24 July 2005
Yesterday’s final time trial in the Tour de France is styled ‘The race of truth’. Azamour’s track-record defeat of Norse Dancer and last year’s Arc hero Bago in the 55th running of the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes was exactly that. Europe’s mid-season highlight set the whole year’s benchmark for excellence.
With Ascot re-building this became the first ever Group One 12-furlong event run at Newbury and sure enough the winning time of 2 min 28.26 sec took a full second off the 54-year-old track record. But it was not just this detail, or the fact that fourth-placed Warrsan was four lengths behind the leading trio, that set Azamour’s victory apart. It was his style.
For at 16-3 hands and a full 515 kilos, four-year-old Azamour is the absolute beau ideal of the mature thoroughbred racehorse. In the paddock beforehand he looked big, powerful, lithe, masculine and ready to race. During the parade the sweat began to prick on his neck as the adrenalin surged through him but nothing like the nervous lather that bubbled around Doyen, Ace and the filly Eswarah. He was last into the stalls and when they whacked open Mick Kinane declared his hand. He dropped Azamour in last. This, the colt’s first attempt at a mile and a half, would be a test of nerve for all of us.
The newly-blinkered Doyen leapt out fast. He has been desperately disappointing since winning this race last year but he looked keen and eager as he settled in third behind Gamut (rushed up after missing the break) and Mubtaker. It looked a fair gallop but Phoenix Ridge ruined his chance by pulling too hard. The clock in Mick Kinane’s 46-year-old head told him the tempo. All the way down the back straight and round the final turn, he stayed last with only the brilliant but exasperating Norse Dancer ahead of him. There was action up ahead but he would wait.
Four straight furlongs to run and Gamut, Mubtaker and then the still impressive Doyen do battle. Kieren Fallon is driving Ace on the outside, Arc winner Bago moves out to tackle. Five of them are striving at the three furlong pole, last year’s Irish Derby winner Grey Swallow also closing. Then a look back to see what Kinane is doing. Kinane and Azamour are a sight to treat.
Some jockeys crouch low when they have a horse cruising beneath them. Kinane has a higher perch but there can be a deadly stillness in the hands which speaks of the power of the horse on the rein. Ahead of him Bago goes to attack Doyen and only Ace can join them. For the first time the great machine that is Azamour is really asked to race. If there were chinks in the stamina they would show now.
But the horse with the pace to win the St James’s Palace Stakes over one mile and the class to take the Irish Champion Stakes at a mile and a quarter, has the stamina to match his speed. Kinane re-threaded his reins and asked Azamour for everything. Bago stuck on, Norse Dancer got a great run up the inside, but Azamour stormed past them to play the ace.
Close up you could see the power as he came past us and as we ran after them, the heart lifted as we realised that we had just witnessed not only the best race Newbury has seen, but the finest Flat race run this season. As he came back Mick Kinane’s flint-like gunfighter’s face was split wide with delight. “He was just tremendous,” he said, those strange ginger eyebrows sparkling with sweat after this, his fifth King George notch on the holster. “He sluiced past them so fast I actually got there a bit too soon and he was really only dossing in the final furlong. His power is like a sword. You can cut a race apart.”
Where that sword will next flash is almost as pleasurable an expectation for us as it must be for the Aga Khan for whom Azamour has brought yet more honour to his breeding lines. “The Irish Champion Stakes is the next logical race” said the Aga’s masterful Irish trainer John Oxx. “After that the Arc, provided the going is suitable, we would not run if it is bottomless in Paris. Then the Champion Stakes at Newmarket or the Breeders’ Cup at Belmont in New York. It is 10 years since we took Ridgewood Pearl there to win the Breeders’ Cup Mile. It would be good to go back.”
Leading up Ridgewood Pearl was a then 47-year-old Jack O’Shea. Since then Jack has also handled Derby and Arc hero Sinndar and Breeders’ Cup victor Kalanisi. In 2001 Azamour was his personal pick of all the Aga’s yearling band. “He has something,” said Jack, looking up at the magnificent beast beside him. “He really has it.”