66-1 shot, third.

So much for the stories about hairy flights over from France (Zafonic was the first French- trained winner since Zino 11 years ago). So much for the racecourse gossip suggesting Zafonic had fizzed over when his trip was delayed by fog. Even the heavens tried to unravel him and failed. As the runners for the Guineas circled at the start, the Suffolk sky emitted a crack of thunder and lightning that encouraged visions of equine pandemonium at the start. Visions of the Grand National, come to Flat racing.

Zafonic didn't even notice. In the parade ring he looked cool and dry. Barathea was like a student waiting for an exam to start while Wharf's coat had started to moisten in the clammy air. Zafonic just stepped quietly through the parade, his giant frame more reminiscent of champion steeplechasers than champion milers.

But still: had Zafonic not been found wanting in that prep-race at Maisons-Laffitte? At last the dispossessed had found something to crow about. Poor Zafonic, an ox among calves last season, had failed to beat the relatively ordinary Kingmambo and had scraped home just a short head in front of his pacemaker. If ever there was a lesson about dismissing horses on the basis of just one run then this was it. Sayyedati had also been beaten in her warm-up race, the Nell Gwyn Stakes, but that was no barrier to her success in the 1,000 Guineas here on Thursday.

Inevitably after a performance of this merit, the talk was of Zafonic winning everything from the July Cup to the Paris-Dakar rally. In reality his range of targets is likely to remain quite small, and will probably exclude races of more than a mile. That means that however accomplished Zafonic becomes over the Guineas distance, he will never be able to join the Nijinskys and Mill Reefs because true greatness is only really accorded to horses who can last a mile and half.

'He's a fast horse and a natural miler,' Eddery said. 'If they wanted to bring him back in distance to the July Cup (over six furlongs) I'm sure they could. But there are lots of nice races for him over a mile.' Khalid Abdullah, who owns Zafonic, said the Breeders' Cup Mile at Santa Anita in the autumn would be Zafonic's most important long-term target.

Abdullah can afford to be blase about the Derby. He already has the first three in the betting in Tenby (now 3-1 favourite with Ladbrokes), Armiger and Commander In Chief, who won the Culford Stakes here yesterday. Barathea was drafted into the Derby market after connections said that race may be next.

Eddery, of course, has the call on all those gifted Abdullah runners, and you could sense his feeling of power when Zafonic crossed the line.

Rarely does Eddery indulge in the kind of raised-fist triumphalism he did here, but then, as he said later in the glow of reporting his journey: 'Speed's everything.' Resent it or not, they were right about Zafonic.