Swing hits rhythm

Racing's latest wonder horse opens his campaign with an impressive success
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THEY came, they saw, he conquered. Celtic Swing, last season's champion two-year-old and already the hot favourite for this year's Classic races, took another step along the road to greatness here yesterday. He won his first race of the year, the Tripleprint Greenham Stakes, in ruthlessly efficient style and though his victory may not have been the type of spreadeagling romp that won him so many fans as a juvenile, he is now, at best, even money to win next month's the 2,000 Guineas and only 3-1 for the Derby.

The annual search for a superstar is what keeps this business going, and though there were more than 400 horses running in Britain yesterday, the eyes of the racing world were on one only. Celtic Swing's presence put 2,000 on the attendance at Newbury, but more two-year-old idols flop than succeed in their second season, and this one's eagerly awaited three-year-old debut was the moment when the talking had to stop.

For the good of the sport, even the rivals of his trainer, Lady Herries, are willing Celtic Swing to live up to the close-season hype, and the swaggering, almost-black colt was the focus of hundreds of expectant eyes as he stepped out in the parade ring before the race. If there was a horse who overshadowed him it was Bahri, from the in-form stable of John Dunlop. But none moved better to post than Lady Herries' charge, a fluid, long-striding galloper, and it did not take long to confirm that this gifted athlete had retained his mighty talent.

Kevin Darley had him out of the stalls smartly to track the pace-setting Art of War, but by halfway it was apparent that the leader was not going fast enough, and the jockey eased Celtic Swing's white-nosebanded head to the front.

Two out, he shook the reins, and the 4-9 favourite put daylight between himself and his rivals in a matter of strides. Once in front he began to idle and look about, and Bahri came out of the pack after him, but Celtic Swing, eased down at the line by Darley, had plenty in hand. The pair were a full nine lengths in front of the others, headed by the fit- looking Moon King.

The proximity of Bahri, highly regarded by his connections, meant that victory looked more workmanlike than impressive. But a glance at the clock confirmed the merit of the performance. The colt, without being fully extended, had covered the seven furlongs in a time just 0.4 seconds outside the course record, and this was on ground softened by overnight rain. And, importantly, Celtic Swing dem- onstrated that he still has that high cruising speed and instant change of gear that marks a champion.

The "wonder horse" label is a heavy one to bear, not so much for the animal in question but for his connections, and the first reaction of Lady Herries and Celtic Swing's owner, Peter Savill, was one of overwhelming relief. "I'm glad this one is over," said the mistress of Angmering Park. "And I'm very pleased. He didn't do a tap once he got in front, but this will have sharpened him up mentally and physically."

The star performer will have an easy few days before beginning his build- up to the Guineas at Newmarket in 13 days' time. Lady Herries said: "They went a good gallop, but not good enough for him. And when he got to the front, it was as if he was asking, `What do I do now?' He hardly had a race, and will be better suited by the faster pace there will be next time."

Darley was delighted. "Nothing at home can make him do much, and he was by no means 100 per cent today," the jockey said. "This will have put the racing edge on him, and he will certainly be better over further. So far, so good."

Savill, a millionaire publisher based in the Cayman Islands, has turned down several multi- million pound offers for Celtic Swing, who will start the hottest Guineas favourite since Nijinsky, the last horse to go on to take the Triple Crown (2,000 Guineas, Derby and St Leger), 25 years ago. Savill, looking forward to his colt's date with horses of the calibre of Pennekamp, Diffident and Sri Pekan - said: "It could be one of the great Guineas of all time. But I wouldn't swop mine for anything."

At Ayr, Jenny Pitman won her second Grand National of the season - the Scottish version - but not, as many had expected, with her Aintree hero Royal Athlete. Willsford, ridden by Rodney Farrant, jumped past the long- time leader Sweet Duke four out and maintained his advantage to the line. "I've always wanted to win this race - now I need the Irish one to go to complete the collection," said Pitman.

The victory was more agony for Mrs Pitman's stable jockey, Warren Marston, who also missed the ride on Royal Athlete at Aintree. He partnered Do Be Brief, a well-beaten 10th, on the advice of the trainer. "It's all my fault and I feel gutted for him," said Mrs Pitman.