Chris McGrath: Change of yard can make a mile of a difference

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The Independent Online

It's a poor workman who blames his tools. And if he trains racehorses for a living, a pretty foolish one, too. We have all seen horses unrecognisably improved by a change of stable. There are cases equivalent to a decorator getting rid of a brush as inadequate to paint the bathroom only for someone else to use it to repair the roof of the Sistine Chapel.

For trainers to persist in the old complaint – that they would all achieve essentially the same results if given the same material – is simply nonsense, and they know it. Refugees from some yards improve so dependably that dozens of salivating prospectors gather round the parade ring before claiming races or at the horses-in-training sales.

However hopeless with horses, a trainer can always speed up a libel lawyer, but any regular punter will not need telling which specific names tend to recur. In fairness, there are also horses that flourish after leaving one of the masters of their profession, perhaps because they respond to the sort of attention rare in more industrial operations. For punters, however, the horse liberated from a trainer you do not respect is one of the great short-cuts through the formbook maze.

The improvement achieved by certain trainers, meanwhile, is so routine – and so dramatic – that it ignites wildfires of rumour about the legality of their methods. In most cases, however, it is simply a case of one man doing his job better than another. Sometimes he will have noticed someone missing a particular trick, maybe by running a horse over the wrong distance. But more often than not he simply sees a horse with elite breeding and physique being wasted by the supervision of some over-rated chump.

None of the above is remotely intended to furnish assumptions one way or another about the two changes of stable tested in the big race at Newbury today. It is just that Paco Boy (3.05) is so obvious a winner of the Totesport Lockinge Stakes that the race owes its principal interest to any improvement – or deterioration – that may become evident in either Lord Shanakill and Pipedreamer, both of whom make their first start for a new stable this afternoon.

First, second and third placings in Group One company qualify Lord Shanakill as a credible witness to Karl Burke's skills as a trainer. Unfortunately, Burke's conduct in other respects has not been so professional, and he is now serving a long suspension after admitting that he had supplied inside information for reward.

After a brief experiment in the United States last autumn, his best horse has now been transferred to no less a master than Henry Cecil who also has his yard in top form to boot.

Burke could not possibly take offence at the reality that Lord Shanakill is now in the hands of a man more accustomed to competing at this level. In itself, that means little. Should Cecil prove unable to improve the colt Burke would be able to claim – on his presumed return – that he really is one of those trainers whose only deficiency really is the lack of the right ammunition.

Pipedreamer, meanwhile, has left one of the world's most accomplished trainers in John Gosden, unmistakably one of the very best in the business. Sold privately by his previous owners, he now makes his debut for Kevin Ryan. It's a fascinating test for a man who would typically improve recruits from other yards in northern handicaps. He does this so often, in fact – much like Richard Fahey – that you wonder what kind of catastrophic snobbery is preventing the Turf's biggest investors from trying their luck. (Really, they deserve everything they don't get.)

Shrewd as he is, Ryan will hardly expect his methods to prove more effective than Gosden's but he evidently suspects that one stone remains unturned, in immediately dropping Pipedreamer in trip. The horse last ran over a mile fully three years ago, winning a Goodwood maiden on his second start. He subsequently won a couple of handicaps over ten furlongs and the Cambridgeshire, after tanking throughout, over nine. Since then he has been plying his trade exclusively over ten, and in elite company.

It would be churlish to suggest that a dual Group Two winner at the trip "doesn't stay" ten furlongs. But it can certainly be argued that his performances leave the door ajar to him proving more effective still over shorter distances.

You can never be too adamant about that kind of thing, of course. It used to drive Richard Hannon mad to be constantly told that Paco Boy did not really see out a mile. He has won that debate pretty conclusively by now but it was a useful exercise for all sides to acknowledge that horses are often placed too inflexibly in their categories. That, perhaps, is something we should only do with their trainers.

Cecil's rising star can be seen from York and Newbury

Attention yesterday was divided between the final day of the Dante meeting at York, and the Swettenham Stud Fillies Trial at Newbury, only to be united by the most irresistible theme of the developing season. Henry Cecil won the Emirates Airline Yorkshire Cup with Manifest, and the Newbury race with Principal Role, in the process confirming that his astonishing renaissance over recent seasons is still gaining in momentum.

A series of withdrawals through the afternoon, many because of the fast ground, diluted opposition to Manifest but there was no mistaking his eligibility to exploit the retirement of Yeats in what has otherwise become a rather stale division. Making only his fifth start, he powered eight lengths clear of Purple Moon and is now 5-1 favourite with Totesport for the Gold Cup at Royal Ascot.

It was a rather more desperate business for Principal Role, who only just beat Fatanah, and she may not supplant Aviate and Timepiece in the stable's Investec Oaks conundrum. Like Manifest, all three are owned by Prince Khalid Abdullah, whose racing manager gave some indication of the pecking order. "We're fortunate that the three fillies are in the same stable and Henry will be able to sort them all out," Teddy Grimthorpe said. "It's very unlikely all three will run in the Oaks. This is not gospel, but Aviate would appear to be the first choice at the moment. Principal Role would be more of a Ribblesdale filly, but Henry still hasn't lost faith in Timepiece."

Abdullah's 1,000 Guineas winner, Special Duty, attempts to follow up in her home equivalent, the Poule d'Essai des Pouliches, at Longchamp tomorrow. Lady Of The Desert represents Britain while Dick Turpin, runner-up to another French raider in the 2,000 Guineas, heads the revenge mission in the colts' version.

Turf Account: ChrisMcGrath


Cape Quarter Gold (3.50 Thirsk)

Has clearly had major problems, as a four-year-old who has only seen the racecourse twice, but his astute trainer has obvious reasons for persevering – excellent pedigree, promising performance in maidens, and what looks a highly manageable mark for his handicap debut.

Next best

Mac's Power (5.10 Newmarket)

Operated almost exclusively round Kempton for his previous yard, and switches to turf off a relatively indulgent rating. Should come on for his reappearance, and return to 7f also likely to suit.

One to watch

Elusive Trader (RM Beckett) made a good start in sprint maidens last year and reappeared with an encouraging handicap debut at Salisbury on Thursday, still green towards the rear but organising a strong finish when hampered on the rail, keeping on again for fifth.

Where the money's going

The defeat of Godolphin's Chabal at York on Wednesday has prompted Paddy Power to offer 14-1 "with a run" about Simon De Montfort, recently transferred to the stable's Newmarket wing from Andre Fabre, for the Investec Derby.