Hughes on the receiving end for once as Strong Suit folds

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The Independent Online

Do not adjust your sets. That really was Richard Hughes jumping out Strong Suit to make the running in the big race at the Curragh yesterday, only to find himself a sitting duck for Zoffany's impressive late dash. Perhaps now his father-in-law and employer, Richard Hannon, will decide that it is preferable to risk cardiac arrest – the fate he humorously envisages after watching Hughes produce his horses only in the final strides – than a broken heart.

Strong Suit, of course, only lost a horserace. The black news about an injury to Harbinger the previous day should serve as sufficient reproof to anyone inclined to fret about Strong Suit's prospects in next year's 2,000 Guineas. For what it may be worth, Zoffany has now supplanted him as favourite. But let's concentrate first on the here and now, and a Group One race in its own right, in the Keeneland Phoenix Stakes.

In a field reduced to seven, Hughes might well have been wary of a false pace. Or perhaps Hannon had been so traumatised by Strong Suit's last-gasp escape at Royal Ascot that he insisted Hughes should for once break cover. All things being equal, Hughes certainly seemed to control the pace to his mount's advantage, conserving enough energy to get all but one of his pursuers off the bridle 300 yards out. What's more, the one exception was himself discovering the hazards invited by the sort of audacious tactics usually associated with Hughes. Restrained in last early, Zoffany was twice forced to wait as Johnny Murtagh switched him along the stands rail.

Instead it was Glor Na Mara, fast-tracked here on only his second start by Jim Bolger, who first forced Hughes to reach for the whip, and it was only in the dying moments that Zoffany appeared between them to get up by half a length. In the end Strong Suit could not even hang on to second, Glor Na Mara shading the 4-9 favourite by a short head, followed by five lengths of daylight. Perhaps he had become lonely in front. Regardless, Hughes will not need telling that Murtagh had produced just the sort of ride that has become his own, cherished copyright.

Even by the familiar standards established by his trainer, Aidan O'Brien, it is still extraordinary to record that Zoffany was the 11th Ballydoyle winner in 13 runnings of this race. O'Brien suggested the National Stakes, back here over a seventh furlong next month, as a likely target for Zoffany, whose sole defeat came behind Strong Suit in the Coventry Stakes. After that O'Brien had dropped Zoffany in class and raised him in trip, and the dividends were palpable restored to six furlongs here.

"He went to Ascot as a baby, and it all happened a bit too fast for him," O'Brien explained. "His two races since have taught him a lot. We stepped him up in trip, so things would happen a bit slower. The plan was to get him relaxed, and Johnny was very cool on him. The horse is getting heavier all the time, he's a lot stronger and more mature now. As long as he keeps putting on weight, we'll keep going with him."

Richard Hannon Jr, assistant to his father, commendably declined to make excuses and simply observed that Strong Suit would be scoped on his return. The whole Hannon team has been insistent that this colt is the best among their prolific juvenile cavalry, so they may find some cold comfort in remembering what happened to their Coventry winner last year. Canford Cliffs, likewise, was beaten when sent abroad for a Group One, and by the spring almost everyone outside the stable was unanimous that he did not truly stay a mile. The rest is history, so all is by no means lost for Strong Suit.

Zoffany is clearly a very smart colt, anyhow, and a significant one, too. O'Brien has increasingly been confined to nurturing horses with middle-distance pedigrees since the emergence of Galileo and Montjeu at Coolmore Stud. It is edifying to see him remind us what he can do with a quicker horse, while his patrons are themselves to be congratulated for choosing so well in these fresh bloodlines for Coolmore.

For Zoffany is by Dansili – also the sire of Harbinger, who was yesterday reported to be "very comfortable" after surgery on the cannon-bone fracture he somehow sustained in the course of an innocuous workout on Saturday morning. A formal decision on his future is anticipated today, but the depressing likelihood is that his retirement has only been postponed by the need to consult a dozen different partners in his Highclere syndicate.

If so, his final racecourse appearance, an 11-length annihilation of two Derby winners at Ascot last month, would certainly provide an arresting advertisement for his own stud career. The void he leaves on the racecourse, meanwhile, is mournfully apparent in betting on the next races he was due to contest. Fame And Glory, for instance, remains as short as 9-4 with Totesport for the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe after his serene return from a break in a Group Two race earlier on the Curragh card. O'Brien said that Fame And Glory would now go for either the Irish Champion Stakes at Leopardstown or the Prix Foy at Longchamp.

He also has the colt reckoned most likely to profit from Harbinger's absence from York next week, in Rip Van Winkle, but any idea of a monopoly was quashed when the remarkable David Nicholls and his son, Adrian, shared a second Group One success with Regal Parade at Deauville. Winner of the Haydock Sprint Cup last year, Regal Parade cruised through the Prix Maurice de Gheest before fighting off the filly Joanna in a duel that took them a long way clear.

Nicholls may be no one-trick pony, but his success with sprinters at every level leaves no doubt as to his strongest suit. And as one of our best and boldest jockeys doubtless reflected, on his way back from the Curragh last night, it's usually best to play to your strengths.

Turf account

Chris McGrath's Nap

Calmdownmate (5.0 Southwell) Goes well here and can contribute to his trainer's fine season after proving less at home at Wolverhampton last time.

Next best

Jeu De Roseau (8.0 Thirsk) Disappointing at Redcar last time but given a break since. His revised mark surely not beyond him, judged on the way he had beaten a subsequent winner at Newcastle.

One to watch

Rossetti (R Hannon) Looked better than his initial mark on the last day of Goodwood, tanking in rear before flying into third.

Where the money's going

Zoffany is 8-1 favourite with Totesport for the 2,000 Guineas. Zenyatta, meanwhile, remains Coral's 4-1 favourite for the Breeders' Cup Classic.

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