12 October 2003
Sunday night and Monday morning: leaving Paris after watching Dalakhani’s Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe was to think that we had surely seen perfection on the hoof. But an hour after dawn next day, there was Falbrav powering up Newmarket’s Warren Hill just five horses’ lengths in front of me as a fine, big, three-year-old called Giulani acted as a glorious mobile grandstand. To whom belongs the crown?
At Longchamp, Dalakhani had been all light-footed grace. His iron-grey coat never broke sweat through all the fanfare of the preliminaries. The white puff at the end of his tail never twitched unwillingly as he stalked his field and then cut them down in the straight. The elegance and elasticity of his action never faltered as he coursed down the leader on what was supposed to be harmfully heavy going. The crowd feted him as a super champion. Only a tactically inept ride in Ireland blots his otherwise perfect nine-race record with winnings of more than £1.45 million. Who can better that?
The Falbrav hooves flicking the Polytrack behind them on Monday have already marched 24 times on to the racetrack and 12 victories from Milan to Tokyo have amassed over £2.8 million with the possibility of another million to come if he takes up the challenge of the Breeders’ Cup Classic rather than the Turf in Los Angeles in a fortnight. Falbrav has won more money but it has taken him four, not two, seasons to do it. He was only second in the 2001 Italian Derby. Should not Dalakhani’s Classic-winning class hold sway?
If top Flat racing was just a sport, a bold promoter would put on a £3 million match race to decide the outcome. But it is also a bloodstock market with stakes far higher than that. Almost six lengths adrift of Dalakhani on Sunday was last year’s Derby winner High Chaparral adding another honourable third (and a nice £118,000) to a nine-victory, three-season, £2.8 million career. But while his £380,000 Irish Champion Stakes success at Leopardstown might seem handsome reward for his connections to keep him in training, it sits poorly against the £2 million at least he could have earned this season alone at stud.
In the spring all of us fans unreservedly praised John Magnier and his partners for deciding to campaign High Chaparral and Hawk Wing as four-year-olds. After Hawk Wing’s stupendous opening blitz at Newbury it seemed a move as much astute as altruistic. But after that horse’s failure at Royal Ascot it doesn’t seem good business compared to serving 100 mares for at least £20,000 a jump. The Aga Khan has the world’s most successful private stud. But if you doubt the wisdom of last week’s announcement that Dalakhani will now be retired to the Aga’s Gilltown Stud and that his Irish Derby conqueror, Alamshar, has been cashed to the Japanese, you should, to coin a phrase, “do the maths.”
Dalakhani has the thoroughbred attraction of being a potential superstar from the very womb. His dam, Daltawa, had already foaled the world champion grey Daylami. Dalakhani’s unbeaten first season was crowned with the Group One Grand Criterium at Saint-Cloud and, when he won the Prix de Jockey Club this June, the Aga Khan declared him the best of all his five French Derby winners. His style is easy, flowing, almost slenderly serene.
Falbrav has the top stallion Fairy King as his sire, but his three efforts as a two-year-old in Milan and Rome following an opening victory in a modest heat at San Siro in September hardly set the world on fire. As a three-year-old, he did get that Italian Derby second but it was only the next autumn with a good run at Longchamp and then a marvellously game Japan Cup under Frankie Dettori that he could be called a good horse if, at that stage, nowhere near a great one. His style is massive, proud, and masculine, and this year he found the place and the people to make him roar.
Luca Cumani was born to train him. His Milanese upbringing meant he understood the delicacy of switching from an Italian to a Newmarket preparation with its hill work and tougher conditioning. His dual Derby-winning exploits meant he knows the qualities a champion needs. “I was worried I might overface him,”
Cumani said on Monday. “He was certainly a little undercooked when he got beat first time out. But he has been in magnificent shape ever since. Eight consecutive races at Group One level tells the story. I have never had anything like him.”
Close up Falbrav is a tremendous sight. While Dalakhani is a willowy 445 kilos, Falbrav would not get much change out of 520 kilos on the weighbridge. But at 16.3 hands and beautifully balanced through the shoulder, he is no lumbering heavyweight. This is a King of the Herd – and he knows it. “Watch him in the box – he will eat you,” comes a caution. Cumani’s phrase reminds you of the lawyer he might have become. “The horse,” he says cannily, “is good to handle but he is very protective of his own environment.”
Out at exercise, Falbrav walks as a monarch should. No great swagger but there is an ease which, when he chooses to stop and back a couple of strides towards you, comes not without its own hint of threat. “He really enjoys himself,” says Keith Leddington, who did the same stable duties for the Breeders’ Cup star Barathea. “You just have to fit around him. Let him do his thing. When he first came he seemed to have a bit of a belly on him. But since he has used these hills he seems better muscled, even more powerful. He is awesome.”
It took little more than a minute to wing up behind Falbrav on Warren Hill. Sixty seconds to watch half a ton of flowing muscle state its own case for perfection. As we pulled up Falbrav gave a couple of great snorts as he caught his breath, and then looked up contemptuously as a panicking grey horse came hurtling rider-less towards us before ducking right into the tree-lined clearing.
Dalakhani is also a grey. No one can ever now dismiss the brilliance of his gilded youth, but Monday’s delight was the thought that, in Falbrav, we have a racehorse still ready to race. Two weeks until Santa Anita and the trainer is chewing over the risk of the unfamiliar dirt surface in the Classic or the stamina-stretching mile and a half in the Turf. Either way the starting gates will be entered and Falbrav will once again be going for glory. If he wins, after 25 runs in three continents and four seasons, the vote must go his way.