HEAT OF THE BATTLE TOO MUCH FOR ATTRACTION

15 May 2005

Bullish Luck steals the thunder off the previously unbeaten Silent Witness and Mark Johnston’s weary charge under a blazing sun at Sha Tin

She came, came, she saw, she sweated and she was conquered. Britain’s super filly Attraction missed the break, never fired and finished heat-distressed in her gallant attempt to start her four-year-old career with victory in Hong Kong’s £500,000 Champions Mile against local hero Silent Witness.

Ironically, the Attraction camp’s idea that the mile distance might be too much for Silent Witness, whose searing early speed has established him as the greatest sprinter in Hong Kong history, was proved correct. After skipping clear of his field as usual, the great idol’s stamina reserves were empty as stablemate Bullish Luck ran him down to the gasps of a gloriously partisan crowd. British eyes were further back. Attraction beat home only two of the 13 starters for a race that had also brought challengers from Australia and Japan.

The hope had been that Attraction would jump quickly enough out of stall three to take a position alongside Silent Witness, who was likely to lead things from his No 1 berth beside the rail. In the instant it takes for the stalls to open, horses to react and the first two strides to kick them forward, that hope was dashed.

In 12 races, Attraction has only once missed the opening jump. But she missed it now. Two boxes to her right the chunky professional that is Silent Witness was out like a greyhound and immediately in command for what would have  been his 18th unbeaten effort in Hong Kong. They weren’t so fast on either side of Attraction but they were fast enough to get advantage and take her ground. Kevin Darley had to take her back to find a place to run. What had been rightly billed as the greatest international head-to-head in more than 70 years looked over almost before it had begun.

Back in 1923 the connections of the English Derby winner Papyrus accepted a match-race challenge at Belmont with that year’s Kentucky winner Zev. Heavy rain turned the track into a sludge, Papyrus was unwisely not fitted with shoe studs and never got a shot. Eight decades on, Attraction was faced with even more uncompromising weather. This was not just sweltering. At 33 degrees and more than 80 degrees humidity, this was a sauna bath with a scorching sun to help the melt.

Unluckily for the sporting Duke of Roxburgh-Mark Johnston owner-trainer combination, what was always going to be tough became well near impossible to any outsider. On Tuesday there had been 16 inches, yes, 16 inches, of rain, on Wednesday the temperature and humidity was quite bearable. But yesterday a pat of butter would have been liquid in seconds, your correspondent did not last much longer and, while Attraction still seemed composed as she left the paddock at 489 kilos, her heaviest racing weight yet, what happened on the track suggested the heat took a heavy toll.

For while Darley was clearly having an unsatisfactory, space-blocked run towards the bend, one always felt that once the field straightened up and she had running room the filly would hit that terrific stride which took her on that seven-race dual Classic-winning streak last season. Eventually she got the room, Darley’s stick asked the question. And answer came there none.

Silent Witness was still dominating up front. Beforehand he had looked a typical compact sprinter but he also had the aura that only a horse sure of his ability and of his audience can command. He was a couple of lengths clear with others coming at him. Thirty-three thousand Chinese were screaming for a moment in history. But our eyes could only be half with them. Stable companion Bullish Luck and former Arc de Triomphe- winning jockey Gerald Mosse gunned through to inch him out on the line. The crowd was muted. So were we.

Johnston’s stable motto is `Always Trying’ and there was much merit and no shame in living up to it here. But the gods of the weather had played a hard hand and, as Attraction walked back to unsaddle, she had clearly been through the wringer. “It was always difficult after she missed the break,” said Darley. “I thought she might pick up once I got round the bend but she could not really go at all. She was really weary when I pulled up.”

Standing there with the sweat soaking through your suit it was easy to think this was something of a Paula Radcliffe moment. There were some worries before the filly had got enough water in her but this was a race of 1½ minutes, not 2½ Athens hours. Anyone who has winged up Middleham Moor on Johnston’s horses knows his team have the highest basic fitness level in the country. With any luck Attraction will resume her career next month at Royal Ascot, but this proved very much a failed foray on foreign land.

Bullish Luck will now aim for the Japanese second leg of this Champion Challenge, Silent Witness will return to sprinting, and Attraction to the cooler delights of Wensleydale. “I don’t regret bringing her,” said Guy Roxburgh of the filly he bred back home at Floors Castle and found too crook – legged to sell. “We wanted to try. She has come through it. You cannot win if you are not in.”

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