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PRINCE CHARMING; Interview Sascha Smrczek He may be an unfamiliar name to British racegoers, but in his native Germany Prince Flori is an established star. Steve Dennis talks to trainer Sascha Smrczek about the horse who could gatecrash the big league in Saturday's King George.

Byline: Steve Dennis

FOR a trainer who may be expecting the world to beat a path to his door in a few days' time, it is not an encouraging start. Even the taxi-driver can't find the yard.

We're in the middle of the Grafenberg Wald in Dusseldorf, looking for Sascha Smrczek's yard, which shouldn't theoretically be too hard to find as he has a racecourse at the bottom of his garden. We're off the beaten track, on a local as well as a global scale, but after a few wrong turnings we fetch up at the right set of gates. Behind them are the horse and trainer who, although relatively unknown outside Germany, are in with a real chance of winning one of Europe's greatest races.

It may not be the best King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes ever run, but that won't worry the affable Smrczek, who takes his stable star Prince Flori to Ascot on Saturday with high hopes of making himself, his horse and his country household names in the racing world. That wouldn't be bad going, as horse and trainer have only recently won renown on a national scale. Even Sport-Welt, the German racing paper, isn't too sure about Smrczek, reckoning him ten years older than his actual age, which prompts an explosive burst of laughter and outraged denials.

Smrczek, actually 35, has held a licence for little more than six years and has been training from his Grafenberg base for just two and a half years. The former jump jockey, who embarked on his new career with no more than a handful of low-grade horses, has made swift work of his ascent. He rode around 40 winners over jumps before 'changing sides', beginning to learn his trade in Dortmund under the experienced eye of Uwe Stoltefuss, trainer of the high-class Deutsches Derby winner Mondrian, and graduating to become Stoltefuss's assistant in 1998. Three years later, he struck out on his own, an opportunity that arose with the retirement of trainer Ralf Malinowski.

"I started out in Dortmund with just six horses, and they were just poor handicappers," says Smrczek. "But I trained a few winners, was sent a few more horses, and about three years ago I got my big break.

"Hildegard Focke, one of my biggest owners, asked me to come to Dusseldorf because Peter Lautner had retired, leaving his yard vacant. It was a very big chance for me, and luckily all but one of my owners kept their horses with me. In my last month in Dortmund, I had 16 horses; in my first month here, I had 25, and the numbers have steadily risen."

Smrczek now has 66 horses in training, a number he is happy with and sees no immediate need to exceed, and a couple in retirement who will be familiar names to British racegoers. In one corner box of his endearingly old-fashioned stables is Lingfield Derby Trial winner Lucido, while three doors along is Red N'Socks, three times a winner for John Dunlop in Focke's grey-and-blue colours. Across the yard, though, by the horsewalker, is one better yet.

At first glance, Prince Flori doesn't command a second one. The small, well-made bay has no immediate magnetism, but what he lacks in looks he makes up in vitality. "He may be small, but he has a big heart," says his trainer. That big heart, among other qualities, made him Horse of the Year in Germany last season.

Prince Flori owed that honour principally to his victory in the Grosser Preis von Baden, the Group 1 contest regarded as Germany's equivalent of the King George. His three-length demolition job at Baden-Baden last September, with the first four from the Deutsches Derby among his victims, was the standout performance of the year - but if Smrczek had had his way Prince Flori wouldn't have even been in the race.

"I wanted to run Flori in the Bosphorus Cup in Turkey instead," he says. "Although it's a Group 2 in Turkey it corresponds only to Listed status over here.

"I didn't think he could win in Baden-Baden - fourth or fifth, I would have been happy with that - but the owners wanted to run."

Prince Flori had been only ninth behind Schiaparelli in the Derby at Hamburg, but Smrczek recognised that display was no reflection of his horse's ability. The trainer had long held a high opinion of the little Lando colt and stuck to it, despite the Classic eclipse.

"Flori worked very well at two but, as his sire tends to get horses who take time to mature, I wanted to give him a chance and decided not to run him," he says. "He was still a baby, although I thought even then that he would be a good horse - but not of Group 1 standard, maybe Listed or a small Group 3.

"The owners wanted him to run, but I said no and they listened to me.

They are good owners, I knew them from my days with Stoltefuss and they have supported me since I took out a licence."

Heinz Wacek, a retired auctioneer, and his sister-in-law Jutta Damast, who race under the banner of Stall Reni, soon had reason to be thankful for Smrczek's circumspection. Prince Flori won his first two races as a three-year-old, both at Frankfurt, and then finished fourth in the Group 3 Prix du Lys at Longchamp behind Rail Link. That earned him a place in the Derby, but Smrczek's hopes were dashed by the way the race unfolded.

Prince Flori is seen to his best advantage when stalking the pace, but at Hamburg circumstance conspired against him. Smrczek wears a rueful smile as he recounts the tale.

"He was drawn well, was very relaxed and got a good start," he says.

"My instructions to the jockey were to hold a good position in the first half of the race because, with 20 horses, there were sure to be traffic problems in behind.

"He was chasing the leader, but at halfway that horse went 'pop' and left Flori in front. It was much too soon, he doesn't like being in front a long way out, and I knew we were in trouble. Two furlongs out, he had nothing left in the tank and they all went past him."

It was very different at Baden-Baden, where Filip Minarik replaced Henk Grewe in the rhubarb-and-custard silks of Stall Reni. Minarik had never ridden the colt before, not even at exercise, but it must have been love at first sight. The outsider of the field at 40-1, Prince Flori had the race in a stranglehold a quarter of a mile out and stayed on implacably, carving himself a small slice of history in becoming the first Group 1 winner ever trained in Dusseldorf.

AN INVITATION to run in the Japan Cup was considered and reluctantly refused - "the weather was not so good, it was getting a bit cold and Flori had started to grow his winter coat. The owners said forget it, we can go next year" - and that was that for the season. Wacek, who also bred Prince Flori, and Damast could spend the winter plotting the trajectory for their rising star, their only horse in training.

"Herr Wacek was very ill a year or two ago and he asked me to send all his horses to the sales except for Flori, who at that time was untried," says Smrczek. "As these things go, the dam was sold, and then Flori began to show us what he was capable of.

"Then Flori's year-younger brother was killed on the stud farm as a yearling - he was out in a field with plenty of others and another horse ran into him. Luckily, there is a yearling sister to Flori on the farm who will be coming to me at the end of the year."

We're now in Smrzcek's tackroom, cluttered with the million articles common to every racing stable and a couple probably unique to this yard.

Flori's plaque for Horse of the Year lies refreshingly unhonoured on a pile of old dusters, while the end wall is dominated by a large picture of the top half of a muscled-up male model, naked to the waist (and possibly further). Perhaps the Direktorium sends them out with the fixture list.

Conversation turns to the King George, and there is a quiet confidence about Smrczek as we proceed. He appreciates the extent of the task facing Prince Flori, but the plan to take on (what in a normal year would be) the best in Europe was not conceived in an idle hour's daydream. Smrczek recognises the limitations of German racing and knows that a wider orbit is necessary with a horse of this calibre.

"The prize-money in Germany is not all that great and there are not that many races for this kind of horse, so it was always the plan to take him abroad," he says.

"The Arc is the main target this season, but after his run at Saint-Cloud it became clear that the King George was the obvious next objective. After Ascot, he'll go straight to Longchamp - he runs well after a break, as he showed at Baden-Baden last year. Then possibly Japan - if they send another invitation - but he won't go for the Breeders' Cup. The plan is for him to stay in training next year, too.

"I think he'll be suited by the way races are run in England - the tempo of the race will be better for him than it is in France. He likes to come off a strong gallop and, although there aren't many runners at Ascot, it should be better for him than at Saint-Cloud. As far as the ground goes, it doesn't matter. His sire liked fast ground and his dam wanted soft ground, and either is fine for him."

Prince Flori has his quirks at home, like many a good horse, and refuses to lead the string the quarter-mile or so to the racecourse, where Smrczek's horses work on the all-weather track on the inside of the tight, right-handed turf course. When work begins, however, he is a diligent student and has maintained his progress this season, winning the Group 2 Grosser Mercedes-Benz-Preis at Baden-Baden over an inadequate 1m3f before dipping his toe back into deep water in the Group 1 Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud, in which he was third behind Mountain High.

Behind him in fifth place was Saturday's rival Youmzain, three lengths back and beaten fair and square, and Smrczek privately considers his charge slightly unfortunate to have finished only third. "He pulled hard early on because the pace was not strong," he says. "Then he delivered his challenge a little wide, wasting ground in the process, and that opened the door for Mandesha to come up his inside and run him out of second."

As the golfers potter around with their putters on the miniature course in the Dusseldorf infield, Smrczek's thoughts focus on the weekend.

Prince Flori will be his first runner in Britain, although he has had plenty of winners in France and Italy and ventured as far as Turkey before. He is looking forward to it, unconcerned about the prospect of the placid, sensible Flori staying overnight at an unfamiliar racecourse, pleased to have secured the services of a jockey, in Jimmy Fortune, who knows the track and is unlikely to be overwhelmed by the occasion.

"He'll have his last serious work on the Tuesday and we will go over on Friday," he says. "Herr Wacek has been calling me every day, worrying about his tickets and his passes, but I keep telling him not to worry, there will be no problem.

"He's just nervous; maybe as the day comes closer I will be too.

"In Germany, people think that English racing is the best there is, the crown. I think anyone would rather win a big race in England than a big race in France."

BACK in the yard, heads pop across doors as the stable goat clicks busily by and dogs dart here and there, one sprawled untidily in the unexpected sun, eyes shut and breathing deeply as people step carefully over him. The 'Uberflieger of Baden-Baden' - as the placard on his box door describes him - is gnawing on his haynet as Smrczek takes a last look at him before heading off to plough through paperwork in the office, from where he will return at five o'clock for evening stables.

Immersed as he is in the running of his yard, he confesses that he has little else to occupy him - being unmarried, having no children - and he admits to the un-German trait of not following a football team, pleading lack of time.

A hands-on operator, he's not the type for airs and graces and frequently mines a seam of refreshing self-deprecation. He has, however, found time to do a few interviews with the national press, but cracks a smile of disbelief at the suggestion that he might be becoming something of a celebrity.

Events on Saturday may require him to reassess his position. For all the fulmination of the forecasters about how this is a dreary King George, one barely worth the name, one not fit to grace the memory of the greats of the past, if Prince Flori adds his name to the roll of honour it will be hard to argue that he is a poor winner.

He'll just be one whose possibilities have, up to now, been overlooked - like the way through the woods in Dusseldorf.

'In Germany, people think that English racing is the best there is, the crown. Anyone would rather win a big race in England than a big race in France'

GERMANY'S STARS OF THE PAST

Star Appeal (Theo Grieper)

This teak-tough individual was the trailblazer for German-trained horses in Europe (although trained until the autumn of his three-year-old career by John Oxx), and what a dash he cut. He won the Gran Premio di Milano and the Eclipse Stakes in 1975, in the latter enjoying a comfortable two-length victory over Taros. After that he was ninth in the King George and third in the Benson & Hedges Gold Cup, but notwithstanding his form at the highest grade, he was allowed to go off at 119-1 in the Arc and became the biggest outsider ever to win the great race, rolling home under a grateful Greville Starkey by three lengths from On My Way.

Acatenango (Heinz Jentzsch)

The best horse to come out of Germany in the last 25 years, the mighty son of Surumu went 12 races unbeaten before falling victim to the peerless lunge of Dancing Brave in the 1986 Arc, eventually finishing seventh in a race full of Group 1 winners. Before that he had won the Deutsches Derby, Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud and Grosser Preis von Baden, among others. The following year he ran third behind Triptych in the Coronation Cup and sixth behind Reference Point in the King George.

Lirung (Heinz Jentzsch)

The Connaught colt, a stablemate of Acatenango and winner of his native 2,000 Guineas in 1985, was something of a force among European milers the following season and enjoyed his finest hour at Deauville in August, when keeping on strongly up the rail under Steve Cauthen to win the Prix Jacques le Marois by a length from Regal State. He also finished third in the Prix d'Ispahan and Prix du Moulin the same season.

Lando (Heinz Jentzsch)

Took German racing round the globe after winning the Deutsches Derby and GP von Baden (twice). Victory in the Gran Premio di Milano preceded a gallant fourth behind Lammtarra in the 1995 Arc and an unplaced run in the Breeders' Cup Turf. His crowning glory was still to come: a month later he went halfway round the world to win the Japan Cup on road-like ground, sending his career earnings past the pounds 2m mark in the process.

Silvano (Andreas Wohler)

Had a passport like Alan Whicker. In 2001, he won in Singapore, Hong Kong, where he beat Jim And Tonic in the Audemars Piguet Queen Elizabeth II Cup, and the US, where he took the field apart under regular rider Andreas Suborics in the Arlington Million, winning by three lengths, with compatriot Caitano fourth. In between, he also managed third in the Dubai Sheema Classic, second in the Man o'War Stakes at Belmont Park, and fourth in the Cox Plate at Moonee Valley.

Boreal (Peter Schiergen)

Another Deutsches Derby winner who flew the flag overseas, he became the first German-trained Group 1 winner in Britain since Star Appeal when winning the 2002 Coronation Cup by three and a half lengths from Storming Home. Previously third behind Nayef in the Dubai Sheema Classic, he was then seventh in the King George behind Golan.

CAPTION(S):

Raiding party: Sascha Smrczek at his yard in Dusseldorf with his King George contender Prince Flori, the German Horse of the Year last season STEVE DENNIS
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:The Racing Post (London, England)
Date:Jul 26, 2007
Words:2840
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