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to the racing game
SHE may be female and four-legged, and has probably never kicked a football in her life, but Cape Verdi may be about to upstage those blokes in France by becoming the sporting icon of the summer. On Saturday the beautiful, sweet- natured bay filly will attempt to become the first of her sex to beat the colts in the Derby for 82 years.
Girl power in the horse world, though, is actually nothing new. Fillies and mares can, and regularly do, beat colts and geldings. What makes Cape Verdi's Epsom challenge so special is that it is a gauntlet so rarely thrown down, particularly in the modern era. Only 15 fillies this century have run in the Derby and only two since the Second World War. Tradition has it that the Derby is for the boys and the Oaks, run over the same mile-and-a-half course, for the girls - and if the twain shall meet, it must be later on in the season.
But the premier Classic has always been open to both sexes, and there is no reason at all why a gifted distaffer should not be aimed at the greater glory. And Cape Verdi's adventurous owner Sheikh Mohammed has already shown a fine disregard for the perceived dos and don'ts of the game; his filly Balanchine took the Irish Derby in 1994 and the following year he defied convention again by running Lammtarra in the Derby on his seasonal debut. The colt duly won.
Yes, Mohammed, the third of the four brothers who run the oil-rich Emirate of Dubai, is ambitious, wealthy and undeniably acquisitive. Both Cape Verdi and his Derby colt City Honours were bought, as proven performers, from Robert Sangster last autumn. His dissatisfaction with the return he is getting for his enormous financial investment in racing in Britain is a matter of record.
But he is also constantly seeking to push back the parameters of achievement with horses and to show what can be done with an unblinkered approach. His resources allow him to do it; the creation of his Dubai-based Godolphin operation, which allows his elite horses - such as Cape Verdi - access to the winter sunshine that is an imperative for most top-class human athletes, is an enterprise of which he is justifiably proud.
He has nothing to risk by running Cape Verdi in the Derby. (Except, that is, the pounds 75,000 supplementary entry fee paid yesterday to ensure her place in the field. Being a filly, she was not entered at the usual yearling stage.) There is no public stud value to worry about if she loses. And if she wins she will do more for racing's image with the public - and Government - than any financial masterplan.
She will also take her place in the sport's pantheon. In 218 previous runnings of the Derby only six fillies have won: Eleanor (1801), Blink Bonny (1857), Shotover (1882), Signorinetta (1908), Tagalie (1912) and Fifinella (1916). They actually represent a pretty good success rate of a fraction under 10 per cent of those who have taken part.
Ironically, the two best fillies ever to contest the race were both defeated. In 1892 La Fleche, already winner of the 1,000 Guineas and with victories including the Oaks, Nassau Stakes, St Leger and Cambridgeshire to come that year, was the victim of a deplorable ride and was narrowly beaten by Sir Hugo. A decade later the magnificent Sceptre, the last filly to start favourite for the Derby, missed a Classic clean sweep by finishing fourth as an even-money shot. She had previously won both Guineas and afterwards added the Oaks and St Leger.
Of the two most recent filly Derby challengers Nobiliary, runner-up to Grundy at 20-1 in 1975, was infinitely the better; she had finished runner- up in the French 1,000 Guineas and later won the Washington International. Portuguese Lil, a 500-1 shot two years ago, was there solely to give her girl jockey the ride, which she did safely, in last place.
Cape Verdi's credentials for victory seem, on the face of it, much better than Nobiliary's. Her current rating by the sport's bible Timeform, based on her thrilling victory in the 1,000 Guineas four weeks ago, puts her at the top of the Derby list, 1lb ahead of the best colt, the 2,000 Guineas hero King of Kings. That reckoning, together with her 5lb sex allowance, should make her a certainty.
As aforementioned, fillies can, unlike their human counterparts, meet and beat the males. The reason is that there is far less difference between the sexes in the physiology that counts for running - muscle size and development, for instance, and aerobic capacity - in horses than in humans. But even so, things are not quite PC in the equine world, at least not at Epsom in June. At this time of year fillies are permitted to carry 5lb less weight on their backs than colts, so Cape Verdi will have not only to win, but win by two lengths, to be considered equal.
At Godolphin's summer headquarters in Newmarket, our heroine has been limbering up for her venture unaware of such considerations. And her legion of supporters will be delighted to know that she is - literally - in the best of hands.
Those at the top of the Godolphin hierarchy - Sheikh Mohammed, the racing manager Simon Crisford, the trainer Saeed Bin Suroor and the assistant Tommy Albertrani - always rightly insist that getting a racehorse to the races is a team effort, from the Pakistani grooms, who burnish their charges with pride and tend to their more basic needs with dignity, upwards.
But if one back-room individual is to be singled out for praise on this occasion it must be the man in the saddle and no, not Frankie Dettori. The jockey will be required to play his part on the day, but it is Shaun Murphy who has put the test-driving miles in.
The importance of good work and exercise riders in a racing stable cannot be stressed too highly. Sympathetic hands and seat, balance, intelligent judgement during a gallop and analysis of pace and ability, all these can make a horse, help it fulfil its potential. Lack of such qualities can destroy one as surely as a bullet.
Murphy, 32, late of Kinsale, Co Cork, was head-hunted by Godolphin three years ago from America, whence he had departed after some time with John Gosden, broadening his experience by doing the rounds of the tracks and farms riding work and breaking yearlings. He served his time in Ireland with Con Collins (and looked after the 1984 Irish Oaks winner Princess Pati), and the Mullins family (where he once spent two days unconscious after a fall) and rode 17 winners when based for a while with Albert Davidson in Surrey. He knows what is underneath him. "You can tell a good one by the feel in your hands - they take a nice hold, but they don't waste energy by being too headstrong - and their action, the way they use themselves, throw their shoulders, and have the balance to switch legs automatically on a turn. And you feel the power from behind."
Murphy experienced that turbo-boost on Mark of Esteem two years ago. "He could quicken twice, once to get to them and then again to get away, he was unreal. But this filly has so much speed she can lay up with anything, and then quicken, and then keep galloping. She's so relaxed; you pull her out, let her see daylight. She knows the rest and it's so easy for her."
City Honours is also Murphy's ride. "He's a real tough individual and will be able to cope with a rough race, but has to come off the pace. He'll be doing all his best work at the end. I hope by then she'll have gone, but if they come at her, she's got a big heart as well as an engine."
Murphy describes his job as paradise. With Cape Verdi as one of the angels.