The Classic Picture

King conquers Xaar
by
Terry Clark

During his lifetime, Turner, the great English landscape artist, was condemned for his style: the critic Hazlitt went to see his exhibition and said Turner's work was "pictures of nothing." Turner would have been the name of this year's English 2,000 Guineas had not the owners, Sue Magnier and Michael Tabor, changed it in April last year.

Like his namesake, Turner, the two-year-old colt, would also be criticised by those who came to see him: the purists condemned the style of his head-carriage.

King of Kings winning 2000 gnsBut, before he had even set foot on a racecourse, his owners decided that, though barely out of the yearling stage, young Turner had more than the brush-stroke of genius, even if his head-carriage was no oil-painting. With tremendous confidence, they renamed him King Of Kings.

They recalled that his sire, Sadlers Wells, had held his head high, and managed to win the Irish 2,000 Guineas.

And to those who saw him bestride the Ballydoyle gallops, King Of Kings was like a colossus; for them, he was that head, and some pretty muscular shoulders, above the rest of his generation. We now know that they genuinely thought he was as good as Nijinsky.

So could photos of Xaar's easy wins in the 1997 Prix de la Salamandre and Dewhurst Stakes be pictures of nothing?

Surely this was top form, franked at home and abroad. When they lined up against him in the Dewhurst, the race looked pure class: Tamarisk, Daggers Drawn (winner of the Richmond Stakes, and Champagne Stakes) and Central Park (Chesham) had all won three consecutive races including recognised two-year-old trials. Xaar slaughtered them by seven lengths.

Compare that with the National Stakes win by King Of Kings three weeks earlier: he beat Celtic Cavalier (previously last of five in the Solario Stakes at Sandown), Mountain Song, who had won an auction race at Salisbury, and Mowbray, who broke his maiden at Catterick. Not exactly top class opposition.

No wonder I felt smug all winter with 10-1, 8-1 and 6-1 Guineas betting vouchers about Xaar seemingly sure to grow into genuine currency come the Spring.

When the first Classics approached with Xaar likely to be odds-on, fans of the favourite shrugged off the whispers from the Ballydoyle gallops, arguing that "they" had to come for "Kings" in the betting because there was nothing else in the race.

Some good judges had been worried when Xaar was obliged to have a prep race in the Craven Stakes; fillies have prep races, top colts don't need them, do they?

But it was pointed out politely by Xaar punters that trainer Andre Fabre had done the same thing with his previous Guineas winners, Xaar's sire, Zafonic, in 1993 and Pennekamp in 1995. He was going down a well-trodden path and Xaar would emulate his sire, no trouble at all.

Xaar winning the CravenIn fact, though the writing was not yet graffiti on the wall, Xaar's enforced reappearance on bad ground brought the beginning of genuine doubts. He needed to be rousted, and slapped with the whip, to defeat Gulland narrowly in the Craven Stakes over the same course and distance as the Guineas.

If the form-book was witness number-one for the Xaar camp, then they had to face cross-examination of an even more alarming nature when, within the week, the Craven third, Circus, was last in a four-horse race for the Thresher Classic Trial at Sandown.

The sensible thing was to cover our Xaar vouchers with savers on the possible improvers in the 2,000 Guineas field: Border Arrow, Haami and Lend A Hand were all reported to have wintered well.

Border ArrowBorder Arrow was in the ownership of Bob Michaelson, boss of the 2,000 Guineas sponsors, and the shrewd move was to take a bit of 20-1 each-way Border Arrow for the Guineas and to "get on" for the Derby. Border Arrow was bred as though he needed middle distances; he seemed sure to be running on at the end of the Newmarket mile.

There was similar interest in Haami, but trainer John Dunlop warned that he wasn't expecting to see the real racehorse until this one, too, stepped up in distance.

Xaar's stamina was suspect. Ladbrokes, fronted on the racecourse by Mike Dillon, pushed Xaar right out to 16-1 for the Derby and, on Guineas day, Dillon told the Daily Telegraph as its guest tipster: "King Of Kings is pure class. I have not seen a horse with such a high cruising speed for a long time." What had happened on the racecourse was about to be eclipsed by what had been happening on the Ballydoyle gallops.

All photographs in this article by
Lesley I Sampson
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I think Mr. Dillon must have been privileged to see one or more of them, as I noticed he was among the first to congratulate 28-year-old trainer Aidan O'Brien in the unsaddling enclosure after King Of Kings had readily beaten Lend A Hand, Border Arrow, Xaar and Haami in that order to make the 2,000 Guineas the trainer's first English Classic success.

How did Xaar's wins in the 1997 Prix de la Salamandre and Dewhurst Stakes look now? They were no longer pictures of nothing, but told the true story in remarkable detail.

The fact is that the form of these races did work out in the Guineas. Xaar again beat Tamarisk, Daggers Drawn, Central Park, Speedfit Too, Greenlander, and Pegnitz, in some cases by further than he'd done in the big two-year-old races. This is very much to Xaar's credit since what was not well known, or at least not well publicised before the Guineas, was that Andre Fabre's stable had made what for him was a poor start to the season in France.

Even a fortnight after Newmarket, Fabre was on only 19 winners, against 45 for the equivalent period last year, and his jockey, Olivier Peslier (on 34) was still 26 behind Dominique Boeuf.

Paris-based Desmond Stoneham asked in the Racing Post: "Is champion trainer Fabre in jeopardy of missing out on the trainers' championship for the first time in 12 years" and had French champion jockey Peslier "any chance of pegging back Dominique Boeuf's commanding lead in the jockeys' table?"

Desmond's answer to his own questions was that, once the string of 260 hit form, winners would pour off the Fabre-Peslier production line.

How brave Xaar was in the Guineas has been overlooked. He was being rousted along between three and four furlongs from home and Peslier's left hand hoisted the whip six times to get him into a challenging position.

At the business end of the race, from a furlong and a half out, I saw Olivier's whip, now in the other hand, raised nine more times as he drove his mount into the frame.

In fact, sectional times published in the Racing Post showed that Xaar ran the last two furlongs faster than Border Arrow, though the eye may have the edge over the machine in that these times do not reveal that Xaar was under pressure while Border Arrow looked as though he was just beginning to enjoy himself.

Xaar was champion last year because he was more mature; he hasn't improved physically all that much and maybe is not going to be the absolute top class this season. His career could well turn out rather like that of Dick Hern's Alhaarth in 1995-96. Described by Raceform as a scintillating two-year-old he, too, was a superb Dewhurst winner. He, too, was the finished article in his first season. In the Craven, which Xaar won by a neck, Alhaarth was beaten a neck. Then in the Guineas of 1996 he, too, was only fourth. He, too needed driving to get even that close.

Alhaarth struggled along in the English and Irish Derbys but, when reverting to a mile in July, showed something of his old self when third in the Sussex Stakes; he was third to his Guineas conqueror Mark of Esteem at Goodwood in the Celebration Mile, and finished the season with victory in the Prix Rond Point. Last year, he took the Prix Dollar and the Budweiser International at the Curragh.

After Xaar's Guineas setback, the Craven form was further devalued when Gulland only just held on in a photo-finish to the Chester Vase .

And Xaar's Salamandre form took another knock when the runner-up, Charge D'Affaires, was only fifth in Victory Note's French 2,000 Guineas. The three colts immediately behind him in the Salamandre had all been beaten out of the frame in their respective Guineas. The picture was complete.

But there's no doubt that Xaar had a hard race in the Guineas when he and his stable were out of sorts; two weeks later, connections were saying he was still "under the weather". Given time for Fabre-Peslier to get into gear, and time for Xaar to freshen up, he could at the very least emulate Alhaarth.

TERRY CLARK, a former Fleet Street racing editor for many years, now works as a freelance. He has also been involved in racing promotions and for a long time was closely associated with the Grand National which his paper sponsored. Terry, who has helped organise charity racedays on the Flat (Ascot) and over jumps (Wincanton), has just been commissioned to write a book about betting. He was the first to introduce ante-post and morning odds comparison in English newspapers, his first column recommending a 66-1 winner.

You can reach Terry at:

"Sandhills"
5 Bayford Hill
Wincanton
Somerset
BA9 9LW
Tel: 01963 31794

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