Trainer out to make Frankel look mortal with exceptional Immortal; Scott Burton speaks to Robert Collet, trainer of QEII Stakes second favourite Immortal Verse.
ROBERT COLLET has been a major player on the international stage for more than 30 years - and if Immortal Verse can conquer Frankel in the QEII Stakes at Ascot tomorrow it will provide a real reminder of the depth of his talent.
Two breathtaking successes, in the Coronation Stakes at Royal Ascot against her contemporaries, and then in the Prix Jacques le Marois at Deauville when she breezed by Goldikova, means Immortal Verse is one of only two of Frankel's rivals trading at a single-figure price for tomorrow's Group 1. "Obviously Frankel is a horse I respect, and if Immortal Verse is second to Frankel that's nothing to worry about," says Collet, 63, from across his desk in the sparse upstairs office in a corner of his Chantilly yard.
"The interesting thing I think is that they're such different horses. Frankel goes off in front and nobody can live with him. If he takes ten lengths out of the field the best we can hope for is to win the race for second. But if Frankel goes off in front and the others can stay with him I think my filly has a superior turn of foot to him."
Even with the accumulated wisdom of Gerald Mosse on board Collet will be more than happy to give his jockey detailed instructions. And if it doesn't go his way this year he already has a plan for a potential rematch.
"Perhaps next year I might put in a pacemaker because then Frankel might not be able to run his natural race. If he stays alongside Frankel that might be interesting."
Given Immortal Verse's history Collet knows better than to get ahead of himself. That she is in any kind of shape at all to take on Frankel is no small tribute to the skill of her trainer and his staff, who between them could fill a book on the things that have gone wrong with their charge.
Immortal Verse spent most of last winter resting in her box after suffering a muscle tear when a distant second to Helleborine at Longchamp in September.
It wouldn't be her last injury scare, but what followed at Newmarket in the 1,000 Guineas would be classed as comical if it weren't so serious.
She was withdrawn by the starter after acting up in the stalls, something Collet insists she's never done before or since.
"The problem was that she was a little fractious, so the handlers put a hood on her, and then the wind blew it off, and she just thought 'what's going on here?'" Indeed, it is only because of two more freak incidents that Immortal Verse has only run once since Ascot. "The only thing with this filly is that she chooses her races, not me," Collet says with a laugh. "After the Coronation I really wanted to run her in the Astarte [Prix Rothschild], and she slipped over in the yard and had a tiny puncture in her quarters.
"It was nothing really, but it just held her up enough to miss the race. Perhaps it was for the best, because you saw how well she ran fresh in the Marois.
"Then she was supposed to run in the Moulin, but she got loose in the forest!
"A jogger had disturbed a couple of deer, and they ran out in front of her. She got rid of her rider and was free in the woods. She suffered a small overreach."
Collet is a class act and on a couple of occasions this season it has paid to study his words and actions closely. First, at Chantilly in June, after Glorious Sight had briefly threatened to crash the party in the Prix de Diane before finishing third to Golden Lilac and Galikova, Collet said "we'll make a plan after the other filly runs at Ascot on Friday"; the implication was clear - Collet was expecting a huge performance from Immortal Verse in the Coronation Stakes at Royal Ascot.
"I expected her to win," Collet reflects on Royal Ascot - a bold statement given that she had only recently got her career back on track in the Group 2 Sandringham Stakes. "The only thing which surprised me was the way she went past the others.
"In ten metres she had the race won. She made the others look like they weren't in the same class. She did exactly the same thing in the race at Deauville [Prix Jacques le Marois]. Her acceleration was astonishing, exceptional."
Collet's public persona is a mixture of the humourous and the slightly curmudgeonly, but to hear him talk of his relief at Immortal Verse's Royal Ascot win - where she defeated Nova Hawk, trained by Collet's son Rodolphe for a memorable family one-two - is to realise the seriousness of his approach.
"The problem for a trainer is when you think you have a Group 1 horse, and then there's one problem after another, and they never get to show it on the track.
"That's a trainer's biggest frustration. Once they've won a Group 1 you're free - they've gone and done it then.
"I was released when she won at Ascot because I'd done what I was supposed to do with good material."
Immortal Verse is just the latest performer to make headlines for Collet on the global stage. Son Of Love won the 1979 St Leger to give his career an early boost, while he was one of the first European trainers to succeed at the Breeders' Cup, with the legendary Last Tycoon. He famously took the 1986 Breeders' Cup Mile after winning the King's Stand and Nunthorpe Stakes.
"I didn't think he had much chance in the sprint on the dirt, at that time there was no Breeders' Cup turf sprint, so I aimed him at the mile," Collet recalls.
"Last Tycoon needed the rhythm of American races for a mile. The way mile races are run in Europe didn't suit him. In America they always go quick up front, and he didn't like to be disappointed.
"Last Tycoon would never have won over a mile here. He was a goodground horse - his first race at three was on soft ground, and he was almost last! The ground was always the prime consideration with him. So I thought he'd have a real chance in the Breeders' Cup."
BACK to the present, and the way Collet is anticipating Immortal Verse's four-year-old career gives rise to the thought that she might only just be getting started.
"In the Marois she faced the colts and her elders," her trainer says. "She showed her quality, and what she might do next year. I don't know what her limits are."
And the second occasion when Collet's actions bore scrutiny? At Deauville he was ecstatic to have won the Marois again, a race he loves alongside the Arc above all others. But as Immortal Verse was led into the packed enclosure, he peeled away to have a few private words with Freddy Head and the vanquished connections of Goldikova.
Win or lose tomorrow, Collet will handle the aftermath with class - a word which can justifiably be applied to Immortal Verse as well.
Immortal Verse: claimed Goldikova's scalp in the Marois on her last start Robert Collet: "In ten metres she had the race won making them look like they weren't in the same class"