Dream time in morning rush hour

Sue Montgomery sees Classic hopes in a spring ritual on Newmarket Heath
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The Independent Online
Whispering hoofbeats at dawn, and Newmarket's age-old ritual is is under way. With the first racecourse trials for the Classics less than a week away, the pulse of this 2,500-horse town in Suffolk and the pace of life on the training grounds have quickened perceptibly in recent weeks.

And yesterday morning was the busiest yet, as some of the names which may become household ones went through their elegant paces on the hallowed Limekilns. The first horses to emerge were almost shadows in the half- light, but the substance was soon revealed under a fitful, watery sunrise.

The Limekilns, so-called after the ancient brickworks on the site, are the carefully guarded jewel amid Newmarket's 1,500 acres of gallops. Here, the turf has lain undisturbed for centuries, and has a unique hoof-friendly quality. Horses are not allowed to disturb it during wet winter weather, and its opening by Jockey Club Estates -its guardians - in the spring is zealously awaited each year by local trainers.

Imagine a roughly triangular open sweep, bounded by tall beech hedges on two long sides, with the apex by the traffic lights on the junction of the Bury and Thetford roads, and the base, more than a mile distant, a strip of Douglas pines marking a track between the Limekilns and the adjacent Waterhall gallops. The land is undulating, mimicking the descent into the Dip and rise to the winning post of the Rowley Mile racecourse.

After daybreak, during the two hours between seven and nine o'clock, an industry gets to work. The first string to appear yesterday was that of David Loder; reduced -despite the appearance of the old maestro Lester Piggott on Prince Of Andros -to the role of a supporting act. For the stable star, Blue Duster, does not work until this morning.

From other yards came cameo performances of varying quality. Classic Eagle, the flagbearer of the troubled Classic Thoroughbreds ownership company, finished ahead of his companions, but had his ears scrubbed off to do so. The game handicap mare Lap Of Luxury appeared to thoroughly enjoy herself in what proved virtually a solo spin. John Gosden's Derby colts, Sacho, Pommard and Lord Of Men, strutted their stuff on Tuesday, but yesterday the Stanley House Oaks prospect Kerry Ring caught the eye in her breeze with Catumbella. Another filly, the Michael Stoute-trained Dance Sequence, seems to have progressed well over the winter and finished clear of her group.

Luca Cumani's filly Papering has developed physically over the winter, more markedly than Mons, the stable's Derby hope. But the Bedford House star yesterday was undoubtedly Smart Alec. The four-year-old, due to run at Newmarket's Craven meeting next week, powered six lengths clear of Midnight Legend and Suplizi without apparent effort.

But the main action was yet to come. As Henry Cecil took up station on his grey hack, surrounded by a posse of acolytes on foot, the big guns from Warren Place appeared like indians on the skyline nearly a mile away, tiny figures forming into groups of three and four for their charge towards the watchers. One's sympathies were with Custer.

In the first wave, all eyes were looking for Bosra Sham, and the 1,000 Guineas favourite did not disappoint. The chestnut filly was not asked much, but the manner in which she cruised alongside the colt Storm Trooper with Tony McGlone sitting motionless was noted by most, and by the end of the day the well-oiled bookmakers' telegraph from Newmarket had ensured her Classic price had contracted from 7-4 to 6-4.

The second Cecil sweep concerned the middle-distance three-year-olds, notably the stable's three Derby hopes, at this stage kept apart. Big, rangy Silver Dome, with McGlone up again, was first past, lying up with four-year-old Minds Music. Then came Commander In Chief's half-brother Dushyantor, stride for stride with the filly Solar Crystal. And lastly, Bright Water, brother to the 1993 Derby favourite Tenby.

He is not a massive horse, but bigger than his disappointing sibling, and all athlete. He came into focus bent like a bow over his bit, and afterwards Pat Eddery was visibly enthusiastic. Cecil, too, trotted away well pleased with his morning's work. Yesterday the Limekilns was still a field of dreams.