8 September 2002

Godolphin ace comes up trumps to foil Hawk Wing on the line in thrilling tactical battle at Leopardstown

Card games never normally finish this noisy. But card game this was and when Frankie Dettori and Grandera trumped Michael Kinane and local hero Hawk Wing right in the shadow of the post in the Irish Champion Stakes, even the most fervent Irishman could scarce refrain from cheer.

It is the fourth time in five years that Sheikh Mohammed’s Godolphin operation have taken this trick, a particular satisfaction this year when they have for much of the time been on the receiving end of what has seemed an overwhelming hand of three-year-old talent held by Hawk Wing’s Ballydoyle stable. Last year Fantastic Light inched out dual Derby winner Galileo in the race of the season and the way the cards were dealt this time had an almost uncanny and, for Ballydoyle, unhappy similarity.

For as last year with Ice Dancer, their pacemaker Sholokhov went off too fast. Setting a gallop to tow your rivals quick enough to soften them up for your star is one of the most difficult tasks. Go too slow and you have wasted your time, go too rapid and you get stranded 30 lengths clear with the race itself unravelling entirely at its own rhythm. Unfortunately for the talented Paul Scallan, this, like his Ice Dancer ride last year, belonged in the latter category.

So in reality the Godolphin pair were left to play their cards exactly as they would like. Jamie Spencer on Best of The Bests set the pace for the `real’ race, followed by Kinane on Hawk Wing, with Dettori able to stalk his principal rival, wanting to play his hand last.

What’s more, Kinane, for all his outward imperturbability, must have been consumed by the doubts that had hovered over the O’Brien string. Their hoped-for return from a bout of coughing had been dealt three consecutive blows earlier in the afternoon by the defeats of Sophisticat and Kournikova here at Leopardstown, followed by Landseer’s capitulation in the Stanley Leisure Sprint Cup at Haydock Park.

Back in the Irish Champion, Sholokhov was still so far ahead at the beginning of the final turn, with under half a mile to run, that you had to think that there was a serious danger of his having escaped completely. After all, this was a horse who had been a respectable second in both the Irish Derby and the Eclipse Stakes, where he was just 2½ lengths off Hawk Wing. If he kept up half a gallop, the others would need to sprout wings to catch him.

Into the straight and past the quarter-mile marker he came, but as he reached the furlong post, exhaustion fastened its claw. By now Kinane had got the magnificent-looking Hawk Wing covering him on the outside, but here Spencer played Best of The Bests up the inside and the desperate closing stages began.

At 100 yards to go, Best of The Bests still had a half-length advantage but Kinane was about to pull his whip through to his trusty right hand and command the final effort that could get Ballydoyle out of the temporary despond that has engulfed them. However splendid Hawk Wing’s efforts this season, there have been hints that he might not be the most determined of battlers. Hints be damned. Hawk Wing stretched out his great bay neck in front of him and gave it everything.

The post was coming and you could see that Best of The Bests would be taken. The trouble was Godolphin’s other chesnut playing late, late, late up the outside – 100 yards earlier, this talented but quirky performer was still half-looking at the crowd as Dettori pulled him out and asked. For a moment he tilted his head to one side. Then it straightened. Then he ran. The post flashed by. He had it by a short head, Best of The Bests was a neck away third.

An ecstatic Dettori said of the winner: “He’s a nightmare really to train and ride but he is one in a million to me. He’s a real monkey but at least he goes forward for me. The horse was still looking at the crowd in the final furlong but he did concentrate late on when it mattered and I am thrilled that our plan worked out so well.” Now the Cox Plate in Australia next month beckons far Grandera.

It was a happy day for Godolphin, who again lead the World Series, of which this race was a part. Contrasting thoughts for Ballydoyle, for whom the meticulous O’Brien was struggling to conceal the worst of worries at this beginning of the big autumn campaign.

A bad run by Hawk Wing would have compromised not just Rock of Gibraltar’s participation at Longchamp today but High Chaparral’s French trip next week. Even now, some would argue that Hawk Wing should have dealt more easily with Best of The Bests and that there was something almost alarming in the rapidity with which Sholokhov finally hooked his head left and downed tools.

O’Brien kept his own counsel and hurried back with his wife and children to Ballydoyle. For his own and racing’s sake, we must hope that Hawk Wing gets a clean slate this morning. When he ran such a blinder from the `wrong’ side in the Guineas, we all had thoughts that he might be this year’s son of Pegasus. He might still be.

More likely he is just a cracking good one who this time found the effort, and the cards, did not quite fall his way.

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