Tough test for (very) tough horse

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He’s a three-year-old who thinks he’s a six-year-old. He’s got as much attitude as Mae West, an ego the size of a house. He travels in his races like a well-lubricated locomotive. But can the one-time problem child turned champion George Washington win the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill Downs in Kentucky this weekend?

Of the attitude there is no doubt. Trainer Aidan O’Brien missed George Washington’s surge to victory over the subsequent Derby winner Sir Percy in England’s 2000 Guineas because he had to go down to the start to settle the quirky horse whom he admitted “can intimidate other horses just by looking at them”.

After the race the crowds were denied a look at the victor. George Washington refused to come to the winner’s enclosure, insisting instead on following the other horses back to the stables. “No point in forcing him,” said his trainer, adding, with the optimism of an indulgent parent, “If we keep pleasing him he’ll keep pleasing us.” Next time out in the Irish 2000 George Washington took much persuading even to leave the paddock and consent to line up and race.

Injured there and beaten in a muddling race at Goodwood, he was being written off by the pundits as too quirky to realise his immense talent when he came back and toyed with a first-class field in the Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot, after which veteran rider Mick Kinane declared, “I’ve ridden good ones, but none better.” His happy trainer, noting that his horse was merely cantering when his older rivals were flat to the boards, insisted that “George” had finally grown up.

Had he been entered for the Breeders’ Cup Mile, a race run on turf, George Washington would have been favourite to score a presidential-style victory. Coolmore’s candidate would have been the banker for the European stables, which find it so hard to win races in the Breeders’ Cup (of Europe’s 19 runners in the eight races at Belmont Park last year only Andre Fabre’s Shirocco won). But instead his connections have gone for broke. George Washington is running in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, over 10 furlongs, on dirt and against the best two horses in America. To add a corporate/dynastic piquancy to the end-of-season confrontation, the better of those two is the favourite Bernardini, who recently hammered George Washington’s Irish Derby-winning stable companion Dylan Thomas and who is owned by Coolmore’s great rival Sheikh Mohammed.

So why run in the Classic? For a start because O’Brien and Coolmore have Aussie Rules and Valorem to look after their interests in the Mile and the 2005 St Leger winner Scorpion back from injury in the Turf. Still crazy, say pessimists. Bernardini is a dirt horse. George Washington, like Dylan Thomas, who patently failed to take to the dirt surface behind Bernardini, is by Danehill, whose progeny have distinguished themselves only on turf.

Why should “George” succeed in the Classic when horses as good as Galileo and Oratorio failed? To which true racing fans, scenting an epic contest, will say, “Why not?” Especially as O’Brien insists that what horses need to do to cope with the dirt is to “travel” in their races, to be able to coast at speed, and that George Washington does so as well as any animal he has ever handled.

Neither is it a crazy gamble commercially. Another turf victory over a mile would not add that much to George Washington’s stallion value in Europe and defeat over 10 furlongs on an alien surface would not detract much from it. But if he brings off a famous victory over Bernardini on dirt in what will probably be the last race for both of them the breeding world, including the lucrative US market, will be his and Coolmore’s oyster.

Bernardini, who is trained by Tom Albertrani, will take some beating. The son of AP Indy has won his last six starts, including the Preakness Stakes, mostly by hefty margins and the home team’s Lava Man, unbeaten in seven starts this year and trained by Doug O’Neill, is another top-quality dirt performer. Nor are they the only contestants likely to give George Washington a race. Brian Meehan’s tough four-year-old David Junior, aimed at the Classic all season and a triple Group One winner, will be a fresh horse, having been rested since his Coral Eclipse victory in June. And Invasor, from South America but owned by Sheikh Hamdan, has already won three Group Ones in the US.

As for the other Europeans, Godolphin (Librettist) and Coolmore (Aussie Rules) will both fancy their chances of overturning the American favourite Aragorn in the Mile. So will England’s Jeremy Noseda with Araafa. It would be good if Europe’s most successful Breeders’ Cup trainer André Fabre could score in the Turf with Hurricane Run, who was the best horse in the world last year. But the Montjeu colt, who had to miss last year’s race, hasn’t had the same sparkle this year. The same cannot be said of the marvellous Ouija Board, who won the Filly and Mare Turf in 2004 and was second last year. She is a worthy favourite, but no mare has ever won it twice.

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