Star Witness primed to give conclusive evidence
If, as it is said, timing is everything in life, then those who have brought high-class Australian sprinter Star Witness halfway round the world are cutting it fine enough.
For the four-year-old, Saturday's July Cup is not just last chance saloon in these parts, but anywhere. After the six-furlong dash, the doors will swing shut on his career as a runner and he will head home in due course to start life as a stallion.
The globetrotting chestnut has acquitted himself pretty well so far during his northern hemisphere adventure, with second and third places in Royal Ascot's two top-level sprints, the King's Stand and Golden Jubilee Stakes. But victory in the Newmarket showpiece would be the perfect exit.
"No Australian-trained horse has ever won it," said trainer Danny O'Brien, "it's been a bridge too far and our challenge is to be the first. And if we can, it will be job done. His places at Ascot have not done his stallion prospects any harm, but the real enhancement is a Group One win. And this race is the most prestigious of the three."
Early yesterday morning, Star Witness had a practice gallop on Saturday's course to acquaint himself with its unfamiliar rolling contours, a test run which pleased both O'Brien and rider Steven Arnold. "Until the pressure of the race you can never be sure, but that felt good," said the man in the saddle. "He was balanced all the way and handled the dips and rises well, felt at home. And if he performs to his best, he will be there at the finish."
Star Witness's two Ascot races came within five days. The first, in which he narrowly failed to get up, was always intended as a warm-up; by the second contest the ground had softened against him, but even so he was mugged only close home. The fast conditions in Newmarket should suit perfectly.
"The way the Golden Jubilee was run, we were a bit exposed through the final furlong," added O'Brien, "and we'll probably hold on to him a bit longer on Saturday. At Ascot we were out on our feet in that ground the last 100 metres and you need to be running through the post rather than staggering to it. But that was then and you have to look forward; everyone has their hard-luck stories.
"At Ascot there were two deserving winners and we just hope we get our turn. Certainly, he has not gone backwards in condition since being here, quite the contrary. When you travel this far, you never win if you come on the back end of anything, so we cut short his programme at home and came here with plenty of racing left in him."
Timing, again. The Golden Jubilee Stakes, in soft ground over a stiff six furlongs, was run in 1min 17.22 sec, last year's July Cup, on good to firm going, in 1min 9.81sec. "When you look at the Ascot time, you know it's been a significant test, which would be unheard of back home," said O'Brien. "We'd be looking there at winning a Group One in something like 1min 8 sec. We'll be giving it a good crack on Saturday."
Star Witness is only the third-best sprinter in Australia, and avoiding Black Caviar and Hay List has been judged to give him the best chance of adding another Group One to his CV. In the modern era a worldwide portfolio is not only acceptable, but becoming essential, for a prospective stallion.
Last year, another top Australian performer, Starspangledbanner, took the July Cup, though by then he had been transferred to Aidan O'Brien, trailblazing the road since taken by So You Think. "Although it would be romantic for him to go back home and win a third Cox Plate," added Danny O'Brien of Saturday's Eclipse Stakes hero, "the reality is that he'll gain more on his resumé by winning the Arc or at the Breeders' Cup."
Neither of the Royal Ascot winners, Prohibit and Society Rock, will be running on Saturday. But the horse who was Golden Jubilee favourite until the ground ruled him out, Delegator, will, and once again heads the market ahead of the Australian challenger. The five-year-old's talents, as a sprinter at least, are still being developed. "We know he needs to perform better than his official rating to win," warned Godolphin's racing manager, Simon Crisford. "But he's quick, and we're looking forward to seeing him against good horses."
Chris McGrath's Nap
Bay Of Fires (3.50 Catterick)
Drops back in trip after three shots over further. Put a line through her latest outing, when she was badly drawn.
Red Courtier (7.50 Kempton) Course winner who has improved both for the fitting of cheekpieces and every step up in trip.
One To Watch
Awsaal (John Dunlop) was not given a hard time on unsuitably soft ground at Royal Ascot and has now dropped to a mark that looks well within the scope of his obvious progress last year.
Where the money's going
Redwood is 3-1 favourite with Ladbrokes for tomorrow's Princess Of Wales's Stakes at Newmarket.
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