Clive won't be denied this time
CLIVE Brittain, European racing's modern-day Marco Polo, had a look on his face last Sunday that could have been mistaken for that of Urban Sea's winning Arc connections, owner David Tsui and trainer Jean Lesbordes.
For Brittain was witness to another incredibly gutsy performance from Alflora, his four-year-old who is being aimed at the Hong Kong Invitation Cup, over 1,800 metres, at Sha Tin on December 12.
As a prep for that race, the result could not have been more pleasing as Alflora, ridden by Mick Kinane, battled on well for second to the smart Voleris in the Group Two Ciga Prix du Rond Point at Longchamp.
''That should put him just right for his end-of-season campaign, and we're really looking forward to Hong Kong in December,'' declared the likeable Brittain. ''We were unlucky to miss out on going last April, but I'm fairly confident, we'll make the cut this time.'' The places allocated to European horses in the Invitation Cup are decided strictly on their domestic ratings, and when Alflora and the Paul Cole-trained Half A Tick were equally assessed, the handicapper ordered that a flip of the coin should decide whichone took the final place.
As luck would have it, Alflora lost the toss, and while Half A Tick went on to prove a disappointment at Sha Tin, Alflora went on to Royal Ascot in June to win the Queen Anne Stakes, under Kinane in a thrilling finish with Inner City, trained by Luca Cumani.
A much-improved four-year-old, Alflora will be fulfilling a long-held ambition by Brittain to have a horse represent him in Hong Kong.
Brittain was the first British trainer to prepare the winner of a Breeders' Cup race, Pebbles winning the Turf in New York in 1985, and the first to send out a Japan Cup winner, Jupiter Island in Tokyo in 1986.
If there is a big race anywhere in the world, and Clive Brittain has the ammunition at his disposal, he will be firing plenty of shots, there is nothing more certain. ''Alflora is just the right type for the 1,800 metres at Sha Tin, and I think he will give the Australasian horses a bit of a shake up,'' Brittain added.
Interestingly, if Voleris' trainer John ''Suave Dancer'' Hammond has his way, his four-year-old will be there in Hong Kong as well, paving the way for a re-match with Alfora on 2lb worse terms for having beaten him a length and a half at Longchamp.
Chantilly-based Hammond, who has owners in Hong Kong, quipped: ''I would love a little trip out for the Invitation Cup, and this might be the horse to get me one. He's won four of his 12 starts and only been worse than fourth once in his entire career.'' General Guy Watkins, Hong Kong racing's supremo, must have been looking on with a certain amount of satisfaction as the Invitation Cup was being spoken of as a possible target by two of European's most able trainers. Four years ago, there would have been blank looks at the suggestion of Hong Kong as a December destination.
But the General, and Philip Johnston, his Director of Racing, must have felt there was a certain 'coming of age' for Hong Kong's biggest race when Urban Sea, sixth at Sha Tin in April, scooted through on the inside to land the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe atodds of 37-1.
I remember tipping Urban Sea in the Cup, only to be shocked at the near-skeleton that I then spied in the paddock before the race.
Even reassurances that she always looked like a hat-rack failed to prevent me having a saver on a couple of others.
The most telling observation on Sunday was made by Walter Swinburn, who partnered Ezzoud, 17th in the Arc, but the man who made a special trip to ride Urban Sea in Hong Kong earlier this year.
''When I saw her at the start, I couldn't believe she was the same horse I rode at Sha Tin. She was much lighter in Hong Kong,'' he reported.