2 May 2004

Arguments settled. The prelude to every 2,000 Guineas is a fevered mixture of hope and hype. The need is for a clear-cut winner to set a standard for the rest of the season to match. Haafhd set it yesterday.

At the line Richard Hills had one and three-quarter lengths to spare over Frankie Dettori on Godolphin’s Snow Ridge, with Mick Kinane on the Aga Khan’s Azamour a length further back in third and Pat Smullen on the other previously unbeaten Irish challenger Grey Swallow the same distance away fourth. The hot favourite One Cool Cat was way out with the washing.

Beforehand Richard’s 67-year-old father Barry had tempted fate enough to say that the little chesnut colt was the best miler he had trained in his 35 years with a licence. Some still doubted the merits of his five-length Craven Stakes victory last month and the mass of punters preferred to heed the Aidan O’Brien “never come across a horse with such a blast of speed” tribute to his One Cool Cat. Haafhd started at 11-2, One Cool Cat was backed down to 15-8. He finished a disastrous 13th of 14.

Haafhd was ridden with commendably aggressive confidence by Hills, who was prepared to place his horse close up behind the leaders in the very rapid opening sections while the other main contenders were content to settle way off the pace. It was a bold decision and the right one in a race whose early stages were a bizarre spectacle with the three leaders Tumblebrutus, (pacemaker for One Cool Cat), Golden Sahara (ditto for Godolphin’s Snow Ridge) and Barbajuan galloping wide apart with just Haafhd and the French horse Whipper close up and the rest almost out of contact.

The stalls had been placed in the middle of the course and many jockeys seemed to be unsure of the best line to take and the right horse to track. Hills’ positive approach meant that he was ready to take up the running in the centre a full two furlongs out, with Whipper his main contender on the far rail. The last quarter mile is a long way home at Newmarket and at last other challengers were coursing up from the back.

But not One Cool Cat. This almost black bull of a horse had looked hugely powerful as he cantered down, the very epitome of the wound-up colt ready to run a hole in the wind. Yet preparing equine athletes will always remain an inexact science. Even though he was settled way off the pace, One Cool Cat was never moving with any great panache and as the likes of Snow Ridge, Azamour, Grey Swallow and eventually Salford City began to eat up ground, the favourite was going absolutely nowhere. Something was clearly very wrong with him and his heartbeat was irregular when checked afterwards.

Racing down the hill into the final quarter mile, Haafhd had a three-length lead but the others were closing at an almost alarming rate. But any suggestion that he had somehow sneaked a lead and was weakening at the finish is refuted by the clock. While they took almost a second out of his comparatively slow 12.80secs penultimate furlong only Azamour took as much as one hundredth of a second out of his gritty 12.89secs uphill closing section to clock an admirable 1min 36.4secs for the mile. The truth is that Haafhd was holding them.

So the classic game rolls on. The Derby, over an extra half a mile, is just five weeks away. Would Haafhd, home-bred by Sheikh Hamdan Al-Maktoum and by the owner’s Alhaarth out of the 1985 Irish 1,000 Guineas winner Al Bahathri, be tilted at the longer trip? With the pedigree suggesting a mile and a quarter limit, initial reaction was negative enough to have Ladbrokes leave him out of their Derby betting, in which One Cool Cat’s stablemate Yeats is down to 9-4 favourite with the French hope American Post at 5-1 and Snow Ridge now as short at 7-1. But listen to the jockey and Haafhd may not be out of the picture yet.

“I think he really stays,” said a delighted Hills afterwards. “He is so easy to ride, you can place him anywhere in a race. I would really love to ride him in the Derby.” Without any other obvious Epsom contenders Sheikh Hamdan may yet be tempted but the trainer is more cautious and content to celebrate what he called “my sweetest moment in racing since Rheingold won the Arc de Triomphe in 1973”.

Barry’s last 2,000 Guineas winner was Tap On Wood, who won under a 19-year-old Steve Cauthen in 1979 which, with the now long retired Steve celebrating his 44th birthday back home in Kentucky, now seems an age away. But the daily renewal of the battle of hope against experience which is at the heart of running a training stable is a lifegiver of its own.

Witness Hills’ closing tribute not just to his horse but to his evergreen attendant. “Haafhd is so laid back with a great attitude to life,” said Barry. “He is a trainer’s dream. But I am as pleased for Snowy Outen who looks after him, as I am for myself. Snowy is 79 and won’t retire. He is in the yard every morning and has been my headman since I started training.”

Snowy himself added simply “it was the happiest day of my life”. No argument with that.

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