Al Kazeem. Climbing.
Monday 08 July 2013
The first I heard of Al Kazeem was when he upturned the Camelot apple cart. That was the end of May this year, when only four horses took to post for the Tattersall’s Gold Cup at the Curragh. It should have been a soft win for Camelot, but he was put on his backside inside two furlongs. Al Kazeem was all sprint that day in a victory that surprised almost everyone. It’s the middle of July now, and the Welsh horse is four for four, undefeated this fair season.
After the Coral-Eclipse last weekend, I pulled up his record. The horse is a five-year-old now, a plain bay by Dubawi out of a Darshaan mare. But his record is pretty exceptional. After an unplaced first start in 2010, Al Kazeem has never, yes never, been out of the first two placings. He has raced 12 times all up, eight times in group status, for seven wins. His last five starts (all wins) read like this: Gr2, Gr3, Gr1, Gr1, Gr1. He has bounced through Camelot (twice), Mukhadram (twice), The Fugue, Mars and Declaration Of War, Thomas Chippendale (god rest him) and Sea Moon. And while these names might not wither superlatives like a Frankel or Shergar or Nijinsky, the name ‘Al Kazeem’ may yet. He is blazing down a path strangely familiar to race fans, one cut and trod by Sea The Stars.
Now hold up a second...
Not for a moment has Al Kazeem proved his measure like Sea The Stars. That horse was only three when he steered Mick Kinane through a fantastical 2009 season, a campaign that would have levelled any older horse – the 2000 Guineas, English Derby, Coral-Eclipse, Juddmonte, Irish Champion Stakes and, ah, the Arc. Will we ever see it again? It was an agenda that was as ridiculous as it was ambitious, yet it was no match for Sea The Stars. That year, I was waiting for terrible defeat and, delightfully, it didn’t come. But what has this to do with Al Kazeem?
Well, the Dubawi bay might surge on undefeated this season. We know his team are eyeing the Arc as a finale, as did Sea The Stars, and the route they take to reach it could be soft and safe, or it could be cold and courageous. With the King George probably out, that leaves a possible start for Al Kazeem in the Juddmonte in late August or the Irish Champion in early September. If he wins either, it will be trumpets all the way to Intello in early October. And should he win the Arc, and personally I think he is brilliant enough, he’ll be six for six this season, as was Sea The Stars in 2009. Like Sea The Stars, it might be six victories in six months in three countries, even if it won’t be six Gr1s (you can’t have everything).
Of course, that’s assuming Al Kazeem can win the Arc. Since the Eclipse, much cyber-column has been devoted to this very question. There are the sceptics that feel the horse is a grinding, one-paced sort of fellow without the stamina to stick a mile-and-a-half. There are others that kneel at the church of Intello. What do I think?
Well, I see a little of Sea The Stars in Al Kazeem. He wins economically, usually by little more than a length, sometimes two. When things get dirty inside the final two, he puts his head down, his ears back, and digs into reserves that only really good horses own. And there’s nothing tardy about him. His time in last weekend’s Coral-Eclipse was 2:04:35, just under a second off the race’s record held by, you guessed it, Sea The Stars. And Al Kazeem, if he wins next out, will head to Paris with a record far more upstanding than many of the Arc’s previous winners. He’s already streets ahead of many of them in the ratings, and he has tactile ability on soft (a la the Jockey Club Stakes) and the quick (Coral-Eclipse). In a normal year, with or without Intello, I’d say Al Kazeem was a good thing for Longchamps.
But that’s racing for you, a game full of predictions and retrospect. And sometimes all we are left with is a truly lovely horse, which is what Al Kazeem is. He is not flashy or colourful, much as Sea The Stars wasn’t. Nor is he dazzling dominance like Frankel. He is a plain bay entire with predictably good breeding, a high-set tail in running and a record that makes you wonder where the hell he came from. But who cares? It’s dazzling just to have him around.
When Racing Turns On Its Own: Camelot
Thursday 20 June 2013
Okay. Let’s talk Camelot, because his fall from grace last night was spectacular. The Classic king of 2012 fell off his throne on the greatest public racing stage of them all - Royal Ascot - and Ballydoyle could only idle nearby and count the dollars, tens of thousands of them lost in stud value. The fall-out was horrendous. ‘Camel’ and ‘donkey’ fell about Twitter from some very credible sources. It was hard to read. And out there, on the lawns of Ascot before an audience adulating Al Kazeem, was left a lovely horse, a hero last year, with whom something had gone properly wrong.
Camelot’s rise to stardom began from his very first run in July 2011. His earliest record is a picket fence of perfect ones - first, first, first, first, first. The Racing Post Trophy, 2000 Guineas, the English Derby, the Irish Derby. And then Ballydoyle, in a gesture that was more sporting than greedy, courted history with the St Leger and found out why very few now chase that elusive Triple Crown. Camelot went down to Godolphin’s Encke in a slim finish that triggered the beginning of the end for him. And it’s been all downhill from there.
The horse headed into the Prince of Wales’s Stakes last night with redemption weighing far heavier than the nine stone in his saddle. Camelot had bombed in the Arc last October, came back in May this year with a first-up triumph in the Mooresbridge, only to lose the Tattersall’s Gold Cup to Al Kazeem three weeks ago. Where was the brilliance, the consistency that had so stamped his earliest days in racing? The dream, and we love the dreams in racing, suggested it would be all there at Royal Ascot last night, like the guns of Navarone. Camelot slid into favouritism, only to slide home a flat fourth.
Let’s look at the figures for a moment. There were 11 horses in the Prince Of Wales’s yesterday and Camelot was home in the first four. His record overall reads like this: 10 starts, 6 wins, 2 seconds. £1.926,569 in earnings. Three Classics, four Group One victories. In 10 starts he has been out of the first three only twice, yet the overriding stigma is negative: he comes from a shocking crop, he’s a hyped horse. Hype hype hype.
So where did it all go wrong? Well, let’s start with the Irish Derby back in July 2012. Ballydoyle headed there out of goodwill alone, and over terrible going that didn’t suit him at all, Camelot slashed out a very hard-earned victory over Born To Sea. It was one of those wins that you like to see in a young horse, when it’s taken to him and he fights back to draw away by two. But at what cost? Six weeks later, Camelot couldn’t find that extra neck to run past Encke in the St Leger. And I’ll never forget that night. Deflation and shock portioned evenly with sympathy for the Coolmore clan and the good of racing.
Last night, I watched the horse closely. Camelot is such a glamourous thoroughbred, put together like synchronised swimmers. He is graceful in the neck, light on the forehand, beautiful at the eye. He has a face cut straight from marble. He made the rest of the field, Al Kazeem included, look plain. But looks don’t win Group races, and John Berry, via Twitter, was spot on. ‘His sweat today suggests signs of wear and tear.’ Camelot had reached the gates a foaming mess. Yes, something was amiss. This wasn’t the horse of 12 months ago.
Ballydoyle must be blamed for one thing: they talked this horse up until the sun went down. As Camelot cleaned up the Classics last year, Aidan O’Brien had declared him ‘the best he’s had in his yard’, and that was a mighty call given the arsenal that has powered through the Tipperary yard in the last decade. Did he mean it? Probably, because at that stage he was handling robust Camelot who had turn of foot, staying power and closing speed. How was he to know it would disappear? And regardless of what critics say about last year’s three-year-old crop, Camelot could only defeat what he ran into. By the time the horse was meeting older opposition, it’s fair to admit something had gone terribly wrong.
I cannot remember a more polarising thoroughbred. People love Camelot, but many more hate him. And they hate him because of the stable he’s attached to, because of the excuses they think have been made for him. They hate him because they loved Frankel, and they hate him because they feel cheated - a Classic winner that has lost the ability to win. But I was ill last night reading the Twitter feeds. I hate seeing racing fans turn on a horse. As much as Animal Kingdom was a bigger picture than the Queen Anne, as much as So You Think was probably better than his loss to Rewilding, so is Camelot more than the troubled puzzle he has become.
O’Brien says he is keeping the faith. Perhaps he’s been too soft with the horse, he said. Perhaps the colic surgery (in the off season) has taken more off him than we know. But O’Brien can’t win. He says too much, he’s making excuses. He says nothing, he’s got nothing. Regardless, they are pressing on with this lovely, embattled Montjeu horse, suggesting they have no plans to despatch him off to Mike de Kock. But the reality is that, as much as So You Think could claw back only some of his reputation with his outgoing victory in the St James’s last year, it will take something like a victory in the Arc de Triomphe to restore Camelot to any sort of glory. And on the state of play, that probably won’t happen. But there is one thing that writing ‘Peter Pan’ and ‘Shannon’ has taught me: there is always, always more to a horse’s canvas than mere results.
Even In Defeat. Animal Kingdom.
Wednesday 19 June 2013
He was the new racing story of the year. Animal Kingdom, the American-bred, American-trained Kentucky Derby winner that had gone to Dubai and cleaned up the wares in the world’s richest race. He had been portioned out to Australian interests, Dubai interests, so that his fans represented a few continents. He was the sticking chestnut that was something like Cigar, an American hero carted off to the desert, come out the other end a bigger hero.
Off the back of his World Cup victory, it was plausible that Animal Kingdom would go to Royal Ascot and win. Most of the world was behind him. The robust chestnut had a slick modern record - in 12 starts he had been out of the first two only once, in a difficult Belmont where excuses were credible. He had trotted his best over dirt, turf and tapeta, after thousands of miles of air travel, after bumps and knocks in running that would scupper the bravest horse. No, Animal Kingdom was not undefeated in an age where ‘unbeaten’ is gold. But he was honest and tough and world class. He was alive for the Queen Anne.
I was nervous watching him load for the race that kicks off the Royal meeting every year. I didn’t know if he would win, for as much as my Twitter timeline sounded off with ‘sure thing’, ‘load up folks’ and ‘the best horse in the race’, the stiff incline of this famous track has undone more than I can recall. Slipping over the tapeta on a flat, hot track in Dubai is hardly a form line for England, and let’s face it, English commentator Graham Cunningham was spot on: ‘the thought that the Dubai World Cup tends to be the end of something good rather than a springboard to something great rankles’. I had retweeted that in the hour before the Queen Anne.
Animal Kingdom lost his race, and lost it good. He slid home ahead of only two others in a bubble-bursting performance that was almost as painful as Dawn Approach’s Derby. It was hard to defend the effort (he’d had room to move, he hadn’t been too strong to my eyes, it just looked like he was outclassed), but it was also hard to fault him. Where, in his record, had he ever run a poor race?
And that’s the trouble with an extremely likeable horse. When Camelot lost his St Leger, and when Dawn Approach burst into flames in the Derby, criticisms were thick and relentless for these profiled, big-stable horses. But Animal Kingdom is vaccinated from that, perhaps because of his heart, perhaps because of his ownership. Team Valor and co. have been widely applauded for even trying to win the Queen Anne. And history salutes them. Even in defeat, Animal Kingdom was the first Kentucky Derby winner since Omaha, way back in 1936, to have a shot at Royal Ascot. The fact that it didn’t come off is only part of the story today.
The American horse (no, he’s not Australian folks) will likely be retired now, and in a season when we (Australians) have had so many ridiculous, premature retirements in the name of the bottom dollar, this one is thoroughly deserved. Animal Kingdom has gone down the halls of the Triple Crown, the Breeders’ Cup, the Dubai World Cup and Royal Ascot. It will be a long time before we can say that of another horse, so in this case, yes, last night’s defeat was only a tiny part of an extraordinary story. The horse lost little in defeat.
Black Caviar Retired. Australia Mourns.
Thursday 18 April 2013
Immeasurable, in that way that valuable things are, like a rare diamond that’s worth so many numbers you don’t even ask. She was more than a thoroughbred, a racehorse or a drawcard. She was the Phar Lap era revisited, greatness turned on its head then turned inside out. Then, moments before 3pm yesterday, she was done. Black Caviar was retired.
She hadn’t left me that quiet since she fell in at Royal Ascot. Her win in Saturday’s TJ Smith had put Sydney in a spin, and I was out and about in it, listening to a city talk about a racehorse. That’s right, a racehorse. Not a politician or a football player, or some fool crying on My Kitchen Rules. A racehorse that had commanded national television, had pulling power like no celebrity in the country. A champion, yes, but a mere horse none the less. So imagine a nation’s struggle at the news that the Caviar gold was no more, that the wonder horse had pulled up for the last time. What could you say? Very little. So I tweeted. ‘A nation not quite ready to let go. Black Caviar retired, Australia mourns. How we’ll miss her.’
I will miss her. In February I sat pinned to my couch to watch the Lightning Stakes. Textbook, about as textbook as it gets in horse racing. Black Caviar pinged from the Flemington gates that afternoon and bounced to a facile two-length victory, her first run since Ascot, chalking 23 for 23, and on rolled the wagon. I felt sorry for journalists, who must have sat at their desks 55.42 seconds later wondering how the hell they were going to write about this one with any originality. Still, their efforts weren’t bad... ‘relentless march towards immortality’, and ‘racing’s immovable object’. After all, how else do you describe a generational legend, a horse that is more the stuff of a Jilly Cooper novel than a living, breathing racehorse here and now? And she followed it up with an almost boring victory in the William Reid, and then onwards to Randwick last Saturday. Except that Saturday was a different race, a different effort. The TJ Smith stretched her legs.
The victory was as arrogant as we’ve come to expect, but Luke Nolen had the sails out on the great mare. She was running, pushed out to get away from the pack. Perhaps she’d had to do more in the early furlongs than she was used to, coming off the rail as she did to avoid later scrimmages. But she wasn’t cruising. A few people close to the horse told me a few interesting things, that they believed she was flat to the boards. They thought she was vulnerable, and would be if she raced on. If that was so, it would explain why retirement has come so suddenly. After all, she is approaching seven years old. The miles will stack up.
Whatever the reason, our minds now shift towards other things... will she go to Vinery or Kitchwin Hills, which stallion will she see first, and what will her progeny fetch? And who is the logical successor now... It’s A Dundeel, who dazzled us in the Derby, or half-brother All Too Hard? Because in the end, we’re not ready to let go. How could we be? Black Caviar was a shot in the arm for Australian racing, an animal that poured tens of thousands of people into racecourses and onto racing websites, newspaper pages. Her betting price was secondary, her winnings an afterthought. The whole show was about her, just her, and her extraordinary ability to gallop so much better than anything else. And like Frankel, I suppose she could have been campaigned a bit more aggressively, perhaps sent to Dubai or Hong Kong. Perhaps she was softly sent around at times to protect the record. But whatever she did, she did it in such a way that left me speechless, often cross-legged on the floor in disbelief... what was she made of that made her so much better?
So we plunge on into racing days without her, and it feels a little colder, a little more demure with her absence. That’s what champions do when they are gone. And we probably won’t really appreciate her for decades, when sprinters come along and try to do what she has done at that level, and fail again and again and again. And when we’re old, we’ll do what the old timers of today have done... we’ll shake our heads, stare out the window and say, ‘you should have seen Black Caviar’.
Black Caviar - Her Finest Win?
Sunday 24 June 2012
Glory. How do you measure it in horse racing? Is it by the winning margin, 11 lascivious lengths of the Ascot straight, or by grit and heart, victory when the chips are down? I found myself asking this question in the wake of Black Caviar’s Diamond Jubilee last night. A win, yes. But glory?
We expected nothing less. The great mare had delivered 21 outstanding wins from 21 career starts. She had beaten the best a sprinting nation could churn out, and beaten them with arrogance. Her victories were lavish, and effortless. Pure brilliance. We, Australians, weren’t just bleating about a great racehorse when we sent her off to Ascot three weeks ago. We were cheering the best we had ever seen.
I stood on my feet when the field jumped away in the 3.45 last night. I saw Black Caviar’s barrier attendant leap off the gates, job done. My hands were drumming rhythms on my chest as the 15 horses cruised into the half mile, and then they were in my hair, frantic. Where was the steam train that tows Luke Nolen deep into the straight, because the cavalry charge was coming? What’s he doing, jesus, what’s he doing. And when the line came I knew she was there, knew the win was hers by the shallowest of margins. But when I should have been cheering I was motionless, muted by shock and withdrawal. When I should have been waking the neighbours I was silent, stunned. I was speechless.
Twitter exploded on the 15” screen in front of me. I read only fragments of the timeline... Luke Nolen had pulled a Steve McQueen... Cool Hand Luke... luckiest escape in racing. Had he really stopped riding in the greatest test of her life? Had he misjudged where the winning post was? Did he think he was home and hosed three lengths out? Glancing between the television and the Macbook, exhausting myself trying to keep up with what everyone was saying, I was silent. Twitter friend Bobby MacDonald brought me to. ‘You still with us? Cmon... up off the floor now...’
Over the next three hours I followed the feeds and broadcast coverage. Everyone was stumped, but shock slowly unfurled into analysis. Was Black Caviar lame trotting back to scale? She looked exhausted. On her physical condition, I agreed with most folk. She did look battered from the run. Rumours swept that she was retired. That didn’t seem wild or unrealistic to me given the way she had won. We had expected a trouncing, and she had delivered a scraping.
The post-race interviews with Nolen and Moody were humbling. Moody especially looked stressed and tired. Where were his sunglasses, his smiles, the Peter Moody we all loved? He knew, and freely admitted, that something had gone wrong. And I could see what he was doing. He was telling himself that they didn’t have to convince anyone of Caviar’s greatness, and by everyone he meant Europe. I could see he just wanted to go home, get his champion on a plane as fast as he could. I remembered right at that moment what John Singleton had said weeks ago - he would never take another horse overseas again.
Australia will wake up to some gruesome headlines from the UK. The Racing Post has already gone there: ‘The blunder from Down Under’. It was nice to see the ABC had spun out something positive within hours of the race: ‘Black Caviar rules supreme at Royal Ascot’ (though that may have something to do with the Whateley biography due later this year). But when it’s all said and written, argued and bantered about until it’s a well and truly tired issue, we have only opinion left, and mine is in a spin tonight.
Black Caviar faced a mountain in lining up for the Diamond Jubilee. Sending a horse across the world is an enormous effort, a huge question of their constitution. She was crossing seasons, racing in a winter coat when her competitors were at the peak of summer condition. She was facing a new track, an undulating track absolutely foreign to Australian runners. She is also six years old. And, if it is true that she was off her game and never comfortable in running, then her victory, whatever the margin, was an outstanding display of grit, determination and heart. I raise my hat to that. However...
The question asked of our great mare wasn’t one that had not been asked of Choisir, Takeover Target, Miss Andretti, Scenic Blast, Starspangledbanner, and even Star Witness last year. Each of these horses had made the trip to Royal Ascot, charged down the same track and won (Star Witness aside) more convincingly than Black Caviar tonight. Each of them had traveled in confined, claustrophobic boxes, faced the same acclimatisation challenges, the same undulating surface, and the hazards of unpredictable weather. Little Bridge, winner of the King’s Stand on Tuesday, had come from Hong Kong. Treasure Beach, Wrote, St Nicholas Abbey, Daddy Long Legs - these are seasoned Ballydoyle globe trotters that prove travel can be done without ruin. So I was left asking myself, can we really blame Black Caviar’s below-par win on the travel?
What was left then? An off day? She’d never had one before. The Moody camp had spent three weeks telling the world’s press that she was fit, fitter than at any stage of her life, and that she was largely unaffected by her journey to England. They said she had settled into Newmarket like it had always been home, that she had lost only nine kilos when they had expected 30 - 40. Pre-race stress then? I thought she was tossing her head in the paddock a lot more than she had done at home, but she wasn’t hot as had been Ortensia on Tuesday night. There were few physical pointers that anything was amiss.
My uneasiness came down to a single silly question. Was it possible that Australian racing just couldn’t tow the line with European form? So You Think had been devastating in Australia, but a rung below that in Europe last year. I had lived in Ireland long enough to know the calibre of product in English/Irish racing. It was good, the best in the world one might say, but not when it came to sprinters. The Australian record in the sprinting division has been too strong at Ascot, too dominant. I couldn’t settle on the idea that Black Caviar’s narrow win against an average field was a reflection on Australian racing.
So what was it then? Was it that our champion mare wasn’t as brilliant as we had trumpeted? Was it weakness on the day? Was it the uphill climb of the track, or the gluey surface that brought her undone? As racing sage Danny Power tweeted, you never know until the button is pressed.
We beg for answers because that is what horse racing is all about. When Zenyatta lost to Blame in her final start, her sole inglorious defeat, the jockey was hung out to dry. When Man O’War lost in his sole defeat, a phrase was coined - an upset, after Upset who toppled him. In Caviar’s case, we beg for answers because there was no logical way she could win by a nostril. She was rated 136 on Timeform, behind only Frankel. She had 21 annihilating victories on the clock, wins as perfect as any racing fairytale, that flung her into the far reaches of legendry. On paper, she was lengths and lengths and lengths ahead of the Jubilee field.
It has been awful questioning her greatness, and my heart springs to her defense. It is foreign to read about her vulnerabilty, to learn that she is ‘only human’. If Black Caviar races again in Australia, she will tottle home like she always has here, but it won’t repair the international doubt now. A part of me was crying out for her to run in the July Cup, allow her that second chance to find her feet and unleash the demon within. Perhaps one run was not enough. We’ll never know.
A win is a win, yes, even if it is in less than satisfactory style. Though there are lingering, stubborn questions about the Diamond Jubilee, it is impossible to shake also this stunning realisation - if Black Caviar wasn’t right, if she was running on just a suggestion of her very best, her gutting it out and fighting for that winning line may well make it her finest win yet.
History Melts at Frankel's (Three) Feet
Wednesday 20 June 2012
As the Queen Anne field came up the rise of the Ascot straight last night, I sat muted on my couch. The performance was so breathtakingly brilliant, so insanely outstanding, that cheering seemed inappropriate, smiling even an afterthought. There was Frankel, the familiar four white socks moving in motions and rhythms that few of us have ever seen. ‘That’s 12 lengths’, I gushed as he left the winning post for dust, careening out of shot like some sort of steam train without its brakes. ‘It’s got to be 10 at least.’
Officially, Frankel had exploded over the line 11 lengths clear in the Queen Anne Stakes. As he disappeared out of camera coverage, I looked back with concern at Excelebration, his brave and bold heart bursting at the effort of the chase. There followed a string of wit-weary thoroughbreds, among them our own Helmet who might have been wishing he was still on the playing fields of Warwick Farm.
The Twittersphere went into meltdown, every obvious and creative superlative tapped into keyboards and touchscreens. We were all thinking the same thing. How does one horse annihilate a respectable Gr1 field at the highest level of European racing without a hint of stress in the effort? How can a single animal be so much better than everything else? What is it that propels him like that, because it can’t be just muscle and bone? Is it heart, or breeding? Freakonomics?
Tom Queally opened the pipes on Frankel yesterday, and in doing so allowed the horse the opportunity to sail into the Timeform history books. The ratings took their time in stepping forward. On Twitter, and likely all across Ascot racecourse, racing die-hards knew the result would be groundbreaking. Why else would it be taking so long? Ground-breaking it was, or earth-shattering, whichever you prefer. Timeform issued Frankel with an all-time highest ranking of 147 (sending him roaring past Sea Bird’s 145). More meltdowns. 147? Holy shit. The best there has ever been.
As racing continued, and oh boy did it feel like an anti-climax, I got thinking about this 147 figure.
I’m in the business of history. I record the lives of past champions in exhausting detail. I read books, file through old records, place myself back in time to measure what greatness really is. If 147 is the highest Timeform rating there has ever been (and Timeform began recording in 1948), it meant that the race I had just watched, the performance that had rendered me mute in my living room in Sydney, Australia, was the single greatest thoroughbred effort Timeform had ever seen. It surpassed Nijinsky, Brigadier Gerard, Shergar... all of the magnificent horses that lived in my imagination. It meant that someone like me, in 50 or 60 years, would be sitting researching her next book, reading about the race I had just watched. And it would be likely (if Sea Bird’s longevity at the top is anything to go by) that Frankel would still be the highest rated racehorse of all time in 50 or 60 years. My brain swelled when I thought about it. It was too big to digest.
If Queally had kept a close hold on Frankel in the Queen Anne, if they had come home only three or four in front, would he have earned that 147 rating for his mount? Sea The Stars was lethal but economic in his victories in 2009, never wiping out his field but winning, instead, with neat, ears-pinned efficiency. It earned him 140 on Timeform. Black Caviar sits on 136 for her flawless efforts, but many Australians were last night wondering, should Nolen turn the tap on this Saturday, let the mighty mare rip like she never has? If she tots in by 10, what will Timeform do with that?
With five days of racing left at Royal Ascot, the Frankel imprint will be immense. Just how do the remaining racehorses (Caviar aside) match a spectacle like that of the Queen Anne Stakes? It was so overpowering, so numbing and arrogant, that anything after it can only be a supporting act. And when I heard last night that Frankel did it on three shoes, I thought of something I had heard while writing Peter Pan. Great horses have no need of excuses.