Charlie Hills is taking nothing for granted as Battaash bids for back-to-back victories in the Coolmore Nunthorpe Stakes at York on Friday.
The brilliant sprinter is odds-on across the board to successfully defend his crown on the Knavesmire, having looked better than ever in making it third time lucky in the King’s Stand at Royal Ascot and then landing his fourth King George Stakes in a record time at Goodwood.
However, Battaash has disappointed at York twice before – in 2017 and 2018 – and while he appears a reformed character these days, Hills admits there is always a chance things could go awry again.
“There are so many things that can go wrong in these sprint races,” said the Lambourn trainer.
“You know he’s capable of it (a blip), so you couldn’t rule it out.
“When he ran at York as a three-year-old, we knew when he came over to the track that he was in a bad frame of mind – he was not very easy to saddle, and then we had the dog (barking) episode down at the start, which really seemed to wind him up.
“It hasn’t been straightforward by any stretch of the imagination. It’s been well documented he was tricky as a two-year-old, and he was gelded then, but now he’s got more races under his belt he’s a proper professional in everything he does.
“He’s a very straightforward horse now and will do anything you ask of him. We have Craig and Gary Witheford looking after him down at the start now, and they’ve got to know him very well. You’d like to think we’ve got most things covered.”
Battaash received a rousing reception from the small crowd permitted in attendance at Goodwood last month, and Hills believes the longevity of his career has increased his popularity.
Speaking ahead of what is another leg of the Qipco British Champions Series, he added: “We’re lucky to have horses like Stradivarius, Enable and him being kept in training until they’re six years old. They start to get such a following and become very popular.
“He has this sheer brilliance of speed, and seems to have captured the imagination of everybody.
“I’m really happy with where the horse is at the moment – he seems in great shape. He’s very much a pampered pet.”
Jim Crowley, who has steered Battaash to 10 of his 12 career victories, has previously dubbed the Dark Angel gelding the ‘Batmobile’.
He said: “He’s the highest-rated sprinter in the world, and if you look at the CV of the races he’s won, there’s not many sprinters who can do that.
“He’s done it for the last four years now, and I’m very lucky to ride him – they don’t come around like him very often.”
Assessing the opposition, the jockey added: “You’ve got Art Power, who will relish soft ground. I’m not sure sure A’Ali has done enough to warrant us worrying about him, but you’ve always got to respect the opposition.
“On the form book they’ve still got plenty to find – they’re the ones who’ve got to step up.”
Art Power has already made rapid progress this season – landing a Newcastle novice event and a handicap at Royal Ascot, before completing his hat-trick in the Group Three Lacken Stakes in Ireland.
Trainer Tim Easterby, who has his string firing on all cylinders, is confident his flying grey is up to competing at the top level.
Easterby said: “Every drop of rain that falls will be very much appreciated. It’s not that he has to have soft ground, it’s just that he stays six furlongs – so against these five-furlong horses if it slows them down a tad that will help.
“He’s fine on good to firm, and if this was six furlongs it wouldn’t bother me, but five on fast ground might not be his thing. We just don’t know – he might even be better on it.
“We’ve been happy with everything he’s done this season, so hopefully it continues.”
A’Ali is third in the betting, for Simon and Ed Crisford.
The son of Society Rock claimed a hat-trick of Group Two wins as a two-year-old last season, landing the Norfolk Stakes at Royal Ascot, the Prix Robert Papin at Deauville and the Flying Childers at Doncaster.
He signed off his juvenile campaign with a run at the Breeders’ Cup, where he was done no favours by the draw – and while he was down the field on his reappearance at Newcastle, he has since won the Coral Charge at Sandown and the Sapphire Stakes at the Curragh.
Ed Crisford said: “A’Ali is in good form, and we’re looking forward to it.
“Battaash is obviously going to be tough to beat, as is Art Power. But A’Ali deserves a crack at a Group One, and I think the track will suit – he should run a good race.”