29 June 2003

Destiny awaits the Aga Khan’s unbeaten colt in a Ballydoyle-dominated Irish Derby at The Curragh

Dalakhani, France’s new young superstar stretches out past the beech trees at Chantilly. That was Friday morning, this afternoon he lines up as hot favourite for the Irish Derby. Racing’s central themes of tradition and immediacy are reflected in his every slender line.

He, more than any racehorse alive, represents tradition on the hoof. He is the latest son of the Aga Khan’s studs to pitch for immortality. He is part of a production plan that stretches back through the Aga’s own father and grandfather at the six French and Irish stud farms where pedigrees are logged through at least seven generations. The old Aga’s first Classic triumph, the English 2,000 Guineas, was in 1924 and his grandson has developed over 90 Group One winners since his father Aly Khan’s death in 1960. And those victories have included England and Irish Derby doubles for Shergar, Shahrastani, Kahyasi and most recently Sinndar three years ago.

Now Dalakhani, a light-framed grey with a striking white puff at the end of his tail, bids to be as good or better than all who have gone before. Unbeaten in six races, including the French 2,000 Guineas and Derby, and rated by trainer Alain de Royer-Dupre as the best of his Derby winners, you could read his reputation and think him Pegasus already. But he’s just a horse, a fragile young horse, looking immediacy in the face.

Ite’s the strangest Irish Derby ever, 10 runners, six of them from the massed ranks of Ballydoyle, one locally-trained outsider, and the remaining three all representing the Aga Khan, Dalakhani from France, the Derby third Alamshar and a pacemaker handled by Sinndar’s trainer John Oxx, just a mile from the racecourse at The Curragh. It is an Aga-Coolmore shoot-out in County Kildare.

But all those were just academic thoughts as Dalakhani came trotting towards us along the wooded glade at the Les Aigles training ground on Friday morning. We are into the final countdown for what, in racehorse terms, is nothing less than a date with destiny. The colt is fit and healthy, but you have 48 hours to wait, two days for something silly to happen. As Dalakhani bucks and plays impatiently behind his lead horse, it’s easy to see how quickly it could go wrong. Twenty two years ago Shergar got loose and disappeared over the hill at Newmarket; one morning last month Alamshar propped at a stray sheep and sent Johnny Murtagh sprawling on The Curragh. No wonder Alain de Royer-Dupre looked lean and tense on Friday.

At 58, he is a few years older and a couple of inches taller than John Oxx, his Irish counterpart, but, in other ways, the two trainers share a dignified, bespectacled, bald-headed calm which even the jealous world of racing finds it impossible to dislike. Alain trained both Dalakhani’s sire Darshaan and dam Daltawa.

“Dalakhani is not that impressive to look at,” he says as the grey trots away from us, “more like a filly than a colt. He only draws some 445 kilos, but he has kept that same weight through all his races and is much easier to deal with than his bigger half-brother Daylami (international winner of seven Group Ones) who boiled over when we took him to Ascot for the St James’s Palace Stakes in 1997.”

Dalakhani looks volatile enough as he comes past, head tossing impatiently, on his opening canter, but when he stretches out the second time you begin to see that those seven generations of selective breeding have not been in vain. “It’s the way his stride flows,” says Alain, in as near to technical explanation as an expert can express, “he makes it so easy for himself. He can handle any ground, it was fast at Chantilly, very heavy at Saint-Cloud. He has the speed for the Guineas [over a mile] and the stamina for the Derby [over a mile and a half]. Yes, at this stage he seems to have everything.”

But “this stage” is only half way through what, with the Aga Khan’s usual strategy, will be his closing season. For Dalakhani to take his ranking, to add full lustre to the roll of stallions standing in France and Ireland, he must first pass this afternoon’s test and then double it with the Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp in October. Royer-Dupre has won all the French Classics and many great races overseas for his patron, but up until now the great autumn showdown has eluded him. He knows that the colt winging off up the sand gallop is his best shot yet.

But that’s the autumn, it’s the immediacy of high summer that counts and which piles on the pressure. Alain must go off to the Aga’s private training complex at Aiglemont to pore over every part of his living running machine for the hidden fault which might yet compromise it, must double check the travel arrangements for flying his multi-millions worth of equine cargo into Ireland on the morrow. Trainer Jean-Michel de Choubersky has been watching his own horses. “They are very slow,” he jokes, “but they give me nothing to worry about. Look at him, [he points at the retreating Royer-Dupre] he’s got a champion. He’s losing weight, he’s got the worries.”

A day earlier the champion’s rider was also showing the strain. It was hot down at Fontainbleau and Christophe Soumillon was sweating through four rides not within 10 leagues of the Dalakhani calibre. Fontainbleau is a grassy lake of green amid the thick forest just north of France’s famous imperial city, some 60 kilometres south of Paris, and has hardly changed from the day I got beat on the favourite in a steeplechase there 35 years ago. The infield still has a dizzying array of obstacles, the enclosures are sprinkled with shirt-sleeved racegoers sipping their beer or taking wine and lunch beneath the parasols, the jockey’s room is a rustic barn crowded fit to burst. Not the place for a superstar.

But that is where 22-year-old Belgium-born, reed-thin Soumillon must go if he is to knock out the winners needed to win a jockeys’ championship. Since he took over the Aga Khan’s job two years ago he has become French racing’s bright new hope of attracting a wider audience. He currently tops the rankings, he has won three of this year’s four classics, but what really matters this week will be The Curragh not the Hippodrome de la Solle.

“He is very talented but he is tall,” says Yves Saint Martin, France’s greatest ever jockey and winner of the Arc for the Aga on Akiyda in 1982. “He seems light enough at the moment, he has a good body position and he keeps a cool head. He will need that.” Yves puffed on a cigar and went serenely on with his stewarding duties. Christophe came out to talk, dark glasses, T-shirt and baseball cap not entirely dissipating the tension. “I have not been to The Curragh,” he says when asked about the danger of team tactics against him, “but I will ride my race for Dalakhani not myself. I will give him the opportunities. I have to have confidence.”

It is a quality invested in him by the man at the back of it all. “After 40 years you do learn a certain continuity of principle,” said the Aga Khan on Friday, in a voice which has more than a touch of Harvard Business School. “We are able to bring more method, more data to our breeding operation than ever before, how to refresh bloodlines, to widen the choice of stallions. But we have a young team, with my daughter Zara and with Pat Downes, in Ireland and it is a unique excitement, a unique joy to see your plans made flesh.”

Yes tradition and immediacy. Today when Dalakhani joins Alamshar on The Curragh for the first time since they both grazed the paddocks of the nearby Sheshoon Stud as yearlings, the gallop will bind the two roots together.

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