Chris McGrath: Natal, Gwanako and the heroic spirit of the Turf all look safe in Walsh's capable hands
Saturday 13 October 2007
Now this is more like it. This is what Saturdays are all about. England's barstool jury hesitates before its favourite dilemma: heady delusion one way, weary disillusion the other. But hey, if you like it that much, perhaps you should try horseracing. Betting lets you do that kind of thing every day.
As though in deference to the endeavours of Michael Owen – himself a racing man, of course – and Jonny Wilkinson, racing has tastefully confined itself to a fairly quiet Saturday. After all, the sport badly needs to restore its bearings, get back to basics. This has been its most emotional, exhausting week in a long time.
What a pleasure to get up this morning and simply ask yourself whether you might back a few winners today. Maybe you are off to Ascot – a no less spectacular arena than Wembley, and erected, lest we forget, with far more efficiency. Or maybe you will savour the gradual restoration of jumping, like ripening fruit, to terrestrial television. By routinely embracing peril, after all, jump jockeys help to keep the Turf's heroic spirit alive.
Over the past week, curious outsiders have seen its greatest European prize won by a man who the next day joined five others in the Old Bailey, to deny charges of conspiracy to defraud. So that is how racing finds itself this morning: drained, tense. Just the same, in other words, as millions of working men and women, looking for release in the harmless intensity of a sporting Saturday.
Nobody could really face a big race today. Let's just have a few bets and then sit back and enjoy the ball games.
In fairness, the four-year-olds' hurdle at Chepstow is probably the best race of the jumps season to date. Liberate earned top weight by beating all bar Katchit in the Triumph Hurdle at Cheltenham, but looks vulnerable in trying to give weight to Gwanako (2.0), who was unbeaten in five starts in France and is now making his debut for the champion trainer.
Conversely, Natal (next best 1.25) could still be very fairly treated under top weight when he represents the same stable and jockey in the opener. Just below the best novices over fences last season, he remains unexposed at this distance and just needs to get into a rhythm over this awkward track.
He certainly has the right man on board for that job. And so long as people can spend their Saturday afternoons marvelling at men like Ruby Walsh, then racing need not feel too abashed.
Ibn Khaldun follows in Nayef's steps
Previous winners of the Deloitte Autumn Stakes – run for a 10th time at Ascot today – include three subsequent Group One scorers in Dr Fong, Daliapour and Nayef. And two years ago, when it was run at Salisbury, no less a horse than Dylan Thomas was beaten a neck into second.
Nayef had announced himself less equivocally, winning by six lengths in 2000. Without wishing to set him up for a fall, it would be no surprise to see something similar from Ibn Khaldun (3.00) after his astounding performance in a nursery here 13 days ago.
The caveat is that he must have made a fairly generous effort, no matter how serene it looked, and has not had long to recover. The ground will be softer this time, too. All things being equal, however, he can consolidate Godolphin's overdue return to the top table with its juveniles.
Last Sunday Rio De La Plata confirmed himself a legitimate Classic candidate for next year, and this is Ibn Khaldun's chance to do the same. Admittedly, the horses he beat last time could hardly qualify him as such, on their own account, but the way he cruised past them all heightened the huge promise of his two previous starts.
He can be watched on Channel 4, whereas the three previous races are on BBC2. His stable, still in great form, also has an interesting candidate for the Ladbrokes Handicap, the lightly raced blueblood MARIOTTO (nap 2.20) being just 4lb higher than when winning over an inadequate distance on his return. Freshened up after disappointing at Goodwood, he will find this test on easy ground right up his street.
Channel 4 is also at York, where Richard Fahey wears belt and braces in the Paddy Power Sprint Handicap, his two runners looking best among those drawn high and low respectively – with marginal preference for Fonthill Road (3.45).
Dylan testimony to O'Brien's genius
Only a footnote, but that is all he managed to get on Monday, as well – when Aidan O'Brien deserved many headlines in his own right for a first success in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. In the singular circumstances, nobody was going to look much past Kieren Fallon. But the fact is that no previous Arc winner can ever have soaked up such a tough campaign, and the suspicion must be that no Arc winner has ever had a better trainer.
A fortnight today, of course, we will all be wondering whether the Arc might finally have pushed even Dylan Thomas over the edge. He will have made a long transatlantic journey into the bargain. But he will almost certainly win the Breeders' Cup Turf, even without the assistance of Fallon. True, he has never been beaten on this horse, and his mental detachment on Sunday was the stuff of legend. But Fallon's are not the only hands to have touched Dylan Thomas with genius.
Brisk Breeze keeps Cecil on course
Henry Cecil is finishing the season with his horses back in the same groove that led them to such a profitable spring. One good example is Brisk Breeze (1.45), who can build on her progress this autumn at Ascot today, and another could well be Passage Of Time.
Sadly, however, it emerged yesterday that this filly will not be inviting the Americans to revisit Cecil's exotic talent at the Breeders' Cup, as had been planned. She will instead pop down the road for the Emirates Champion Stakes at Newmarket next Saturday.
NAP: Mariotto (Ascot 2.20)
NB: Natal (Chepstow 1.25).
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