Free hand for Highlanderin Classic trial

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The Independent Online

The flat season has barely begun, but for some of the runners in the Free Handicap at Newmarket this afternoon, the campaign will begin and end with a brisk dash down seven furlongs of the Rowley Mile. Too good for handicaps, but not up to Group Three standard when the bulk of their generation starts to mature in the summer, they will probably have one chance all year to record a notable success, and this is it.

In theory, of course, the Free Handicap is a Classic trial, and at least two-thirds of the nine runners are still clinging to some sort of handhold in the ante-post market for the 2,000 Guineas. But only Royal Highlander (25-1) and Cape Town (50-1) appear to hold even a slight chance of making a sudden surge towards the top of the betting, and the question for punters is whether the colts who are potentially the best in the field will be sharp enough to beat those who may have been prepared with this race as a serious target.

The likelihood is that they probably will, if only because potential counts for less than proven form when the International Classification, which is the basis of today's handicap, is compiled. A spread of just 6lb between the top and bottom weights is small by handicap standards, but probably enough to give Royal Highlander (next best 3.45) a huge chance today.

The form book says that Royal Highlander was just one and a half lengths clear of the runner-up when he won his only race to date at Doncaster last season. It could have been 12 lengths had his jockey so wished, however, and while Cape Town was an unlucky second in a much better race - the Horris Hill Stakes at Newbury - Royal Highlander is probably the best colt in the race, and must be backed getting weight from seven of his eight opponents.

The headquarters of Flat racing goes head-to-head with the HQ of the jumps this afternoon, but with the exception of Inn At The Top (2.35), who must go close in the main race at Cheltenham, the interesting bets are on the level.

PRESENT LAUGHTER (nap 2.05) in particular must be backed at 14-1 with Stanley to improve on his excellent seasonal debut at Kempton last month, when he possibly hit the front a little too soon but still stayed on to be beaten by barely a length into fourth. The time of that race was impressive and he races off the same handicap mark today.

Sossus Vlei (2.35) is another interesting runner who may go off at a fair price, since he has little hope of beating Indian Lodge, for one, in the Earl of Sefton Stakes if you judge him purely on his sixth place in the Darley Stakes on the July course last October.

Prior to that, however, he had won on his belated seasonal debut at Bath, so he clearly goes well fresh. Like his close relative and former stablemate, Sasuru, he may be a much better four-year-old, while in the 12-furlong handicap, Clarendon (3.10) is also a lightly-raced sort and may be better with another winter behind him.