Freddie Head, astride a grey hack, emerges through the mist and blushing trees. He has a trilby on his head. Honestly, these French. We have Newmarket, with its blasted heath and single, shabby thoroughfare. Here their elite racing stables nestle in a Bourbon hunting forest, among palaces, lakes and parkland.
This one houses a mare on the brink of history, but you would not know it. Yesterday morning even the fitful percussion of a farrier's hammer seemed to obtain the sustaining, staunch quality of some ageless grandfather clock. As the sun broke through, autumn vapours were coaxed from the tiled stables, from the straw muckheap. The Turf can span few greater contrasts than the one dividing this somnolent scene from the sweltering crucible of Santa Anita, where Goldikova has pulled off consecutive wins at the Breeders' Cup. But that's why her quest for the hat-trick, this time at Churchill Downs, lends due substance to its American billing as the Thoroughbred World Championships.
The locals may have eyes only for Zenyatta, risking her immaculate record of 19 wins in 19 starts in the Classic. No horse, after all, has ever won three Breeders' Cup races. Rather inconveniently, however, she may find a precedent intruding barely an hour before she lines up on Saturday week. For Goldikova has looked as good as ever this year, and was yesterday trading on Betfair as 5-4 favourite for the TVG Breeders' Cup Mile.
Head, welcoming a party of British journalists and cameramen, offered a qualified tribute to Zenyatta, who has tended to avoid open competition apart from that extraordinary performance in the Classic last year. "Zenyatta is amazing, too," he said. "But what I can say is that some Group Ones in America are more like Group One and a half [ie almost Group Twos]. They don't always meet together with the best, with the colts, with three- and four-year-olds. But of course she's a champion, you can see that in the way she parades herself. She has a big personality."
He is well qualified to pronounce on greatness, as the only man to have both trained and ridden a winner at the Breeders' Cup. Goldikova and Miesque represent the twin Everests of Head's career in racing: Miesque, herself a dual winner of the Breeders' Cup Mile, was perhaps the best of over 3,000 horses he steered home before retiring, aged 50, in 1997. Remarkably, in fact, it was only in winning the Prix de la Forêt earlier this month that Goldikova claimed outright, with 11, the record she had previously shared with Miesque as Europe's most prolific Group One winner. Seldom does destiny deal its cards with such symmetry. It was in Louisville, for instance, that Miesque won her second Mile.
"She'd been beaten in the Moulin, and the owners didn't want to run," Head recalled. "But [trainer] François Boutin insisted. That was a gamble, when the rest of us weren't so sure she'd kept her form. The ground was soft, too. But she was brilliant. She had that turn of foot. But she did always pull hard. She was a more difficult horse, very tense, very nervous. She wasn't a pleasure to ride."
Goldikova may be more pliant but she, too, particularly responds to the hectic environment of American racing. "The faster they go, the better she is," Head said. "That's why she's so brilliant out there. When they start, they go. Here everyone stops, holds back. She had a very hard draw last year, and was a long way behind in the back stretch. I was a little worried, I must say. But Olivier [Peslier] knew what he was doing."
She quickened twice to pull it out of the fire that day, producing one of the most visually dramatic surges in Breeders' Cup history – in no way diminished by the fact that Zenyatta promptly did something at least as spectacular. And she returns in even better heart this time round, having won the Forêt by relaxing in front – in contrast with last year, when she failed to do so and was turned over at 2-5. "She's going to be favourite, of course," Head shrugged. "But a race is a race. You never know. It's not going to be a cakewalk."
With those tumid lips never far from a smile, and his flowing grey hair, Head has become familiar to the point of caricature in one of the Turf's most cherished dynasties. In his time, remember, he rode Arc winners trained by his grandfather, father and sister. And now he is proving just as accomplished in their métier.
As it happens, Head has never ridden Goldikova in her work. "I haven't the condition any more," he said ruefully. "But I would love to. It's one thing I am thinking about. It's a very hard question, which is more satisfying: to ride Miesque, or train Goldikova? But maybe it is just a bit more as a trainer. You live with her every day. She's part of the family."
Even to the rest of us, who have only seen her brilliance in glimpses, the memory of Goldikova will prove one of the Turf's most enchanting heirlooms. Whether her owners, the Wertheimer brothers, will again keep her in training remains to be seen. For now Head scarcely dares even to discuss the possibility, simply grateful that a contemporary and rival of Zarkava should still be setting global standards.
"They love to see their horses race," he admitted. "The stress of watching, that's their pleasure. She's very sound, and has the will. She hasn't been raced too often. Her life is mostly routine. It's 90 per cent routine, and 10 per cent inspiration. You might never get another like this – or, if you did, perhaps only for a short time. That's what is so special about her. She's exactly the same now as when she was three. Even just cantering in the morning, she has this free, beautiful action, so much gas and energy. All she wants is to run."
Chris McGrath's Nap
Grissom (1.40 Musselburgh) Has repeatedly shaped well since changing stable, not least when hampered before managing second at Pontefract last time.
Twisted (8.40 Kempton) Blinkers and a step up in distance paid off at Wolverhampton last time. He had plunged down the weights during a stint in sprint races and can cope with an 8lb rise now that he goes farther again.
One to watch
Sunny Game (M L W Bell) Took the right turn at Doncaster on Saturday, having reached a crossroads when disappointing on his previous start, forced back by heavy traffic before regrouping impressively in the straight.
Where the money's going
Tony McCoy is 5-4 favourite from 6-4 with Coral for overdue recognition as BBC Sports Personality of the Year.Reuse content