Ponti deserves a second chance at Meydan's oasis of reconciliation
The Turf's superpowers have called a truce to divide the spoils at the world's richest fixture
Saturday 26 March 2011
Expressed as a ratio of dollars won per second, it is surely the most lucrative opportunity in all sport. For a while, the Dubai World Cup slugged it out with the Breeders' Cup Classic for the status of the Turf's richest prize. Every time the Americans dug into the lining of their pockets, and came up with another million, the Maktoum family calmly raised the stakes. Eventually they reached $6m. Then, last year, to celebrate the breathless construction of a racecourse commensurate with everything else that has happened to the skyline here – that is to say, something between the inspired and the deranged – they decided to settle the matter for good. So it is that tonight a field of thoroughbreds, assembled from four continents, will carve up $10m (£6.2m) in barely two minutes.
Using last year as a model, the winner will earn something in the region of £30,000 for each second of his journey from starting gate to winning post. But the horsemen converging here, from so many different cultures, are united by rather more than avarice. Each could also tell you how these 120-odd seconds condense years of toil: the breeding and breaking and blooding of every runner in the field. Beyond that, moreover, all those involved have spent long years consummating their different skills – from the stud hands who supervise matings, to the jockey who mounts the saddle at Meydan tonight. And, of course, all that lore has, in turn, been accumulated over generations.
It seems fitting, then, that the two favourites should together reprove the crude brevity of perspective that can afflict this sport. Between them, Cape Blanco and Twice Over make this a race of second chances, and a race of reconciliation. As such, it may be flavoured by both contrition and vindication. In fact, you might even go so far as to say that it's not all about the money.
Through the agency of a new investor in the Coolmore confederacy, Jim Hay, the presence here of Cape Blanco represents an olive branch in two very different breakdowns. The fact that Hay spends much of his time in Dubai, and retains Jamie Spencer to ride his horses, is ostensibly sufficient to account for a double rapprochement – sufficient, that is, to discourage anyone from believing that Spencer is first in line to benefit from Johnny Murtagh's surprise defection as Ballydoyle stable jockey; or, more significantly, that John Magnier and his partners in Coolmore are eager to end some kind of feud with the Maktoums. In each case, however, the truth is not so terribly inconvenient.
It is six years since Aidan O'Brien, who trains for Coolmore at Ballydoyle, last had a runner at this meeting. But Magnier is a pragmatist, above all. It was on a matter of perceived principle that Sheikh Mohammed and his brothers have declined to bid, at public auctions, for the offspring of Coolmore stallions since 2005. Their grievance remains private, necessarily. Whatever its merits, the resulting froideur has done neither camp much good. Commercial breeders developed such a dread of offending either that they ended up avoiding both.
Sheikh Mohammed, meanwhile, found himself obliged to buy a series of expensive stallion prospects to retrieve the ground he was losing to Coolmore's star stallions, Montjeu and Galileo. These included some of their best sons – the likes of Authorized, New Approach and Teofilo – and it may well be that the people at Coolmore recognise the imminent influx of their own bloodlines, in the yearling market, as an opportune moment to patch things up. Step forward Hay, with a clean slate – together, it might be added, a good deal of money. At this early stage, however, it is the warmth of personal testimony in his favour that seems no less auspicious.
The recruitment of Spencer attests to his judgement. But nobody should be deceived that the renewed involvement of the former stable jockey is a mere expedient. Spencer had a miserable year at Ballydoyle in 2004, but there has since been much water under the bridge for both Spencer and O'Brien. And Magnier never wavered in his affection. Certainly, he will have found the departure of Murtagh, and the previous travails of Kieren Fallon, far more exasperating.
The fact is that there will be no formal appointment at Ballydoyle this year. The flourishing Colm O'Donoghue will share staple duties with Seamus Heffernan and O'Brien's talented son, Joseph, with the best of the available seasoned riders stepping in as necessary. Ryan Moore is in line for plenty of the best mounts – indeed, he rides one for the Irish stable in the UAE Derby today – but Spencer's opportunities will by no means be contingent on Hay.
When it comes to fresh starts, however, the race could volunteer no better template than that of Twice Over and Henry Cecil. The horse himself has been a slow burn, disappointing here last year, but unmistakably arrives in his pomp at six. He does not have far to seek for an epoch-making example in perseverance. Having delayed his arrival to work Frankel, the hot favourite for the first Classic of the season, Cecil has not known days like this since himself becoming estranged from Sheikh Mohammed. His personal and professional vicissitudes since have been documented to a point that exhausts dignity, but his ambition to seal his return to the elite in this race is instructive. At the time, Cecil failed to comprehend the sheikh's ambitions for his homeland. To come here and beat the Godolphin horses in their own back yard – and then go home to Frankel, in a stable back up to 130 horses – would be the sweetest possible admission of error.
There must be every chance of that, Cecil having altered his strategy this time round to give Twice Over more time to bed in. The horse was impressive in his rehearsal and, though again drawn wide, should have too much stamina for the best of the Godolphin trio, Poet's Voice. The odds are singularly unexciting, however, with Cape Blanco looking primed to contribute rather more to proceedings than a diplomatic gesture. In contrast, the fact that Gio Ponti has not had a prep race is surely inadequate to explain a quote of 10-1. Things conspired no less against him, when fourth last year, than they did against Twice Over, back in 10th. And remember, Gio Ponti would have won the Classic and Mile respectively at the last two Breeders' Cups, but for the extravagant misfortune of meeting Zenyatta and then Goldikova.
The World Cup crowns an astonishing card that also includes two turf races nowadays worth $5m apiece. Brian Meehan saddles his Breeders' Cup Turf winner, Dangerous Midge, in the Sheema Classic but Rewilding should make his class tell provided he handles the firm ground. Spencer has another huge chance in the Dubai Duty Free, on Wigmore Hall, albeit a stronger pace than in their trial would make Presvis tougher to beat.
Before castration, Wigmore Hall was apparently a sadistic brute. Happily, there are other ways for men to achieve reformation. And there are other things to engage the imagination today, equally, than dollars and dirhams. Cecil put it well, assessing Twice Over yesterday. "When things haven't gone right, you don't want to leave it on that note," he said. "The thing is to come back and try and make it right."
Chris McGrath's nap
Mister Matt (4.30 Newbury) Caught eye going with gusto over a longer trip at Huntingdon a couple of starts ago, and drop in distance could do the trick. Had previously shaped well on this better ground and looks tempting off low weight.
Rey Nacarando (3.25 Newbury) Youngest member of an otherwise exposed field, and has run two perfectly adequate races since decisive win at Plumpton. Jumps with relish, and bolted up on this kind of going at Huntingdon earlier in the season.
One to watch
Cavitie (Andrew Reid) would not have caught too many eyes, running at Wolverhampton during the Cheltenham Festival, but warrants a mention for managing third in a sprint handicap after meeting dreadful traffic.
Where the money's going
Havant, winner of both her starts last autumn for Sir Michael Stoute, a Newmarket maiden on the July Course and then a Group Three contest on the Rowley Mile, is 8-1 from 10-1 with Paddy Power for the Investec Oaks.
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