Mafaaz kicks dirt question in court

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The Independent Online

Having been devised to break down transatlantic boundaries, the Kentucky Derby Challenge could have found no better ambassador than the man who saddled the winner. How ironic, then, that Mafaaz himself could yet come to distil fresh schisms within the American sport.

By winning the inaugural running, at Kempton on Wednesday night, the colt guaranteed himself a starting berth at Churchill Downs on 2 May. He also secured a $100,000 travel bursary. While his owner, Sheikh Hamdan, scarcely needed that incentive, no trainer would grasp the philosophy behind it better than John Gosden.

Having trained elite winners on dirt and turf during his days in California, Gosden returned to Santa Anita last autumn to win the first Breeders' Cup Classic staged on a synthetic surface. The big man is uniquely qualified to bestride the shifting sands of the modern Turf, and make some sense of its emerging paradoxes. He knows perfectly well that as a son of a European turf stallion, Medicean, Mafaaz may struggle to adapt to the dirt surface at Churchill Downs. But he is also aware that this dilemma will no longer isolate his candidate as some alien interloper. Nowadays many of the most talented American colts will also have established their credentials on surfaces similar to the one at Kempton.

Sure enough, Gosden's intention now is to run Mafaaz in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland – a traditional Derby rehearsal nowadays staged on a surface utterly unlike the one at Churchill Downs. Some day, perhaps, the welfare benefits will become so unequivocal that the dirt track in Louisville will be dug up. In the meantime, however, there are a lot of vested interests to be overcome, not least those concentrated in expensive stallions with dirt pedigrees. At best, the resulting flux might be viewed as evidence of wholesome diversity; at worst, it will become so incoherent as to force through a final catharsis of change.

That is why it is so important to have a man like Gosden embracing these new incongruities. To those conservative Americans who would sooner be convinced by a horse than a man, however, perhaps it would have been more helpful still had Mafaaz been caught by Spring Of Fame.

For a start, the neck runner-up was almost certainly the best horse in the race, flying home on the outside under Chris Catlin after getting trapped on the rail by a slackening gallop. That is always going to be a hazard with this kind of wild-card opportunity, but the bitter reality is that Spring Of Fame's genes made him a far more eligible candidate than Mafaaz for the Kentucky Derby.

Mikael Magnusson, his trainer, made his fortune out of orthopaedic mattresses but is unlikely to have slept well overnight. He claimed to be reconciled to his fate yesterday, albeit there was no disguising the rueful note in his voice. "I'm over it now," he said. "Because maybe it will turn out for the best, what happened. When they announced the race, I trained him for it, and he was very, very unlucky. But there was nothing the jockey could do, once he had taken the rail early. The pace slowed and he had no way out.

But at least we know we have a nice horse, and he will go for the [Stan James 2,000] Guineas."

Magnusson has a very shrewd eye for a yearling and his small string is always full of quality. "I took my time with him as a two-year-old, because he was a big horse," he said. "But he has always been fantastic, from day one. What a last furlong he ran at Kempton. He picked up eight lengths in a sprint."

Hours after the race there came further evidence that the American sport's more introspective elements will never stifle the abiding, national sense of adventure. The publication of 77 entries for the Oaks revealed that Kenny McPeek, who saddled Hard Spun to finish second in the 2005 King George VI & Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot, is considering Epsom for two of his fillies.Dream Empress was a Grade One winner last year before finishing second in the Breeders' Cup Fillies' Juvenile, while Striking Empress won a race at Gulfstream last month. McPeek confirmed that the entries have been made in earnest, though both must first run satisfactory trials in the United States before being shipped here next month. He also hopes to supplement a colt named Theregoesjojo for the Derby, should he make the frame in the Florida Derby on 28 March.

* Neptune Collonges, fourth in the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup last Friday to his Paul Nicholls-trained stable companions Kauto Star and Denman, will be sidelined for 12 months after injuring a tendon.