Is this the greatest racehorse ever?

Is this the greatest racehorse ever?
Is this the greatest racehorse ever?

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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - LONDON: There is, understandably, great excitement in the world of horse-racing ahead of Saturday’s Qipco 2000 Guineas race at Newmarket, the first of the British season’s Classics to be run since the coronavirus ban on the sport was lifted in England on June 1.

The Classics are a series of five flat races, first run between 1776 and 1809, which are open only to three-year-old thoroughbreds and together are regarded as the ultimate test of any generation of horses.

The start of the Classics season is the first opportunity for horse race owners, trainers, pundits and fans to see how last year’s debuting two-year-olds have come on over the winter — and to wonder which might have the potential to go down in racing history.

This year, however, even allowing for the hype, rumor and speculation that swirls constantly around the sport of kings — and notwithstanding the fact that under social-distancing rules the 2,000 Guineas will be held behind closed doors — the excitement is at fever pitch.

Typically, the first Classic of any season is a star-studded affair, and the 15 runners assembled for Saturday’s 2,000 Guineas and looking for a share of the £500,000 purse make this year no exception.

But when the field comes under starter’s orders at 3:35 p.m. on Saturday (6:35 p.m. time) all eyes will be on a smaller-than-usual horse owned and bred by Godolphin, the racing stables founded by Al-Maktoum, vice-president of the UAE and ruler of Dubai.

After one of the most successful juvenile seasons in horse-racing history, Pinatubo will be carrying the weight of great expectations over Newmarket’s Rowley Mile racecourse — because the word in the industry is that the deceptively laid-back bay colt could prove to be the greatest racehorse the world has ever seen.

That, clearly, would be a tall order, but Pinatubo has a great deal going for him. 

For a start, his father was Shamardal, another successful horse trained by Godolphin. As a two-year-old in 2004, Shamardal won all three of the flat races he entered and was voted Cartier Champion Two-year-old Colt by British racing journalists and readers of the Daily Telegraph and the Racing Post.

The following year Shamardal came home first in three of four races. His racing career was ended by an injury in training but he went on to become a successful stud, siring a string of winners — including Pinatubo in 2017.

In 2019 Pinatubo would follow in his father’s hoof prints, also winning the Cartier Champion two-year-old Colt award, but his remarkable first season left Shamardal’s in the shade.

It began quietly enough, with what Sporting Life described as “a stylish but under-the-radar winning debut” on May 10, 2019, in the Free Tips Every Day Novice Stakes at Wolverhampton. Ten other promising two-year-olds trailed in Pinatubo’s wake, including second-placed Platinum Star, another Godolphin-trained horse, beaten by over three lengths.

Heads first began to turn on May 31 when Pinatubo recorded his second win, in the Investec Woodcote EBF Stakes at Epsom. But it was only after a “crunching, authoritative” victory in the Chesham Stakes at Royal Ascot on Jun. 22, at which he broke the two-year-old course record, that Sporting Life declared it was “finally starting to take Pinatubo seriously”.

By the end of the 2019 season, the entire racing world would be taking Pinatubo very seriously indeed.

Three more impressive victories followed, bringing the two-year-old’s record to a rarely achieved six for six — in the Qatar Vintage Stakes at Goodwood on July 30, the Goffs Vincent O’Brien National Stakes at the Curragh, Ireland, on Sept. 15 and the Darley Dewhurst Stakes at Newmarket on Oct. 12.

That last victory, in testing conditions, was saluted by Sheikh Mohammed himself.

“When you win like that and show a lot of courage, it makes you very pleased and happy,” he said. “Every year, one horse is your favourite, and Pinatubo is the favourite this year.”

But it was Pinatubo’s outing at the Curragh, a fittingly explosive performance for a horse named after an active volcano in the Philippines, that had really set his season on a pedestal.

“Wow!” declared Racing Post after he won by an astonishing nine lengths. This, the paper proclaimed, was “a scintillating performance up there with the most exalted and jaw-dropping juvenile demolitions” of an impressive field.

“He might not be the biggest,” as Sporting Life later noted, “but Pinatubo proved last summer that he has the heart of a lion to match his immense talent, and his breeding, at least, offers real optimism that he might be even better over a mile in the 2000 Guineas.”

The Curragh victory was the deciding factor in the horse’s official recognition as the best juvenile in Europe for a quarter of a century with the publication in January this year of the 2019 European two-year-old classifications, the handicap system designed, in theory, to put all horses on a level playing field. 

“Pinatubo looked a potentially outstanding two-year-old when thrashing a competitive field in the Vintage Stakes and his next performance in the National Stakes was breathtaking — the kind you rarely see in top company,” the British Horseracing Authority’s lead two-year-old handicapper Graeme Smith commented at the time.

This, he added, was “one of the great two-year-old performances, and the best by any two-year-old in the last 25 years.”

Not bad for a horse who, according to trainer Charlie Appleby, “just doesn’t do anything in the mornings … we only ever see the best of him when he turns up at the track.” For William Buick, the Godolphin jockey who rode Pinatubo to victory last year at the Curragh and the Dewhurst Stakes, and who will be in the saddle again at Newmarket his Saturday, “he’s a very relaxed individual, a very laid back horse.”  

Pinatubo’s end-of-season handicap rating was set by the BHA at 128lbs — the highest since the 130 awarded to a two-year-old called Celtic Swing in 1994. 

And therein lies a cautionary tale, recalled by many trainers, horse-owners and pundits who argue that horses that shine as two-year-olds are frequently overtaken later by contemporaries that are slower to develop. 

That, certainly, was the fate of Celtic Swing. His rating of 130 after winning all three of his starts as a two-year-old in 1994, including one by a record 12 lengths, stuck him with the expectation that he, too, could be the world’s greatest racehorse.

Like Pinatubo, Celtic Swing was also awarded the Cartier prize as Europe’s top two-year-old colt at the end of his first season.

And then it all went wrong.

Celtic Swing won his first race as a three-year-old in 1995. But on May 6, confounding media predictions that he would win the 2000 Guineas by eight lengths or more, he was beaten to the post by Pennekemp, a French-trained horse.

Just one more win followed, at Chantilly. But in the Irish Derby at the Curragh in July 1995 Celtic Swing, the 5-4 favorite, finished a disappointing eighth in a field of 13. Injured in the process, it would be his last race.

However, it isn’t the ghost of Celtic Swing that is now haunting Pinatubo. Comparisons are now being drawn with the legendary horse Frankel, which at the same age had been rated at 126 — 2 less than Pinatubo.

Frankel ran in and won only four races in his two-year-old season in 2010, compared with Pinatubo’s six. But Frankel just got better and better. Over the course of his three-year racing career he was never beaten, winning all 14 races in which he was entered.

He ended his career in 2012 with a final rating of 140 — just one below the all-time best, awarded in 1986 — and the following year the official handicappers downgraded his rival Dancing Brave’s rating by three pounds, leaving Frankel officially the best racehorse in the recent history of flat racing.

This is the high hurdle that Pinatubo will have to clear if he is to take Frankel’s crown — and the first test of his ability to do so comes on Saturday. The 2,000 Guineas is the race in which Frankel first set out his stall as a three-year-old, demolishing the field in April 2011 after going 10 lengths clear by the halfway mark.

Ahead of Godolphin’s bright new hope is a blizzard of “ifs”. If Pinatubo can equal Frankel’s 2,000 Guineas victory, if he can stay the course over the next three years to match and better Frankel’s unbeaten 14-race record, and if he can avoid injury in the process, then he will indeed be the greatest racehorse the world has ever seen.

Until then, he remains only a highly promising newcomer with much to prove — but one who will nevertheless be watched on television with great interest by racing enthusiasts around the world on Saturday.

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