In April, before the Derby winner, Commander In Chief, had even seen a racecourse, Niche was taking her third Group race, the Nell Gwyn Stakes. Lester Piggott rode a perfect race from the front then, and yesterday's was a faultless repeat performance. He could probably have done it blindfold.
Niche was the picture of relaxation as she cut out the running on Piggott's long rein, and it was only when her pursuers started pushing and scrubbing that you remembered she was in a race.
Zarani Sidi Anna and Feminine Wiles made short-lived attempts to get on terms, but their hopelessness was clear long before the furlong pole. Dancing Bloom, racing for the first time in almost a year, and the experienced four-year-old Culture Vulture ran on to fill the places, but Niche's official winning distances of 3 1/2 lengths seemed almost disrespectful to her.
Niche's next race will probaby be the Nassau Stakes at Goodwood later this month, but in the long term Richard Hannon and Lord Carnarvon, her trainer and owner, are looking much further afield. 'I'm sure the Guv'nor will want to have a crack at the Breeders' Cup,' Hannon said. The Guv'nor agreed, but seemed unsure whether her ideal race at Santa Anita in November would be the Distaff, for fillies on dirt, or the Mile on turf.
'She'd be the ideal candidate,' Lord Carnarvon said. 'The dirt surface doesn't matter as she works on it all the time at home, and the ground (on the turf course) will be in her favour.'
The idea of travelling so far with Niche might once have been unthinkable, as she found it hard to relax, even in her box at home. All she wanted though was a little company, and the introduction of a sheep into her stall has calmed her down. The animal also accompanies her to the races, so Hannon might be wise to give him a trim before he steps off the plane in California.
Piggott probably used up more energy getting out of bed yesterday morning than he did riding Niche, and there was no need for his unique brand of finishing. Since Monday, however, a repeat of the whip style which won him several Derbys would surely also get him banned, as Gary Bardwell discovered after the big handicap.
His efforts on Dutosky cost him two days work (16 and 17 July) for improper riding under the Jockey Club's stringent new instruction on whip use, which makes a suspension possible when the whip is used more than five times.
Bardwell may have wondered then why the Stewards overlooked Michael Hills's winning ride on First Trump in the July Stakes. First Trump is a big inexperienced juvenile who needed plenty of reminding (nine strokes, it appeared) before he managed to haul himself past Fast Eddy a few strides from the line. In the end, though, he did it well and First Trump will be a fine performer when his education is complete.
As will Sabrehill, though his career is starting a little later. Henry Cecil's three-year-old was making his racecourse debut as he put 5 lengths between himself and a large field of maidens, and he may yet justify his entry in the Champion Stakes.
Cecil was back in the top enclosure half-an-hour later, greeting the filly Lyphard's Delta after her narrow success in the Duke of Cambridge Handicap.
The filly who mattered though was Niche. As he dismounted and set off for the weighing room, Piggott gave Hannon a typically concise report, which the trackside pundits at Santa Anita might do well to heed. 'She's getting better,' he said.
Commander In Chief is 6-4 favourite with William Hill for the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot on July 24. User Friendly, winner of the Grand Prix de St Cloud on Sunday is 7-2, with the Eclipse winner, Opera House, 5-1. Intrepidity is 8-1 along with White Muzzle. Tenby is a 10-1 chance and Tuesday's Newmarket winner Desert Team is 16-1.
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