SUNDAY TIMES  17th July 2011

As the rains came down yesterday morning St Nicholas Abbey was still red hot favourite for next Saturday’s King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot. He should not have been. For he is still being  judged by reputation rather than achievement and what really counts is what is in his head rather than on it. He’s a good horse but not as good as Derby winner Workforce who was at 4-1 to “St Nick’s” even money last week. You should act fast.

On St Nicholas Abbey’s head now sits a repolished halo. It has been buffed up by a devastating 9 length win over a mile and six furlongs at Chester followed by a narrow and slightly scrambling victory over the dual Oaks winner Midday at Epsom. At last we can forget last year’s one race disaster in the Two Thousand Guineas and return again to the unlimited promise of his unbeaten two year old career. Let’s remember that after St Nicholas Abbey closed out that season in The Racing Post Trophy, even seasoned pundits were hailing a new superstar.

It had been the year of Sea The Stars and, to my shame, I remember pontificating that I had been around when Nijinsky’s  “Triple Crown” (2,000 GuIneas, Derby and St Leger) season of 1970 had been followed by the classic year of Mill Reef and Brigadier Gerard, both judged, as was Nijinsky, as true “Horses of the Century”. In fact  St Nicholas Abbey had looked so impressive as he swept clear of his field at Doncaster that Aidan O’Brien’s Ballydoyle team also committed the cardinal sin of believing their own hype. There was talk enough for Sir Peter O’Sullevan to back the horse for the Triple Crown. It nearly finished him – St Nicholas Abbey that is. Sir Peter strides and imbibes quite tirelessly on.

For when the horse re-appeared at Newmarket for The Two Thousand Guineas last May the toll of preparing his light frame for the speed demands of the first colt’s classic were evident, and while finishing sixth, less than four lengths off the winner Makfi, was no disgrace, it confirmed what his pedigree suggested. That St Nicholas Abbey’s forte was stamina, and that despite the impression of finishing kick over the Doncaster mile, he needed at least a mile and a half to be effective.

That has become absolutely apparent this season. On his reappearance, albeit after an 11 month lay-off, St Nicholas Abbey’s six length defeat over a mile and a quarter was so unimpressive that the form book gravely opined “it is hard to take any positives from the race.” But moved up almost half a mile in distance at Chester, St Nicholas Abbey came right away in the final furlong, and while at Epsom he got unbalanced and almost unwilling early in the straight, he decisively ran down the filly Midday once eventually engaging top gear.

It was a decent race but still did not take him closer than 6 pounds to the performance given by Workforce in his duel with the Southern Hemisphere ace So You Think in the Eclipse Stakes at Sandown. What’s more, like many brilliant sons of his sire Montjeu, St Nicholas Abbey has a bit of temperament to match his talent and both at Chester and Epsom it was noticeable that he only really consented once jockey Ryan Moore got him out wide of his rivals.  Ryan resumes his partnership with Workforce on Saturday. St Nicholas Abbey might still win but he’s no value.

Workforce is because he’s rated the best horse in the race and because his price was out as far as 4-1 only because of fears that he would not run as the Ascot ground would be firm. As I write the rains are lashing down. Yesterday morning Teddy Grimthorpe, owner Prince Khalid’s racing manager, confirmed the colt as an intended runner. Next Saturday’s mile and a half distance is his optimum trip and to only narrowly lose out to So You Think over a mile and quarter showed him to be at the peak of his powers.

But what of Rewilding, the Godolphin runner who actually beat So You Think over a mile and a quarter at Ascot under a so active a Frankie Dettori that the jockey got suspended for using his whip “with excessive frequency” and who was preferred to Workforce in the betting last week? Well there is no doubt that this product of the Lloyd Webber’s Watership Down stud is a real good racehorse, has improved since finishing seven long lengths behind Workforce in last year’s Derby, and is also better at a mile and a half. But So You Think got committed too early at Ascot and I firmly believed that nothing in the race has the finishing punch that is Workforce’s greatest asset.

Yet that’s only the battle of the horses. The beauty of what will unroll over those frenetic two and a half minutes on Her Majesty’s very own racetrack next Saturday is that it also pits the big teams against each other. In the owners’ category we have the perennial top three Coolmore, Khalid Abdulla and Sheikh Mohammed’s Godolphin operation represented by St Nicholas Abbey, Workforce  and Rewilding. Amongst the jockeys it will be interesting whom Coolmore put on their colt against Moore and Dettori the current two best big race jockeys in Europe if not on the planet. But it’s amongst the trainers that the true fascination lies.
For Sir Michael Stoute is having an irritating season. The three year olds have been disappointing. Carlton House could not quite pull off that fairy tale royal Derby. The two year olds have not started. The 11 times champion and 5 times King George winner does not appreciate languishing in 9th place in the trainers’ table and it’s not altogether helped by his own stable jockey enjoying his biggest successes this season on horses trained by his greatest rival.

After Workforce had just got nailed in the Eclipse he came into the weighing room to collect the saddle for the next race. “There was nothing wrong with that,” he said, “it was a fine effort.” True of course but you could see the frustration seethe within. Stoute is a serial winner whose genius is very much the one of taking infinite pains. What he did in getting Workforce back for the Arc after an unhappy run in last year’s King George was one of his greatest achievements. Back next Saturday to be another one.


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