Baked Alaska ready for Nell Gwyn

RACING: The Flat season moves up a gear with the start of the Craven meeting at Newmarket

Trainers in Newmarket and beyond will have bounded out of bed even earlier than usual this morning, and not just because the unseasonally warm weather means that, for the first time in living memory, the Rowley Mile in April might actually be a fairly pleasant place to be. The Craven meeting, the first of a new campaign at the epicentre of British Flat racing, opens this afternoon , and anyone with a dozen horses to look after can still fantasise about Classic winners, betting coups and championships to come. In other words, for a few hours at least, this small Suffolk town will be the world capital of self-delusion.

At every turn on the track, there will be a trainer predicting great things for his string - "the nicest bunch of three-year-olds I've ever had" etc. etc. - but the bitter truth is that they have little more idea than the rest of us how the season will progress. As a result, this is rarely a meeting which offers more than a handful of betting opportunies, but then with three maidens and just a single handicap on today's seven- race card, most punters will swiftly work this out for themselves.

Even the traditional Craven pursuit of attempting to find a Guineas winner before it wins its trial is ever more difficult, since the success of the Godolphin operation, which sends its candidates to Newmarket without a prep race, leaves much of the cycle of trials looking rather meaningless. The Nell Gwyn Stakes, for instance, the feature race on today's card, may feature eight 1,000 Guineas entrants among its 10-strong field, but not the ones most punters are interested in, such as Sleepytime and Moonlight Paradise.

In any case, the Nell Gwyn has rarely been a particularly reliable signpost to the Guineas, and cynics might feel that the two fillies without an entry in the Classic, Connemara and Open Credit, are thus a certainty for the dual forecast. Given the general mood of optimism at the meeting, however, it seems fairer to concentrate on those runners who were felt worthy of a Guineas entry, several of whom are bobbing gently in the calmer waters of the ante-post market. Elegant Warning is 25-1 for the fillies' Classic, while four other runners, Baked Alaska, Dame Laura, Oh Nellie and Reunion are 40-1 or longer.

Only Baked Alaska, however, can point to an unblemished record, since her sole outing as a juvenile ended in victory over today's course at odds of 33-1.

"We're going into unknown territory but I'm very pleased with her," Alec Stewart, Baked Alaska's trainer, said yesterday. "She's a very lazy filly at home, and always has been, hence when she won she was 33-1, but we're very hopeful and she's looking exceptionally well.

"She's not like Ghariba [winner of the Nell Gwyn for Stewart in 1988], who always showed an enormous amount at home, so I can't be confident until I've seen her on the track, but I certainly think she'll run well."

Given Stewart's proven ability to get his horses ready first time up, Baked Alaska (next best 3.10) is worth chancing this afternoon, though a more reliable conveyance for some loose change may be CARRANITA (nap 2.35) in the Abernant Stakes. One to watch carefully, meanwhile, is Poteen, runner-up in last season's Racing Post Trophy on only his second start, who will prepare for the 2,000 Guineas in the three-year-olds' conditions event (3.45).

While the Flat season moves up through the gears, the jumps campaign is running out of gas, though today's card at Cheltenham does include at least one event, the Silver Trophy Chase, worth setting the video for. Strong Promise (2.55), a beaten favourite at both the Cheltenham and Aintree Festivals, should recoup some of those losses, though with Gales Cavalier and Viking Flagship both getting weight from Geoff Hubbard's chaser, nothing can be taken for granted.

The season's last big steeplechase but one, the Scottish National at Ayr this Saturday, should also be quite a spectacle, with Act The Wag, a swiftly improving eight-year-old, declared a probable runner yesterday. Buckboard Bounce, fourth in the Grand National, Lo Stregone and Belmont King are other possible runners, but Mudahim, the Irish Grand National winner, was withdrawn at yesterday's five-day stage. "He's done quite enough this season to warrant a nice long holiday," a spokeswoman for Jenny Pitman's yard said.

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