BOMB TICKS QUIETLEY AS THE DAWN BREAKS

21 January 2001

The Classic countdown has begun for Nayef, who is being carefully primed to explode at Newmarket in May

Fred Storrar was sitting on a time bomb yesterday morning. Walking second in the Marcus Tregoning string he and Derby and Guineas favourite Nayef looked as cool as the frost on the silver turf. It was when they turned to canter that you could see that something was ticking.

Storrar, at 38, has exactly the sort of steady hand, cool eye and quiet voice that you like to see in the bomb squad veteran. He was 16 and Derby winner Troy was a two-year-old when he left Peckham to join Dick Hern as a stable lad in 1978. Ten years later he saw his colt Charmer just fail in the 2,000 Guineas. Now he looks after Nayef for Hern’s successor, Marcus Tregoning, and every stride reminds him of the power beneath.

“He’s very, very fresh at the moment,” says Storrar of the horse whose half-brother Nashwan so memorably took the Guineas and Derby in 1989. “He carries his head well in front of you, so you need to give him a long rein. He’s pretty good most of the time but every now and then he will suddenly let go two or three really good bucks. You have to be careful, but he is a tremendous animal to have anything to do with. He is maturing all the time and is just a total athlete.”

The words are delicious in their unscripted appreciation. The 2,000 Guineas was 15 weeks away yesterday, the Derby but five weeks later. Nayef sails by on the artificial Polytrack surface. Ears cocked, neck arched, stride flowing, Fred’s hands firm but gentle on the reins as the Tregoning string make a wondrous tableau against the icy backdrop of the Lambourn Downs.

The drill of the woodpecker suggests the natural timelessness of the scene. But the sound of the M4 traffic swishing in the distance reminds you that Nayef represents the very cutting edge of what modern man and beast can do.

He was born in America, first ridden in Dubai, arrived at owner Sheikh Hamdan al Maktoum’s Kingwood House yard last March and since then has, like the 90 other horses under Tregoning’s care, had the sort of monitoring that any Olympian would envy. Weight, blood patterns and temperature are checked as regularly as oats and hay and other food is analysed.

After impressive wins in both his races last season, here is a four-legged athlete with literally millions of dollars on the line. But he is young, very young. Nayef turns three years old on May 1 – just four days before the Guineas. And he cannot talk. Which brings us to the dilemma which has challenged horsemen for the two full centuries since our ancestors decided to make this three-year-old season the Classic test for the animal which they had established as the fastest weight-carrying creature the world had ever seen.

With so volatile a mix, how long do you wait and how much do you push?

“You have a rough schedule in your head,” explains Tregoning as Nayef and the others start the second of their three easy-paced half-mile spins. “With the Guineas in May, you may need a preliminary race three weeks earlier which means that by April Fools Day you need to be able to gallop enough to know the score. That means working twice a week through March so these canters now have to be quickened up next month.

But it is easy to talk. The most important thing is to get a sense of how things are going, to take what the lads and the horses tell you.

At 41, Tregoning is only four years into his own career at Kingwood but it was he who Dick Hern sent for when crippled by a hunting accident 15 years ago, and he was behind the wheelchair when not just Nashwan, but the brilliant sprinter Dayjur and Nayef’s other tremendous half-brother, Unfuwain, carried Sheikh Hamdan’s blue silks to the big time. In a quiet way Tregoning has already seen plenty but this could be his hour.

“Horses like this don’t come along very often,” he said, as you recall the long, springy stride so noticeable even at the trot.

“It’s a great chance for all of us, a great vehicle for our business. But I am a great believer in building up the preparation gradually. That way you give their minds as well as bodies more chance to mature. If this horse is as good as we think he is, it will be a long season. We can certainly get him fit enough so we might not have a race before the Guineas.”

To that end he and Sheikh Hamdan forswore a third race last season which would have probably had Nayef top rather than joint fifth in the official European ratings. The colt’s work was eased off, his food was toned down. For six weeks until Jan 1 he was limited to trotting around the all-weather tracks and the indoor school. Only then did the bomb making begin.

For Unfuwain and, in particular, Nashwan had a temperament quite close to the limit.

“They all have a spark there,” said Tregoning. In his office hangs a picture of the pair’s dam, Height of Fashion, who was a champion two-year-old for The Queen before being controversially sold for what now looks a bargain £1.5 million to the Sheikh. “It would be easy to tizz them up. The trick is to harness it,” he added. In the slack time, Nayef would have put 50lbs on to his 1,100lb racing weight. At this stage, his three-times-a-day feeds would still be a mix of convalescent and racing diet. The fine bay skin on his neck curves to have him stand 16.1 hands (5ft 5ins) at the shoulder.

By the end of the summer Tregoning expects Nayef to have grown an inch to balance the slightly higher hindquarters. By then yesterday’s hopeful could have become the nation’s hero.

For the present he and Storrar and the rest of the team have the best and worst of things of a morning. Every snort of the nostril, every reach of the shoulder, every thud of the hoof, brings them closer to the date when the ticking has to stop.

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