23 October 2005

Pitch high, punt big, travel far. Paul Makin made his millions backing horses in Hong Kong but, as he packed his bags in Sydney on Thursday for the long flight up to Los Angeles and on to New York, he was contemplating his most spectacular throw of all. $US800,000 (£452,000) just to enter his massive Starcraft for The Breeders’ Cup Classic at Belmont Park on Saturday.

“It’s big money but I had to do it,” said Makin in his rapid-fire way. “I am not going to say it will be easy because he has never gone on the dirt. But the horse is a freak and I owe it to him to try. I am 68 now, I will never have another horse like him. If he wins he’s the best on the planet.”

He’s certainly one of the biggest. To visit Starcraft in his box at Luca Cumani’s booming Bedford House yard at Newmarket is to reel back in awe at quite what a massive beast the mature male thoroughbred can be. Starcraft is not that tall, hardly 16-3 hands, but he packs so much wide, hard muscle around his chesnut frame that he pulls an incredible 573kg on the weighbridge.

To put that in perspective, Iris’s Gift, the big grey would-be Gold Cup contender, is 545kg, Eloctrocutionist, the Italian star tilting at last night’s Woodbine Stakes in Canada, is 503kg, and, when the brilliant Dalakhani won the 2003 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe for the Aga Khan he was only 445kg. That’s 128 kilos lighter than the mighty New Zealand-branded, Australian-raced and now European-campaigned contender.

“He’s very heavy,” says Cumani with those precise Italian inflections that 35 years at Newmarket have never completely removed, “but he’s very, very good. When I had news last year that Paul might like me to take him I looked him up and could see he was talented. He had won Group Ones from seven furlongs to a mile and a half, but it was only when we began to work him in the spring that you could see he was exceptional.”

Before then the horse had to endure the switch from the heat of the Australian summer to the Siberian chill of Newmarket Heath in January. Despite being ridden out in more rugs than you would get in a saddle shop, he still grew a winter coat on his belly, his only unprotected place at exercise.

It was not until Royal Ascot that we first saw what Cumani was witnessing at home: Starcraft’s enormously long stride as he closed impressively to be third in the Queen Anne Stakes. The trainer was then very hopeful of a huge run in the Eclipse Stakes only for Starcraft to suddenly blow his mind in the paddock to the extent of almost jumping out of it into the startled spectators. “Afterwards, the Australians said, ‘oh sorry, we forgot to tell you he has done that before’,” says Cumani. “So we took him to the Newmarket evening meetings to make him parade and, except for the first time when he nearly went over backwards, he’s been fine. He’s very calm in the early preliminaries but in the paddock itself he has a short fuse.”

Brilliant victories in Longchamp’s Prix du Moulin and the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Newmarket, the latter a memorable out-muscling of the diminutive Dubawi, have confirmed Starcraft’s firepower and Cumani’s challenge now is to see whether the horse will fire on the unfamiliar American ‘dirt’ on which the Classic is run.

To that end Starcraft was galloped on the Southwell sand track last Tuesday. “He went well,” says Cumani, “but there wasn’t that much kick-back and, anyway, he is so big that it only hit his head and legs. He’s an aggressive, mature horse who you think would face the kick-back but all my American trainer friends say that you can never really know if a horse will act on the surface until you actually race on it. Only Arcangues [at Santa Anita in 1992] has won a Classic from Europe but both Giant’s Causeway and Swain might have won but for pilot error and, in 1990, Ibn Bey ran a good second at Belmont and you would think we would be a fair bit better than him.”

In America, Starcraft is due to be ridden by Pat Valenzuela, the most brilliant but most enigmatic rider in the States. After being banned for most the past year for a drug offence, he has returned with 160 winners and almost $10 million in prize money so far.

Yesterday morning saw Starcraft fly to America. It also saw Derby winner Motivator work brilliantly on Newmarket’s Al Bahathri gallop before returning home lame, his tilt at the Breeders’ Cup Turf and indeed his whole career over. He has been syndicated to stand at the Royal Stud at Sandringham next season.

“He had worked so well,” said Michael Bell ruefully, “and he walked home fine but when we got to the yard he was lame in his off-hind. It is not career- threatening but you have to wonder what would have happened if it had happened at full gallop in America. The horse was in great shape and he has done us proud.”

So ends exactly one eventful year in the big-time for trainer Bell and his Fitzroy House team, as it was in last October’s Racing Post Trophy that Motivator set out on the trail that would take in the Dante, the Derby, the Eclipse, the Irish Champion and finally the Arc. He did better than most people could possible have hoped, not quite as well as they might have dreamed of. For all of those closest to him he was a star of a brightness they are unlikely to handle again. He has passed through their lives all too quickly. But they and he are much the better for it.

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