Racing: Piggott and Rodrigo show Champion class

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The Independent Online
THE horse, small, plain and with bandages on his injured foreleg. The man, old, withered and, by any normal reckoning, way beyond his time. But the Champion Stakes was just the latest example that Rodrigo De Triano and Lester Piggott do not obey standards, they set them.

Like a great singer finding the song to suit, Piggott has long had the magical knack of picking up a partnership and making it his own. It's impossible to think of The Minstrel, Sir Ivor, Petite Etoile or Nijinsky without that tall, gaunt figure deadly behind the mane. That's true now of Rodrigo De Triano.

Indeed, it's highly arguable that this is actually the best horse that Piggott has ridden since Nijinsky swept all before him in the summer of 1970. Yesterday's narrow but decisive defeat of Lahib was the pair's fourth Group One success of the season and a victory even beyond its merit on the track.

For Rodrigo's preparation had been so badly interrupted by a recurring splint problem on his off foreleg that the trainer Peter Chapple-Hyam had to risk the unorthodox routine of galloping his dual Guineas winner a full mile on Friday morning. The little chestnut passed his fitness test, but the unaccustomed bandages in the paddock told of the tension.

At this stage, almost 57 years since he came muttering into existence and no less than 33 since he knifed Petite Etoile through to win his first Champion Stakes, it should hardly need saying that there were not too many nerves visible on the ghostly Piggott features. But even by his standards this was full-gallop impassiveness taken to extremes.

Even at this stage, maybe especially at this stage, nobody can ride a race like he did on Rodrigo. That's not a silly winners' adulation, its the simple, wondrous truth.

The trick is the stillness. Of course Lester is not going to match some kid kick for kick, push for push. But that's not what Rodrigo wants. What happened yesterday was what happened at Newmarket, York and The Curragh. Lester jumped out of the stalls gently and eased him down at the back of the field as if the idea was to play the whipper-in.

It's one thing to set off like this, quite another to have the nerve to hold it. But now after Shuailaan and Zaahi had blasted off in front to ensure a final clocking within a second of the course record, the ice in Piggott's blood never even dripped as Carson drove Lahib into the lead and Rodrigo slid through behind him.

The cause was helped by Lahib hanging fire momentarily as he hit the front, but right into the final 300 yards Piggott let Rodrigo coast up in his own time. In any sport it's this 'bottle' that is the most treasured quality. Lester will have it until he dies.

Two hundred yards to run and he fired his gun. Not surprisingly there wasn't quite as much punch as expected. Willie Carson's left hand smacked a final effort out of Lahib. Lester had to push and flap and pull his own whip through for a left-handed flick. But he was always going to make it. By a neck on the line.

Environment Friend did well to be three lengths away in third, with Shuailaan a close fourth, but the delight afterwards was being able to look forward to at least one more Rodrigo turn. He and Lester go to the Breeders' Cup at Gulfstream Park in a fortnight's time. Trainer and jockey want to pitch against Arazi in the mile but Rodrigo's owner Robert Sangster may overrule them to go for the dollars 3m Breeders' Cup Classic over one and a quarter miles of the Miami dirt.

Either way we have once again got far more than any race fan could hope for. Yesterday had many other things. The handsome Barathea in the Houghton Stakes putting himself in line for next year's Derby. The Irish gamble Vintage Crop running away with the Cesarewitch and being greeted by his trainer Dermot Weld's confident prediction that his real target should be next March's Champion Hurdle. But greatness does not share easy.

There are many problems with the funding of British racing. Not surprising since Britain Plc looks rudderlessly close to bankruptcy. But when many well-meaning people call for protests and owners' strikes they should surely concentrate not so much on the money but on the sport they want to preserve.

They and we should thank our lucky stars that we have just had a day like yesterday. What Rodrigo and Lester did took racing to a dimension way beyond local financing disputes. It was a sporting spectacle to match anything anywhere. That's what Britain still has. It's worth preserving.

(Photograph omitted)

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