ARAAFA IS NO SOFT TOUCH

28 May 2006

Damned if you don’t run but sometimes, as in this case, damned if you do. George Washington’s connections yesterday took the risk of pitching their spectacular English 2,000 Guineas winner on to the rain-soaked Curragh for the Irish equivalent and saw him decisively beaten by the Newmarket-trained Araafa and increase his reputation for reluctance into the bargain.

The winner’s time was eight seconds slower than Dubawi took last year, and with the rains adding a further 5 mm to the 13 mm that had fallen on Thursday the ground was officially heavy. It was also plenty reason enough for Aidan O’Brien to withdraw his star for a better day. But after agonising well into the afternoon, the dark-glassed trainer opted to run. For the next hour or so he probably wished he hadn’t.

For while George Washington was quite calm in the preliminary paddock he only consented to leave it by the back entrance. Leaving the main paddock was even more difficult. Three times the colt turned mulishly round and walked off in the opposite direction and was finally cajoled by the trainer himself to walk backwards out on to the track. Down at the start O’Brien looked a hugely relieved man when, after a couple more sulky moments, George Washington was at last loaded into the stalls.

But the real troubles were only beginning. As at Newmarket, Kieren Fallon dropped the white-faced bay in behind this 11-runner field and as ever we tried to make sense of how well he and the others were going as his stablemate River Tiber made the running. The gusting wind made cameras and binoculars unsteady but by the two furlong marker something seemed very different from the Newmarket picture. George Washington was not cruising.

Back then, Fallon’s arms had an awesome amount of power to let loose. Now he was demanding extra and getting only a struggle in reply. Up in front of him, Alan Munro felt the Guineas fourth Araafa still going strong beneath him. The plan had been to wait another furlong. But the horse was rolling. Let’s hit and make it hurt.

Three lengths clear went Araafa and for a few strides that seemed all the race would have to offer. Then at last Fallon got George Washington out to the right and got to start coursing in pursuit. Just for a moment there was a shadow of that Newmarket power as he closed on the leader but then the strain bit, the stride weakened and the head hooked up and left in distress and dispute.

“It was not the George Washington we know,” said Fallon quite coolly afterwards. “He was labouring in these conditions. I have never known a top horse be the same on extreme surfaces. He did hook left a bit under pressure but that was because it was hurting. He will be back – for sure.”

Quite where and quite how or if he will consent to leave the paddock is a matter for another day. The essence of racing is competition but the fundamentals to developing equine athletes is to get the best out of them and develop their stud value. So it may be that a drop back to six furlongs in the July Cup will be preferred to continuing the best miler debate in the St James’s Palace in the glittering new Ascot arena. If George Washington really is the fastest horse they have ever had at Ballydoyle, he could blow Europe’s sprinters away in mid-summer and then reassert himself over eight furlongs in the Breeders’ Cup Mile at Churchill Downs in November.

One certain Ascot starter will be Araafa whose trainer, Jeremy Noseda, was saddling his first European Classic winner and whose rider, Alan Munro, was winning in this category for the first time since Generous took the Irish Derby here in 1991. “He’s a pretty decent horse,” Noseda said in the somewhat anti-climactic winner’s enclosure, “he may have been five lengths off George Washington at Newmarket but that was his first run of the season and I had an idea he would go on this ground. If we were to have a crack at George it would be under these conditions. The St James’s Palace is the next stop.”

Araafa had been a late booking for Munro at Newmarket and this victory was part of his impressive climb back to the big time from a decade-long sabbatical from race riding. “People have been good to me,” he said, “but it’s all part of a process. It takes time. You hope more people notice you and you get involved with more good horses like this one. For this is what it is about. This is my happiest day’s racing since 1991.”

No damning there.

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