12 September 2004
Judgment call, that is the key to racing fame. Never has it been more coolly turned than when Michael Kinane dropped Azamour back last in the middle of the Baileys Irish Champion Stakes at Leopardstown yesterday. He thought he needed to keep his powder dry. He would even risk giving Doyen and the others six lengths start. He was right.
The whole mile and a quarter trip was to be covered in an ultra-rapid 2min 01sec. The Doyen camp’s ploy was declared from the start when pacemaker Millstreet set out at a gallop fast enough to find any chinks in the stamina of the likes of Azamour, as yet unproven over 10 furlongs. In Ascot’s King George Doyen had shown himself Europe’s best at a mile and a half. Soften up the others and this Irish Champion Stakes would follow Godolphin’s St Leger victory with Rule Of Law just pictured on the big screen.
The early exchanges seemed to fit the Doyen plan. Frankie Dettori kept close to his pacemaker, on the outside of Powerscourt, the blinkered Ballydoyle contender. The ubiquitous Norse Dancer followed with Azamour outside him. Someday, somehow, a benevolent sponsor or even a wide-thinking turf authority will endow our top races with sectional timing to tell us how the fractions break down. Yesterday’s would have been fascinating.
For the naked eye suggested that the mid-race pace was as rapid as 11sec a furlong. Kinane had planned to stay handy but trainer John Oxx had also reminded him that his was the horse with speed. Too much use would mean too little speed. Kinane, whose transfer from O’Brien to Oxx this season has seen no diminution in his powers, decided to drop back.
As they ran to the long, undulating turn, Dettori started to rev up Doyen as Millstreet weakened.
Jamie Spencer on Powerscourt went up the inside to match him. The annual Ballydoyle-Godolphin duel began to take shape. This was same day, same place, but now a different script.
For it wasn’t just Doyen coming at Powerscourt. It wasn’t Rakti whose firework brain was in one of its Catherine Wheel days. It was hard to believe it could be Azamour, or even Grey Swallow, respectively six and four lengths off the lead. It was Norse Dancer, winner of just three of his 19 races but at four years old a Group One talent still unfulfilled.
Norse Dancer swept through to duel with Powerscourt. Doyen folded, Grey Swallow began to fly up the outside with Azamour behind him and surely too far away. Into the final furlong and Norse Dancer was getting the better of Powerscourt, with Azamour in pursuit. Seventy yards out Norse Dancer had it but Azamour was a hungry greyhound at his side. Norse Dancer didn’t know where the winning post was. Hard though John Egan tried Norse Dancer’s ears flicked up in achievement. Beside him Kinane and Azamour surged by to have half a length to spare at the line.
Powerscourt hung on to be third, with Grey Swallow a close fourth and Doyen a disappointing seventh. Norse Dancer and Egan had covered themselves in glory but this was Azamour and Kinane’s day. “I was thinking of his speed,” the jockey said. “I had planned to be handy but he has great speed. He has improved so much mentally and physically.”
Half an hour later there was another great riding performance at Leopardstown when Johnny Murtagh brought the brilliant filly Soviet Star from six lengths back to nail the resurgent Attraction in the final 50 yards of the Matron Stakes. But this was Azamour’s day and the judgment calls surrounding him go back to before he was born.
To that end the ageing Night Shift was chosen as mate for the mare Asmara because her light frame would be complemented by the bulk Night Shift often provides. “We try and pool our knowledge,” said his owner-breeder the Aga Khan who had, through delays, been forced to watch the race from his hovering helicopter. “Yes, it was a slightly unusual viewing angle, but I have a great team and we try and get the decisions right.”
If stud manager Pat Downes would be the key to breeding decisions and early days on the Aga’s Sheshoon Stud in Kildare, it is the professorial John Oxx, maestro of the Currabeg Stables, just across The Curragh from Sheshoon, who runs Azamour’s graduate school. It was Oxx’s bespectacled wise-owl wisdom which helped avoid being side tracked into vain Derby tilts in midsummer, which pulled Azamour out of a deep-ground slog at York last month. It was Oxx, at 7 am yesterday morning, who looked at Azamour – big, bay and handsome – and said: “There are some very good horses today, but I think this is pretty special.”
The privilege of riding out with the Oxx academy on a big race morning is one that even this hardened old hack has to treasure. Yesterday, with the sun dipping out of the clouds, was better than ever. But maybe the headmaster was a little more terse than usual as he gave his instructions and later when checking after the gallops.
“I have never seen him so nervous,” said a long time Oxx watcher as we finally drove away towards a traditional Kildare breakfast. Now we know why.