War Artist ready for return to front

Globetrotting sprinter fighting fit again after year on the casualty list
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The Independent Online

For an athlete, comfort in the execution of performance is paramount, particularly for a horse. A human runner can shrug off a nasty blister in the pursuit of victory but equines have no awareness of glory or prize-money and cannot rationalise the concept of running through a physical wall. Which is one reason why James Eustace is delighted with the change he has seen in his charge War Artist.

The talented six-year-old is something of the forgotten horse in the elite sprint division and on Saturday at Newbury is scheduled to make his belated seasonal debut, his first run for more than a year after suffering, and conquering, assorted vicissitudes. The last time he was seen in public he finished less-than-a-length third in a blanket finish to last year's July Cup, and before that had taken second place in another Group One contest, the Golden Jubilee Stakes.

Then, though mighty effective in gallop mode, his action in his slower paces was stilted and inefficient. Now he is moving at all speeds with such elegant freedom that Eustace is relishing the prospect of his having made significant improvement for his enforced lay-off. "He could hardly walk or trot properly last year," the trainer said yesterday, "but now he not only can fully use himself, he'd have a fair stab at doing a good dressage test. After the July Cup last year we saw he was moving unlevel behind, nothing more than a soft-tissue problem, but it had been compromising him."

The globetrotting War Artist, a top-level winner in South Africa two years ago, joined Eustace almost by accident. The gelding was lodging at his Newmarket stables, en route to the United States, when plans changed and his temporary billet became permanent. "He'd had a full South African season in 2007 and arrived here fit at the beginning of our winter, but stayed in training because he was supposed to ship out," Eustace said. "So by this time last year he'd had 18 months on the go. He was due a break, though it was longer than we'd planned."

War Artist's schedule was again disrupted in February, this time by a problem that was life-, rather than career-threatening, as he had to undergo emergency abdominal surgery after developing colic. It transpired that part of his short intestine was twisted and trapped but, happily, necrosis had not set in and no excision was necessary. "That, in itself," said Eustace, "was something of a miracle."

The big, dark Australian-bred recovered from the trauma of the operation with typical equanimity. "He amazed the vets," said his trainer, "but then, he is a remarkable horse. He's got an unflappable mind and is actually very straightforward and genuine to train, despite everything."

War Artist's preferred ground is fast and a soft surface scuppered plans for a comeback at Newcastle late last month. But, barring a deluge of biblical proportions, he will be at Newbury in two days' time for the Group Three Shadwell Stakes. "He's very well and, frankly, needs to run," Eustace said. "He did his first really good, head-turning bit of work on the morning of this year's Golden Jubilee Stakes and he's done nothing but improve since. I couldn't be happier with him."

War Artist, who carries the colours of a German businessman, Rupert Plersch, is one of just 30 horses at Park Lodge Stables, one of Newmarket's most historic yards, whose leafy peace and charm belie its position almost in the town centre. For a small operator, a flag-bearer of his stature is of vital importance. "Generally, we have to rely on cheap horses," Eustace said, "and with those, you hope you get lucky, and they prove better than they might be. We have been; we've generally found one every so often to keep us going. And though this horse isn't in that category, it was more or less a pure fluke he came to us and his life since has been fairly charmed. In this business, you need luck everywhere."

Turf account: Sue Montgomery


Plaisterer (8.40 Doncaster) At Windsor last time out she caught a tartar, chasing home a horse who has since defied at 12lb rise in notching a hat-trick. But she previously beat two subsequent winners and looks progressive herself, despite her tail-flashing tendencies.

Next best

Lake Wakatipu (2.00 Cartmel) Had a conditionals' race at Aintree in the bag when jinking and unseating her rider two out and returns to the scene of her maiden hurdles victory with more experienced hands on the reins.

One to watch

Two-year-old Syrian (Michael Bell), a 30,000gns Hawk Wing half-brother to the useful Popmurphy, has been catching the eye on the Newmarket gallops (he went particularly well against a winning stablemate on Saturday) and his debut is imminent.

Chris McGrath's nap: Mey Clouds (4.50 Cartmel)