Racing: Royal Anthem can rise to the occasion

Sue Montgomery says the Breeders' Cup is the perfect stage for Henry Cecil's raider
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The Independent Online
AT THE end of Derby Day back in June there was a slightly unsatisfactory nagging feeling that the best three-year-old colt was not the one who won the historic Blue Riband during the afternoon, but the one who broke the track record in an ordinary 10-furlong contest at a low-key Newmarket meeting in the evening. Six weeks later the Epsom hero, High-Rise, put the upstart, Royal Anthem, in his place - just - when they finished second and third to Swain in the King George V and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes at Ascot.

It is a matter of some regret that the rematch will not be taking place in the Breeders' Cup Turf at Churchill Downs on Saturday. But as the decision to remove High-Rise from Kentucky came only a few days after Royal Anthem produced a jaw-dropping display of power on his first North American start, it may be that the old adage about discretion and valour has been observed.

Royal Anthem's wire-to-wire win in the Canadian International two weeks ago earned him his ticket to the $2m contest. His rivals from Europe include Daylami, a place behind him at Ascot; Leggera, a close runner-up in the Arc; and Insatiable, second in the Champion Stakes. The home side's defence is led by Cetewayo and Bucks Boy and last year's winner Chief Bearheart travels from Canada. A decisive victory would surely give Royal Anthem the world mile and a half title.

The top US rider Gary Stevens, who took over from Kieren Fallon in Toronto, was mightily impressed with the giant bay colt, trained by Henry Cecil for Prince Ahmed Salman's American-based Thoroughbred Corporation. "He's a tremendous galloper and when the competition tried to get to him and I asked him to go, the acceleration he produced threw me back in the saddle. You don't experience that very often and I expect him to improve off the race a lot."

The Turf track at Churchill Downs, which will be the first course to host the Breeders' Cup series four times, is only a mile round with a run-in of only a furlong but Stevens does not anticipate any problems. "For a big horse he's very nimble on his feet, very agile." The 35-year- old Idaho-born rider, who delighted racegoers on this side of the pond when he scored his first British win on Predappio at Royal Ascot, knows his way round Churchill Downs better than most. He has won three Kentucky Derbies, on Winning Colors, Thunder Gulch and, last year, Silver Charm and took the Breeders' Cup Distaff four years ago on One Dreamer.

He has a full book of fancied rides on Saturday; apart from Royal Anthem he partners Yes Its True in the Juvenile, Silverbulletday in the Juvenile Fillies, Grand Slam in the Sprint, the Michael Stoute-trained Among Men in the Mile, Escena in the Distaff and Silver Charm in the Classic. He has won four races in the series but has yet to score in a Turf; one of his narrow defeats was on Royal Anthem's sire Theatrical in 1986.

Several British trainers have played the percentage game by employing American jockeys but Stevens does not read to much into it. "The bends here are probably tighter than those on most European courses, and perhaps a little local knowledge can help," he said. "Particularly on the mile course, where the first bend comes so soon; you don't just need good judgement, you need luck. And the run down the home stretch is short and you can't afford to get blocked, which is a risk if you're saving ground on the rail, or carried wide. But the top European riders, who experience so many different tracks, can adapt to any situation, just as I did at Ascot."

In 14 years of Breeders' Cups, Britain has supplied only four winners, Pebbles (Mile), Sheikh Albadou (Sprint), Barathea (Mile) and Pilsudski (Turf). In this year's raiding party Red Sea goes for the Juvenile; Bolshoi the Sprint; Cape Cross, Fly To The Stars and Desert Prince join Among Men in the Mile; with Swain and Running Stag in the Classic.

The $4m finale, 10 furlongs on dirt, should live up to its name. The peerless old warrior Swain, running for the last time before he retires to stud in Kentucky, reverts (in a bid to impress local breeders) to the surface and distance over which he ran Silver Charm to a whisker in the Dubai World Cup. Skip Away will defend his title and Coronado's Quest and Victory Gallop represent the American three-year-olds.