07/28/2003 11:00PM

The 'little machine' that could


DUBLIN - The King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes, an appropriately regal name for Britain's biggest midsummer race, took place at Ascot last Saturday and was the finest renewal in recent memory, featuring 11 Group 1 winners in a field of 14.

The King George, worth about $650,000 to the winner, is an all-ages affair, and two of Europe's most talented 3-year-olds - Kris Kin from England and Alamshar from Ireland - were tackling their more experienced elders and trying to take advantage of a 12-pound break in the weights.

It's true that fate sometimes determines the outcome of a race, but the trainers at Ascot were more concerned about the elements. Most of them had their fingers crossed and an imploring eye cast toward the sky, hoping for some rain to put a bit of give into the ground. Friday, they got the downpour they wanted, and you could hear audible sighs of relief when the clerk of the course officially rated the turf as good (good to soft in places). Though Alamshar, the morning-line favorite at 7-2, had won on similar ground at home, the perception was that he needed faster going so his odds drifted out to 13-2 by post time.

Alamshar is a surprisingly compact colt. His trainer, John Oxx, who stables his stock at The Curragh, refers to him as a "little machine." The colt has muscular and skeletal problems that weaken his back, and he required the services of both a physiotherapist and a chiropractor to prepare him for his successful run in the Irish Derby. But Alamshar also has terrific conformation, legs, and action, coupled with a gutsy will to win. Oxx thinks it's tougher than ever to keep Thoroughbreds sound, possibly for genetic reasons, so he put in lots of hard work to have his colt fit for the King George.

But Oxx's little machine had to face some scary obstacles before his boss could pick up a check. Foremost among them was Kris Kin, who had beaten Alamshar in the Epsom Derby and loves soft ground. Kris Kin had a reputation as a head case, though. The colt refused to exert himself in his morning gallops, regarding them as he might a cold bowl of porridge. At Epsom, he had saved himself with a gallant stretch drive, but the stretch at Ascot, just 2 1/2 furlongs, is too short for such gallantry. Still, Sir Michael Stoute, Kris Kin's trainer, was turning out winners at a 28 percent rate and could be counted on to deliver the colt in premium condition.

Then there were the older horses to contend with - Sulamani, for instance, the choice of three Godolphin entries, with Frankie Dettori in the irons. Sulamani had done poorly in a prep race in France, where the turf was too firm for him, but he finished an impressive second in the Arc at Longchamp last autumn. Nayef, Britain's most consistent Group 1 performer, also figured in the mix. The horse adored Ascot, but he was a 5-year-old who had already been through a rugged campaign, and the King George distance of 1 1/2 miles ultimately proved too stiff a challenge.

Punters had to consider some wild cards, as well. Victory Moon, a dirt specialist from South Africa, would attempt to transfer his excellent form to the turf. If Victory Moon pulled it off, it would mean a bloodbath for the bookies. They had offered him at 40-1 in June - and had plenty of loyal South African takers - but the horse was as low as 8-1 on raceday. Falbrav, too, was a mystery wrapped in an enigma. Though Falbrav won the Coral Eclipse Stakes handily in early July, nobody knew for certain if he would stay a longer trip or manage softer ground.

In fact, Falbrav had the fans blinking in wonder when the horses left the gate in a pack and maneuvered toward the rail. Darryll Holland, Falbrav's jockey, took him in the opposite direction, and soon the horse was racing alone about 30 yards away from the rest of the field. Falbrav seemed headed for the parking lot, but Holland was only searching out the firmest turf around. Meanwhile, Izdiham, a pacemaker for Nayef, held the lead and set a pace that was less than blistering.

Falbrav's wandering served no purpose in the end. Alamshar got a perfect ride from Johnny Murtagh and was simply too good. The colt accelerated with machine-like precision as they dashed for home, his legs pumping as strongly as pistons. Alamshar defeated Sulamani by 3 1/2 lengths, with Kris Kin finishing third, denied his chance at a stretch run by Ascot's limitations. Murtagh must have been pleased, since he'd once lost the opportunity to ride for John Oxx due to his "less than disciplined lifestyle."

The King George added another plum trophy to the collection of the Aga Khan, who bred and owns Alamshar and is enjoying a splendid year. The Aga Khan last won the King George in 1981 with Shergar, and he expressed delight that Alamshar, an Irish-bred son of Key of Luck, comes from one of the oldest bloodlines in his family. Indeed, the Aga Khan's breeding operation is so sophisticated he hasn't had to buy a racehorse in many years. Surely he would be on hand for Alamshar's next engagement, in the Irish Champion Stakes at Leopardstown in September.