Sunday July 03 2022, 12.01am, The Sunday Times
In big races talent is important but nerve is essential. The French star Vadeni’s Eclipse Stakes victory under Belgian ace Christophe Soumillon needed nerve even before the off. For it was only on Monday that the Aga Khan’s team decided to take part and the supplementary fee was a brutal £50,000.
That they collected almost nine times that amount for two minutes of hectic galloping owed as much to Soumillon’s ice-cool courage as it did to the fleet-footed acceleration of the latest equine hero to come from the Aga Khan’s fabled breeding operation, now in its centenary year.
At 41, Soumillon has lost none of the powers that have brought him ten French championships. The challenges of yesterday’s ten furlongs at Sandown were more tactical than physical but with only five runners the problems would still be acute.
To solve them Soumillon opted to sit last and use the brilliant pace that Valdeni showed winning the French Derby to take the field in the straight. With Alenquer setting only a steady gallop, with Bay Bridge and the massive Native Trail ready to commit, and with the super-talented but slow-starting Mishriff also playing the waiting game, this was the galloping card game at its sharpest.
Valdeni is an elegant, athletic colt but cuts a slight figure compared with the huge, heavy-crested frame of his fellow three-year-old Native Trail. With that elegance comes instant speed, which Soumillon wanted to engage as late as possible. But the threat of David Egan and Mishriff on the inside forced him to pull out 100 yards early to attack the leaders. It was the winning move, albeit quickly with dangers of its own.
For while Valdeni swept up and past Native Trail as expected, the little wonder with the strange stumpy tail then hung fire in the lead and at the line only had a neck to spare over the late-lunging Mishriff, who edged Native Trail by a head with Lord North only half a length back in fourth. Many rated Mishriff an unlucky loser but Valdeni’s acceleration is a card that would always have been trumps and Soumillon’s delight was not tempered by a 12-day ban for swerving across after the line. “He’s remarkable,” he said of Valdeni. “A superstar.”
This was the first French Eclipse Stakes success since 1960, the same year the present Aga Khan inherited the breeding operation whose first runners in his grandfather’s colours appeared 100 years ago. It was a huge challenge for the 23-year-old Harvard student, who at that stage had shown little of the racing passion of his father, Prince Aly Khan. But wisdom, three major bloodstock purchases and a top-class team have made it one of the great successes of this and the previous century.
At 85 the Aga was sitting out this, his first Eclipse, but trainer Jean Claude Rouget was here to visit a track he missed when spending a student year with Ian Balding at Kingsclere. 6,000 winners into a stellar training career Rouget will now aim Valdeni at the Irish Champion Stakes in September, a race he took with Almanzar in the same green Aga Khan silks in 2016.
Yet the final credit has to rest with the jockey. In “general knowledge” the list of “famous Belgians” doesn’t normally stretch a lot further than Poirot and Eddie Merckx. Yesterday’s ride on Valdeni was but the latest confirmation that when it comes to riding, Soumillon would win fame for any nation.