European Race Report: Slugfest

Published in the Aug. 31 issue of The Blood-Horse
By Richard Griffiths
Anyone who has been reflecting recently on the death of Sunday Silence, and in doing so recalling his wonderful duels with Easy Goer, will need no reminding that horse racing thrives on rivalry. And anyone who has watched Golan and Nayef slug it out on their last two starts will also be aware of the excitement and the frisson that such intimate battles of one-upmanship can bring.

With the score now standing at one apiece between Golan and Nayef, you can only hope there is at least one more rematch.

To recap: Golan, on what, incredibly, was his first start of the season, drew first blood when winning the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes (Eng-I) at Ascot on July 27 by a head. Golan spent most of the race at the rear of the field only to snatch victory from Nayef by sticking to the rail and seizing every single gap that came his way.

At Ascot, Nayef's rider Richard Hills had dismounted from his colt with the uneasy feeling that he had been outperformed by Kieren Fallon on Golan. He was determined to make amends, whenever the opportunity arose.

The chance came on the first day of York's three-day Ebor meeting when the pair locked horns once more in the Juddmonte International (Eng-I) on Aug. 20.

Punters went for Nayef, who was sent off the 6-4 favorite, with Golan at 9-4, and there were reasons for this. The race was over 10 furlongs, two furlongs less than the King George, and York's long, level, left-handed track was expected to suit Nayef much more than Ascot, which is right-handed with a shorter home straight.

Besides, Nayef's trainer, Marcus Tregoning, was sending out quiet but firm signals that he fancied his horse big-time. His confidence levels had been boosted by a group II win the previous weekend by Mubtaker, a horse he uses to work alongside Nayef in order to test his stable star's well-being.

The Golan camp had leased a pacemaker in Starbourne from Aidan O'Brien's Ballydoyle Stable. That is not so surprising when you remember that the son of Spectrum will retire to stud at Coolmore next year, his late owner Lord Weinstock having sold a stake in the colt to John Magnier before last year's Epsom Derby (Eng-I).

Starbourne, however, did not excel at her job, leaving Nayef to take up the running earlier than expected. That, of course, made him a sitting target, although he proved to be an unmoveable one. Behind him, Golan was one of the first under pressure but responded well to Fallon's urgings. He got close enough to Nayef to throw genuine uncertainty over the result, although he was never able to edge past his rival, who held a half-length advantage at the line.

Understandably, Hills was thrilled with the win. "It really is sweet," he said. "Even though he ran a terrific race at Ascot, it was very disappointing to be beaten," he said. "I felt the distance and the course today was a big, big plus."

Where now for Nayef remains unclear, although Tregoning left every impression he feels the 4-year-old really comes to his own in the second half of the season. Last year, the trainer gave him a long break after some below-par early season runs and brought him back to win the Champion Stakes (Eng-I) at Newmarket. "He's growing up all the time. You just know when they are absolutely spot on and after Ascot I felt that he was at peace with himself. He looked perfect," the trainer said. "He's done nothing but thrive since, rather like he did last year. He has shown great courage and tenacity."

The Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe (Fr-I) and Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) are both options, although it may well be that Nayef will stay closer to home either for the Irish Champion Stakes (Ire-I) at Leopardstown on Sept. 7 or the Dubai Champion Stakes (Eng-I) at Newmarket on Oct. 19.

It is fair to say, though, that the son of Gulch's racecourse future may now matter less than his one in the breeding shed. Nayef is a half-brother to Nashwan and Unfuwain, who have both died at stud this year.

Islington And More

Out of luck in the Juddmonte with Golan, trainer Michael Stoute and Fallon reaped a better reward the following day, Aug. 21, with the filly Islington (also bred and owned by the late Lord Weinstock) in the Yorkshire Oaks (Eng-I).

This race saw her renew rivalry with One Thousand Guineas and Oaks winner (both Eng-I) Kazzia, just about the only 3-year-old to have performed with aplomb for Godolphin this season. Islington had been beaten out of sight by Kazzia in the Oaks, her only previous attempt over 1 1/2 miles, although her connections felt the desperate ground was against her that day. She had subsequently suggested she was a filly of the highest class by winning the Nassau Stakes (Eng-I) at Goodwood.

She confirmed that impression at York, drawing away from her field to win by a flawless five lengths. This daughter of Sadler's Wells is good, very good, and it looks as if American racegoers will get the chance to share in the excitement as Islington is due to take on Banks Hill in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf (gr. IT).

Kazzia was a bitter disappointment, finishing fourth. It may be that the ground was too quick for her--as her trainer Saeed bin Surror had predicted before the race--but there are now doubts over whether she will bid to complete the fillies' Triple Crown in the St. Leger (Eng-I) at Doncaster on Sept. 14.

With or without Kazzia, Bandari looks a worthy contender for that race following his hard-fought victory in the Great Voltigeur Stakes (Eng-II) at York on Aug. 20. This was his second win since performing badly in the Derby (Eng-I) in June, firmly erasing the disappointment of what was his first run in the ownership of Sheikh Hamdan.

The pace was not really testing enough to see Bandari at his best, and you can be sure that the extra two furlongs of the St. Leger will suit him enormously.