Chris McGrath: Godolphin set fair for new horizons after change of tack
Saturday 22 May 2010
If your galleon has silken sails and rigging, and your oarsmen are fed plovers' eggs and Kashmiri saffron, you know exactly what people will say should you sink before you have even left the estuary. That is why the good ship Godolphin has always taken so many cheap shots. Any neutral, however, will hope for fair seas on the fresh course now being struck by its navigators.
Godolphin's earliest voyages, of course, measured up even to the grandiose vision of its admiral, Sheikh Mohammed. They reached new horizons, without falling off the edge of the world, and made many people think in a less parochial way. Moreover, the routine assumption that Godolphin has since begun to drift needs to account for a record 202 winners in 2009, including 13 at Group One level.
Only one, Mastery, came on British soil – and his success, in the least glamorous of the Classics, was the first of its kind since Rule Of Law in 2004, again in the St Leger. For the second year running, a disproportionate contribution was made by Godolphin's smaller, remotely controlled American string.
It would be disingenuous to deny that Godolphin, in elite racing, has been sailing some rough waters. For its own management to be defensive is perfectly understandable. No doubt some of the criticism was too coarse, and flavoured with too much relish, to dignify with an admission that other charges were justified. But the difference between what was said, and what was done, reflects splendidly on an implicit willingness to grasp a few nettles.
To be sure, there were strains even within the camp. Those responsible for results on the track were inclined to blame the inadequacy of their raw materials. Those supposedly rearing and buying the best young stock on the planet, meanwhile, felt that the success of others, with the same bloodlines, instead implicated the training operation. The sheikh's solution has been characteristic. There was no panic, no insistence on an overnight transformation. But he authorised radical changes to the breeding and training wings of his empire.
First, he began an unprecedented spree of investment in young stallion prospects, either side of the Atlantic. There could be no measurable dividends for some years, but here was a dynamic response to any stagnation in the genes available to Godolphin.
Then no less a master than André Fabre accepted a role in the development of Godolphin horses. And in March the sheikh formally recognised the increasing responsibility of Saeed Bin Suroor's assistant, Mahmood al-Zarooni. He would now have his own, separate stable when the horses returned to Newmarket.
This week, these two shifts in the training personnel have dovetailed in potentially momentous fashion. On Wednesday, at Goodwood, Rewilding entered the Investec Derby equation with a brilliant British debut – just a fortnight after leaving Fabre for Al Zarooni. And tomorrow, at the Curragh, two other recent transfers make a new start in what could prove a landmark day in Godolphin's history. Al Zarooni saddles Anna Salai as one of the favourites for the Etihad Airways Irish 1,000 Guineas, while Bin Suroor has Cutlass Bay taking on Fame And Glory in the Tattersalls Gold Cup.
Only now has the strategy evolved in a way we can all comprehend. Previously, it was hard to see how the likes of Cavalryman, third in the Arc for Fabre last season, could be properly termed Godolphin horses, given the precepts of the project. And it remains true to say that horses running "off the ferry" from Calais can for now reflect only fleeting credit on their new trainer. But the policy has got Godolphin straight back in the game, as a reward for pragmatism, even for humility. These horses have wintered in Chantilly, not Dubai. And they have flourished in the care of a proven, world-class trainer.
Only one colt can win the Derby, and the probability remains that he is stabled elsewhere. But Al Zarooni's record behind the scenes, for instance in the Breeders' Cup win of Vale Of York, encourages hope he can build on the foundations laid by Fabre with Rewilding and others.
As far as can be judged, both he and Bin Suroor are gifted horsemen. And we should beware any xenophobic instincts to the contrary. On the face of it, after all, the appointment of Ahmed Ajtebi as Al Zarooni's principal rider looked a case of embarrassing nepotism. You watched the former camel rider bouncing around in big races, and shook your head. His only qualification, seemingly, was his nationality. But there is no getting away from the fact that horses run for him, and you don't win at the Breeders' Cup simply by hanging on for dear life.
It looks crazy, to spend more money on horses than anyone in history, and then have them trained, or ridden by obscure compatriots, who have not yet demonstrated commensurate calibre. But the satisfaction the sheikh derives from discovering and backing his own men is clearly non-negotiable. He has compromised, in other respects, on Godolphin. The least we can do, given the adventures we can all share, is meet him halfway.
McGonagall a must for rollover fortune hunters
It can be hard enough to find the winner of one race – Ellies Image started 150-1 at Catterick yesterday – never mind half a dozen. And the Tote's new strategy with the Scoop6, sometimes abandoning televised racing for tougher competition, has created six consecutive rollovers and a mouth-watering win pool.
If you make it through to the final leg, be sure to include HAMISH MCGONAGALL (3.40 York). The bird had flown by the time he got after Masamah round Chester last time, but the way he saw off the rest confirmed him as handicapped to strike again soon. He has good form on this track.
TOTAL GALLERY (3.00 Haydock) shaped so well on his reappearance that even his big penalty may not keep him out of the frame at each-way odds in the Betfred Temple Stakes, but otherwise the weekend quality is concentrated at the Curragh.
There are reservations about both favourites for the Abu Dhabi Irish 2,000 Guineas, Canford Cliffs having possibly failed to get home after travelling luxuriantly at Newmarket, while Steinbeck is apparently only just ready to resume what will ultimately prove a high-class career. In the circumstances, the value is his stablemate, FENCING MASTER (Curragh 3.45). Fairest of them all in the Newmarket paddock, he looked sure to improve for the run and shaped nicely in midfield.
Noll Wollop is also respected, if coping with quicker ground, but his stable can instead crown its excellent spring tomorrow in the fillies' equivalent, through Lolly For Dolly. Music Show is the one to beat, having excelled from a bad draw at Newmarket. Ballydoyle's priority on the card will be Fame And Glory, who looks ready for fulfilment this summer, while Jan Vermeer bids to join its Epsom squad in the Airlie Gallinule Stakes.
Turf Account: Chris McGrath
Sir Geoffrey (2.55 Chester)
Up another 3lb after just being run down at Beverley last time, but his blistering speed from the front will be an even greater asset here, not least from a draw within convenient reach of the rail.
Gomrath (2.00 Haydock)
Connections were contemplating a Derby trial after his success at Catterick last time, but wisely have been unable to resist a handicap mark of 84 instead. That looks fair even on his bare form, but his first visit to a galloping track should draw out the stamina in his pedigree.
One to watch
Location (Ian Williams)
After a hectic campaign last year has rejoined her previous stable and shown promise in modest handicaps, closing into fourth in a steadily run race over 7f at Wolverhampton earlier in the week. A winner over 10f, she is clearly on a competitive mark.
Where the money's going
Sajjhaa, who won a Sandown maiden by seven lengths first time out for Michael Jarvis on Thursday, was yesterday backed from 33-1 to 16-1 with Totesport for the Investec Oaks, for which she is one of 25 fillies confirmed at the latest forfeit stage.
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