Astoryofhighs,lows andthecreationof a CHAMPION; EXCITEMENT...P ROMISE...P OTENTIAL...D ISAPPOINTMENT... JOY Peter Thomas recalls the story of a colt who failed to deliver on his Classic potenial but rose to the top of a different tree.
In the case of Ajdal, the penny of enlightenment took a while to drop. Here was a racehorse who began 1987 as a Guineas winner waiting to happen, but who wandered down a few frustrating blind alleys before emerging from the early-season maze as an under-achieving miler, non-staying Derby flop and, eventually, wing-heeled champion sprinter.
If you were of an unforgiving nature, you could put the fruitless meanderings down to the bafflement of some of racing's senior professionals, but it would probably be more constructive to point out that equines can be awfully enigmatic at times and that getting them right in the end is better than not getting them right at all.
That's certainly the view of Sir Michael Stoute, who looks back on the tale of Ajdal with a mixed bag of emotions, ranging from huge anticipation through acute embarrassment to almighty relief and great fulfilment.
He went into 1987 with a horse who looked a Guineas contender of the first order, found himself so frustrated that he took a wrong turn to Epsom and was forced to back-pedal frantically when the magnitude of his mistake became apparent.
When the racing world then turned round as one to shower him with plaudits for his inspired decision to transform the son of Northern Dancer into the year's champion sprinter, he had the honesty to deflect the praise. The horse's regular rider Walter Swinburn still speaks of Stoute's mastery in identifying Ajdal's true metier, but Stoute is having none of it.
"It was one of the biggest cock-ups, but he got me out of trouble," comes the succinct summation. "When I said at the time that it had taken me long enough to get there with the horse, that wasn't false modesty, it was deeply meant. We got there in the end, but no accolades."
So what was it that led one of the greatest trainers of the age to spend half a season failing to get to grips with a horse who was supposed to win his mile Classic before going on to even greater things? He had signed off the previous year by winning the Dewhurst and looked set fair for a straightforward campaign when carrying the iconic maroon and white silks of Sheikh Mohammed to victory over Don't Forget Me in the Craven on his reappearance. But then it all began to unravel.
In the Newmarket Classic, he was sent off the 6-5 favourite but could finish only fifth behind Don't Forget Me, albeit placed fourth after a stewards' inquiry. Swinburn, however, isn't inclined to blame a bump from Most Welcome at the furlong pole for the defeat.
"I don't remember there being any excuses in the Guineas," he recalls. "Certainly in the post-mortem between Sheikh Mohammed, Sir Michael and myself, no hard-luck stories were discussed. We were disappointed that he just didn't fire, for whatever reason, but he was none the worse for it and I don't remember any of us suspecting he mightn't stay, hence he lined up in the Irish 2,000 and ran a solid enough race again to finish third (the frustration being compounded by Swinburn failing to weigh in and being disqualified), but once more we came away from the race disappointed.
"We still saw him as a solid miler at that stage, but we were in an age where the natural progression for the Guineas winner was to go on to the Derby, whether he stayed or not, so that was where he went."
IN Stoute's mind, the plot was thickening, rather than revealing itself to him. The smart horse he knew as a two-year-old had yet to reveal itself at three, which meant it was hard to ascertain the cause of the Guineas defeats.
"As a juvenile he'd been very impressive in his homework and I kept waiting for those signs as a three-year-old," explains the trainer, "but going into the Craven I wasn't brimful of confidence because I thought he was lacking a spark. With hindsight he probably didn't come to himself until a few months later.
"He had a July Cup entry before the Derby, so that was going on in my head - the possibility of having to pull him back in trip - and just before the Derby he really started to exhibit that spark he'd shown as a two-year-old. He worked brilliantly and I said to myself 'I think we're doing the wrong thing here'.
"His pedigree suggested speed could be predominant, although after the Irish 2,000 Guineas I thought maybe he needed further because he had every chance there and didn't quicken as one hoped he would. When he started quickening at home like he had as a two-year-old, I thought we might be making a mistake, but we bit the bullet and went to Epsom anyway."
Proof of Ajdal's slipping status came when he was deserted by Swinburn for his trip to the Derby. A new star was on the rise at the Stoute yard in the shape of the nice middle-distance prospect Ascot Knight and although the jury was still out concerning Ajdal's stamina credentials, the stable jockey was in no mood to hang around for the result of the deliberations.
"Ascot Knight was a very good horse as well and he was lined up as our Derby horse and I chose him," Swinburn states categorically. "So Ray Cochrane came to ride Ajdal at home after the Irish Guineas and he said: 'He'll stay till the cows come home.' "I honestly didn't know about Ajdal's stamina but Ascot Knight looked to have the better chance on racecourse evidence that year. I'm not sure what Ray said after the Derby but the decision to drop him back to sprinting was 100 per cent Sir Michael Stoute's and that's where the genius of the man came in."
Stoute, for his part, is rather more prosaic about the change of tack after Ajdal's ninth place at Epsom, where he was sent off a 25-1 shot by the layers and travelled well enough until fading in the final two furlongs.
"It was a respectable effort," he says, "but we were aware afterwards that we didn't have a middle-distance horse on our hands. His mile form was all right but he'd really come to himself at home and that's the gist of the matter. His old speed was back and that made my mind up - a nd then there were three very impressive performances."
Impressive is right. Asked to tackle the six furlongs of the July Cup, Ajdal started the 9-2 third favourite behind odds-on shot Bluebird but made a mockery of the betting as he left the favourite in his wake, showing pace in abundance before holding on to beat the fast-finishing Gayane by a head. Swinburn was suitably impressed by the efforts of both horse and handler.
"Once the decision was taken to go back to sprinting, the gallops would have been set up for him to show real speed and sharpen him up mentally," he says. "The idea of settling him would have been taken out of the equation - fro m then on it was all about sharpening the mind to make him a sprinter.
"It was brilliant training in more ways than one because he'd already had plenty of racing and the ability to keep them coming back time after time showed you the kind of trainer he was even back then.
"If someone had said to us after the Guineas that he'd end up a July Cup winner, I'd have dismissed them. Coming into the July Cup, I knew I was on a top-class horse who wasn't short of speed, but he hadn't been taking that speed on to the racecourse at that stage. That's what he needed to do and that's what he did.
"He travelled like a winner all the way through and there were a lot of people who, apart from being very excited, were also very relieved."
Stoute might not accept the praise of his longtime ally, but he does concur with something Swinburn says: "What I remember most of all is relief. We'd paid a lot of money for this fella and I'd been * *** ing up, so to get back on track with him was a good feeling."
Ajdal's new trajectory took him next to York for the William Hill Sprint Championship, as the Nunthorpe was known at the time, for another new test over the fast five furlongs of the Knavesmire. He was imperious in beating Sizzling Melody by three lengths, with Perion and Bluebird further behind.
The following month, he was asked to go to the well once more, on soft ground at Haydock in the Vernon's Sprint Cup, where he was again impressive in dismissing Sharp Romance and Handsome Sailor. His rider continued to be impressed by the raw speed this formerly enigmatic creature was by now showing as a matter of course, and also by his durability and versatility.
"Judging by the feel I was getting underneath me at York, he was getting better and better, sharper and sharper all the time," says Swinburn. "It was all the more impressive because he'd had to be switched off early in the season, then sharpened up for sprinting, and he ran in all the big races on all kinds of ground.
"It was no surprise he'd had enough by the time he was beaten in the Abbaye. Looking back on it, especially bearing in mind the way three-year-olds go through a season now, it was amazing he kept going that long."
That seventh-placed finish in France behind Polonia didn't shock his trainer, either, who by now was feeling a sense of satisfaction, if not with his own efforts, at least with those of his sprinting superstar. The frustrations of the spring were long forgotten and the Derby was a distant memory by the time Ajdal's powers of resilience finally ran out.
HE HAD taken his time reproducing the kind of brilliance he had shown as a youngster, but a little faith and a lot of patience finally brought horse and trainer on to the same wavelength, at which point the message went out loud and clear: here is the best sprinter of 1987.
"He ran a very flat race in the Abbaye," says Stoute, "but he'd been trained for the Guineas and he'd had a long year. A Nunthorpe horse who can also win a Craven is pretty versatile in this day and age of specialisation, and while I couldn't be proud of what I did with him, he showed in the end that he was a pretty decent performer.
"He was a handsome beast and I was always very fond of him because I was at Keeneland when he was bought. Sheikh Mohammed told me then that I could have him, and he showed huge promise from the moment we put him into fast work.
"As a sprinter he wasn't as good as Marwell, who'd be the best sprinter we had, but he beat the best around and he could have been a little better if we'd have clicked earlier what we were doing with him."
Ajdal in action with Walter Swinburn during a testing season in which he eventually came good with three sprinting successes at the top level In the winning groove: Ajdal lands the July Cup before scorching home in another Group 1 at York
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|Publication:||The Racing Post (London, England)|
|Date:||Jul 11, 2012|
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