A year on from the razzmatazz of Frankel, a much more understated star will this afternoon go for his own little piece of Turf history on the Knavesmire. Without hype or fanfare, and against an assortment of odds, Al Kazeem has emerged as the horse to beat, the only one in Europe with three top-level victories on his CV this season. And should he make it four in the Juddmonte International Stakes, an extraordinary grand slam could be on the cards.
The £750,000 International is one of the campaign's elite tests over a mile and a quarter, an intermediate distance that demands both pace and stamina. In an unbeaten four-race progress this year, Al Kazeem has already taken two of the others, the Prince Of Wales's Stakes at Ascot and the Eclipse Stakes at Sandown. No horse has added the York showpiece and there is still the end-of-season finale, the Champion Stakes back at Ascot, to come.
That Al Kazeem, a conspicuously handsome individual, is competing at all, let alone at the highest level, is something of a small miracle. In May last year he sustained a hairline fracture to his pelvis in the process of scoring an easy victory in the Jockey Club Stakes at Newmarket and did not reappear for nearly a year. His presence back on the track is a testament not only to the skill and diligence of his human associates, headed by his trainer, Roger Charlton, but also his own remarkably equable temperament.
The five-year-old's initial treatment involved being immobilised in his box for six weeks, close confinement that many a mature thoroughbred male would not tolerate. "It's pretty certain he suffered his injury during that race," said Charlton, "you could see his tail carriage became crooked and he hung across the track, so he was clearly feeling something and all credit to him for sticking to it. But then his strengths are being determined, brave and uncomplicated. And if he had not been a good patient during those early recovery days, then it all might have been different."
It is a rare enough equine athlete who returns from a lay-off as good as before; often a horse injured in action will associate racing with discomfort. For Al Kazeem, though, his enforced absence has merely delayed the fulfilment of his potential.
"He always looked a class act," said Charlton, "but a late developer. And sure enough from three to four he became visibly stronger. First time out at four we weren't necessarily expecting him to win, especially not with such considerable ease. But we realised then that we might have a special horse, so what happened afterwards was the more frustrating."
Al Kazeem carries the colours of his breeder John Deer, who runs an engineering business in south Wales and has a small band of broodmares at his Oakgrove Stud near Chepstow. Charlton, 63, is master of the historic Beckhampton stables on the Wiltshire Downs and has a roll of honour that includes a Derby victory but, again, a string of 75 provides relatively limited ammunition. And both owner, who has turned down seven-figure sums for his pride and joy, and trainer are enjoying their best-ever ride.
Today, though, will be a whole new test for Al Kazeem. He has seen off all the older opposition over his specialist distance but this afternoon will for the first time face some of the best of the young-gun three-year-olds, notably the top-class miler Toronado, stepping up to 10 furlongs for the first time as did Frankel 12 months ago, and the Irish Derby winner Trading Leather, dropping back from a mile and a half. And though he comes to the fray on his fighting weight of 494kg, with an uninterrupted preparation after a brief summer break, and as hot favourite, Charlton is under no illusions about the task facing the son of Dubawi and his young rider, James Doyle.
"It could get muddling and tactical and York is a track where there have been odd results in the past," he said. "We've already had our moments and I suppose anything else is a bonus. But he's straightforward, solid and honest and seeing him do what we believed he could has been hugely professionally satisfying. He is the best I've trained and we're hoping the party can go on a bit longer."
The Juddmonte International Stakes is part of the QIPCO British Champions Series. For more information go to: www.britishchampionsseries.com
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