Flat's damp start in need of a recharge

RACING: The return of the sport on level turf brings a call from Doncaster's officials to delay the start of the season until April
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The sentiment was familiar, but the identity of the messenger was a considerable surprise. "The annual cry is that the Flat season splutters into life," John Sanderson, Doncaster's clerk of the course, said yesterday. "We may have a lot of runners, but it's not a great start to the season. There's nothing magic about March and there may well be a case for moving the Lincoln meeting to April."

If you stood on the terraces of the Tattersalls' enclosure and looked out across Town Moor, you could see his point. Or rather, you couldn't. A miserable, clammy fog gripped Doncaster throughout the opening afternoon of the turf campaign, and any similarity between events on the track and those at at Ascot and York later this summer seemed sure to be wholly coincidental.

With his comment that a new date for the Lincoln meeting was under consideration, Sanderson was effectively admitting defeat in the face of growing competition from the climax of the jumps season. "As Cheltenham and Aintree have grown, we've got sandwiched and we don't come off too well at the moment," he said. "This meeting is no longer a launching pad as it used to be, Flat racing goes on all the time. Doncaster has got one of the best surfaces in Europe but we don't have any racing in April."

Change in racing is never immediate, and since a formal application to move the meeting has yet to reach the British Horseracing Board, 1999 is the earliest feasible date ("it could be Doncaster's contribution to the Millenium," as Sanderson put it). Among the dampened racegoers who contemplated the apprentice handicap which opened the card, there would surely be few objections, and tradition too is a weak excuse. The Lincoln has seen enough changes of venue and conditions in its history to accommodate one more.

Should the switch take place, Sanderson wants the Lincoln fixture to retain its status as the year's first Flat turf card and envisages using the March slot for a jumps meeting. "I wouldn't like to see Doncaster lose the start of the season and this is something that would have to be looked at," he said.

As the fog turned to rain two minutes before the first, even the eager young apprentices circling by the stalls must have felt that anything would be an improvement on the present arrangement. Five minutes later, the punters felt much the same way, as Haya Ya Kefaah beat Outstayed Welcome and Golden Arrow to become the first winner of the turf campaign. The starting prices were 33-1, 20-1 and 25-1. When the 20-1 chance Manful went in 30 minutes later, it suddenly looked like being a very long season.

The Brocklesby Stakes has been won by a very useful juvenile for the last two seasons, but may now have reverted to its former status as a consolation prize for horses who will have no hope of success later in the season. Certainly, it will be a surprise if Indian Spark, yesterday's winner, can stay ahead of his generation beyond Easter.

Indeed, of the 115 runners at Doncaster yesterday, only First Island, winner of the Listed Doncaster Mile, appears to have any chance of making an impact in the better races this summer. Geoff Wragg's four-year-old produced an impressive turn of foot to settle the contest a furlong out, and although Michael Hills returned to unsaddle more deeply encrusted with mud than some of his colleagues at Plumpton yesterday, he was clearly a satisfied rider.

"This horse has had a lot of problems," Wragg said, "and we had to operate on a stifle last year, but since then he's just improved and improved and now we will be thinking about the Queen Anne."

The Queen Anne Stakes -the first race at Royal Ascot. Perhaps, after all, the season really did start here.