7 September 2003

High Chaparral, a splendid name, a fine horse, victories in the English and Irish Derbies, The Breeders’ Cup, and now this Irish Champion Stakes. Nine victories and two places from 11 runs, not to mention nearly £3 million in prize money, it’s an awesome record but still one, as yesterday, unfairly clouded with other issues. Like should he have won at all.

A clear neck advantage High Chaparral had over Falbrav at the line but watching close to the rail it was clear that Darryll Holland had been desperately short of riding room as High Chaparral rolled over towards the fence just as Falbrav finally got through to challenge. An inquiry was announced, Holland objected to Kinane for “intimidation” and for 25 nail-biting minutes the fate of the 589,000-euro prize hung in the balance.

To be honest, I think that’s a bit of an exaggeration. For close inspection of the replays repeated with admirable frequency on the big screens showed that, while High Chaparral clearly caused Falbrav to check, it would have been very hard to argue that this definitely cost Falbrav a full neck’s worth of momentum. The rule states that unless you can be certain of that, the winner keeps the race.

Such discussion clouds the huge credit that High Chaparral should take from only his second race back this season, and the enormous effort that Falbrav made in defeat in the tremendous time of 2 min 03.3 sec for this undulating mile and a quarter. But that’s the fascination and frustration of the game.

This race had seemed Ireland’s ultimate gift to the year on the turf. Six Group One winners promising what should be a galloping moment of truth. Trouble was when the horses took the final turn, the truth got in a tangle. France, who had set a fair gallop for stablemate High Chaparral, was beginning to weaken as Frankie Dettori and Moon Ballad attacked round the outside and Johnny Murtagh slipped Alamshar up the inside. High Chaparral chased Moon Ballad with Islington after him on the outside. Behind all of them Holland and Falbrav had to take a decision.

Should he go inside or outside? Knowing he had the horse with the most proven finishing kick and that the outside route was already blocked it was a “no-brainer”. He should not sacrifice precious lengths pulling back and spinning widest of all off the turn, he should wait for splits between the runners ahead of him. But he would need luck. He didn’t get it.

Instead, he got a living galloping nightmare. Blame is no good because Holland’s original decision was one all top jockeys would have taken. What happened is what happens when it goes wrong. Up ahead of him there was no way through the three-way battle between Alamshar, Firebreak and High Chaparral, outsider Islington’s effort blocked the way. Three separate times Holland had to check his massive partner. Finally Moon Ballad weakened and there was a gap inside High Chaparral towards the rail. In desperation he went for it. But halfway through the leader began to lug him into Moon Ballad and across Alamshar. Sure it was a degree of intimidation. But it was unintentional and it was not enough.

At the line, Islington was only a head away in third place with Alamshar a slightly disappointing length and a half away in fourth. “I didn’t really have much racing room,” said Johnny Murtagh afterwards, “and he was never quite travelling, he is probably better going right-handed.” The jockey’s mood was in marked contrast to his weight-threatened despair of two weeks ago.

The same can be said for Aidan O’Brien. By his own supernatural standards, this has not been the perfect season and the bold experiment of keeping Hawk Wing and High Chaparral in training had been blighted by Hawk Wing blowing out at Ascot and High Chaparral being delayed with a shoulder strain. But here was patience repaid.N “This horse is wonderfully well now,” he said, “he has come on tremendously. His target has always been the Arc de Triomphe, but he can give it a big shot today.”

Falbrav may have been unlucky on the day, but winning is the name of the game. High Chaparral has made a habit of it because he is that most admirable of things: a racehorse who is happy to race in soft ground and firm, wind and shine. Yesterday may have left us with some arguments but High Chaparral has not just added to our memories. With the Arc de Triomphe ahead he has left us the promise of even more.

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