25 September 2005

Big can be beautiful and they don’t come much bigger than Starcraft, the massive New Zealand-bred globetrotter who hustled little Dubawi out of things at the end of an intriguinly dramatic Queen Elizabeth 11 Stakes at Newmarket.

The intrigue came not just from the pre-race tension surrounding the tinder-box temperament of last year’s winner Rakti, but from the decision of his rider Philip Robinson to tack up the centre of the course and of Frankie Dettori to follow him on Dubawi. Within a furlong of the mile event, what had started as one six-strong race had been turned into two three-runner contests racing 20 yards apart. Up front in the centre Rakti was blazing away as he had last year with the Irish raider Mullins Bay ahead of Dettori in pursuit. Dettori, who had started the day successfully on last year’s star filly Ouija Board, was taking his time. But was he in the right race?

For his pacemaker Blatant was setting his gallop for the other contest which featured Starcraft and Sleeping Indian. The mile here takes just under 1 min 40 secs to run but once they got into the second minute Dettori could see not only Kieren Fallon’s arms pumping on Mullins Bay but Robinson beginning to show distress signals on Rakti. Dettori is paid big money to make decisions. A quarter of a mile out he made one. He was going across to the others.

The actual geometric truth as to how much ground he lost by this manoeuvre is probably not enormous but the impression that this may not have been the great Italian’s finest hour was reinforced by the Godolphin team saying afterwards that the plan had been for Dettori to track not Rakti but his own pacemaker. “I was meant to come on the stands’ side,” Frankie said afterwards, “but unfortunately Rakti and the other one – Mullins Bay – took me too far across and I stayed put in the middle and got beat – it was a costly mistake. I wish I could ride the race again.”

However, when he and Dubawi first ranged alongside Starcraft the smaller horse still seemed to be cruising over his giant 17-hands rival. Yet Newmarket’s uphill final furlong is a place where you have to dig deep and the formerly Australian campaigned Starcraft is an honorary “Digger” in every sense. For a couple of strides he rolled across towards his diminutive rival but as French jockey Christophe Lemaire straightened him, Starcraft’s huge chesnut stride bit hard into the famous turf and in the last 100 yards he was clearly the master and had almost a length advantage at the line.

The fact that the 100-1 pacemaker Blatant was only a length and a half away in third ahead of Rakti puts a query on the exact value of the form but standing along the rail in the final furlong was to believe both that this was an event fairly close to its “Race of The Season” billing and that Starcraft might have been too powerful for Dubawi whichever way Dettori had tacked from the start.

It’s possible that the pair may renew rivalries in the Breeders’ Cup Mile at Belmont in five weeks’ time although Paul Machin, Starcraft’s colourful Australian owner, joked that whenever he flew over America he wanted the plane to keep flying faster. Whether they do or not Machin and Starcraft are already entitled to their own page of history. Four years ago the owner bought a colt and a filly by Generous at the New Zealand yearling sales. Yesterday morning the filly won a $100,000 race in Victoria before her sales mate collected his 11th race in 21 starts and in Australia, Starcraft’s Group One successes had come at seven furlongs and a mile and a half as well as yesterday’s mile.

The sadness of this transplanted Ascot Festival was how few fans were lured through the gates. Those who stayed away missed a marvellous race and, in Luca Cumani’s handling of Starcraft, one of the great training performances of the era. Machin had dispatched his horse north in the hope that the trainer could perform the same miracles as he had two seasons ago with Falbrav from Italy. Way back in January when he first arrived from the Australian summer, I caught a glimpse of this huge colt rugged and hooded against the cold. “I will have to take my time,” said Cumani quietly, “but I think he has real talent.”

When he stood in the winner’s circle yesterday with an English triumph added to the French victory with a horse who had completely boiled over before the Eclipse Stakes, Cumani’s gap-toothed smile had a serenity about it. He has won Derbys, Breeders’ Cups, and big prizes all over. But nothing better than this. “It is good,” he said. “I want to prove him the best miler in the world.”

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