15 NOVEMBER 1997, Page 62

The turf

Brave little battler

Robin Oakley

Apicture sometimes tells you several times more than a thousand words. The image of Singspiel hobbling from the Hol- lywood Park track in the early morning fog with the leg injury that was to end his career is one that I will never forget.

I was not there. The Spectator's expenses don't run to trips to the Breeders' Cup fes- tivities. (Truth be told, they don't run to a Saturday charabanc trip to Lingfield.) But you did not have to be there, only to look at the single frame which encapsulated the drama and the tragedy.

In Singspiel's illustrious career there have been the joyful, colourful, prancing moments that might have made a Degas or a Dufy. But this was a grim and serious tableau in the morning mist, fit only for the sombre tones of a Rembrandt. The worry etched on trainer Michael Stoute's face and the eyeline of the work riders and watchers clustered about the limping, stricken animal told their own story. The little horse's neck, which we have been used to seeing arched imperiously with a star's confidence in the parade ring, or thrust out, reaching for the line in yet another pulsating finish, was rigid with puz- zlement and pain.

Two days before what was anyway to have been his last race, with Singspiel start- ing favourite for the Breeders' Cup, it was the end of his career. Thanks to the veteri- nary surgeons' skills it was not also the end of Singspiel's life, and in a few months, his fractured off-fore cannon bone repaired, he will be fit enough to take up the plea- sures of a life at stud.

The comparative failure once again in the Breeders' Cup races of the European contingent, with only Spinning World sav- ing our blushes and once again no British victories, underlines the true achievements of Singspiel's career, a career which owes so much to Michael Stoute's patient ability to spot and to nurture the quality of late developers.

People tend to forget that Singspiel was not universally admired as a three-year-old. He won only once, a listed race at Doncast- er, on his six starts, although it has been pointed out that a one-length bonus, divid- ed judiciously between the races, would have won him also the Thresher Classic Trial, the Grand Prix de Paris and York's Great Voltigeur.

His first pattern-race success came only as a four-year-old at Sandown in April 1996 but then it was back to second place again in the Coronation Cup at Epsom and the Princess of Wales's Stakes at Royal Ascot. Next came a win at Goodwood over 1m 2f before his illustrious overseas career took off. Singspiel won the Canadian International at Woodbine over a mile and a half two weeks later, picking up £283,000. On the same track a month later he was second to his stablemate Pilsudski, winning another £258,000. Then a month after that it was off to Tokyo to pick up over £1 mil- lion for winning the Japan Cup.

Versatility, toughness and consistency like that are rare. But the gutsy little horse surpassed his four-year-old achievements with his campaign this year at five. Despite the tough race he had endured under Frankie Dettori to beat the Prix de L'Arc de Triomphe winner Helissio in Japan, he came out this year, dropping back to ten furlongs with enthusiasm undiminished to beat the American horses Sandpit and Siphon on the dirt track in Dubai, picking up another £1.4 million. He took the Coro- nation Cup with ease at Epsom and the Juddmonte International at York. His only defeat was in the 'Race of the Year' King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Ascot when a deluge on the day turned the race into a stayers' slog won by Swain.

Once there were doubters. At one stage Singspiel had been second in seven out of ten starts. But there has been no tougher horse around these past two years. It takes a special kind of grip to travel the distances he did and keep on winning through as long a season as he did. He finished as an undoubted champion, a winner in Canada, Japan, England and Dubai, the record stakes-winner in European racing history with £3.6 million and the most potent argu- ment we have yet seen for keeping good horses in training beyond their three-year- old careers. For Michael Stoute the Dubai victory, beating the American horses on their kind of track, was the crowning moment. But this brave little battler has given us all magic moments. May he enjoy every minute with those mares.

One other seasoned traveller was clearly none the worse last weekend for the latest addition to his air miles. Ray Cochrane had come home a fast-finishing fourth on Lady Herries's Harbour Dues in the Melbourne Cup before a 19-hour flight back from Aus- tralia to ride the stable's Taufan's Melody at Doncaster in the Listed CIU Injured Jockeys Fund Stakes. Cochrane was still sharp enough to have noticed that the course had not been watered on the out- side and when the gates opened he dashed for the easier ground. Despite covering fully a hundred yards more than the other horses which stuck to the inside, he came home a comfortable winner by 13 lengths. And it was sufficient tribute to the veteran jockey that in subsequent races all the other riders followed the Cochrane route. Now that is real professionalism.

Robin Oakley is political editor of the BBC.