Racing: Cecil tries to restore an Ascot ritual

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The Independent Online

Two trainers with nearly 100 Royal Ascot winners between them will be more unsettled by their role than the changed milieu when they return this week. For many years the old course was the fiefdom of Henry Cecil, who accumulated 70 winners before his bewildering decline, while Saeed bin Suroor has saddled 27 since the emergence of Godolphin in the mid-Nineties.

Yet each, for different reasons, would find infinite succour from even a single winner once the spectacular redevelopment is formally opened tomorrow.

Indeed, their travails are such that one or two of the more bloodthirsty pressbox wags have been deriving sadistic gratification from match bets on the number of winners trained by each this season.

This is a blade that cuts both ways. The dwindling resources of Cecil can be measured by the fact that he has not managed a winner at Royal Ascot since 2002, and has only one entry this year.

Bin Suroor, in contrast, presides over one of the most lavishly stocked stables in the world. The problems of Godolphin are far more transient, but have still confined them to five winners in Britain this year, one fewer than Cecil.

Yet even the most cynical would acknowledge the colour both these stables have introduced to the Turf, and should welcome any revival this week. Godolphin bring an unprecedented sense of adventure, while Cecil is one of the timeless ornaments of Ascot in particular, as a sporting and social institution.

Success for his Novellara in the Ribblesdale Stakes would duly set a seal of continuity on the structural renovation of Ascot. Not ready for training last year, this late-developing filly made up for lost time by winning her debut at Salisbury last month. She travelled strongly but Cecil expects her to improve for extra two furlongs on Thursday, being a half- sister to Reams Of Verse, another filly he trained for Prince Khaled Abdulla and winner of the 1997 Oaks.

Cecil may not know whether to be delighted that he has a chance at the meeting, or exasperated he has only one, but seems quite clear on the eligibility of Novellara. "She's a very nice filly," he emphasised yesterday. "She has worked nicely and will run very, very well. I'm not worried by her inexperience, she is quite grown-up really, and settles well with a nice cruising speed. But I'd be a lot more confident if there were a bit of ease in the ground, which doesn't look very likely.

"I'm sure we'll be all right so long as there is no jar in the ground, and there is a good cover of grass. But the fact is that she comes from a family that has tended to prefer a bit more give. I didn't go to the first meeting at Ascot, but it is a worry to hear that it was good to soft on the round course and good to firm in the straight."

That concern is shared by many other trainers, the freshly laid turf in the straight having thirstily absorbed a month of heavy rain before that "pre- opening" day. Certainly conditions tomorrow may be quicker than any previously encountered by Proclamation, hot favourite for the Queen Anne Stakes despite his stable's drowsy start to the European season.

The Godolphin team have been frank and communicative as always during their recent problems and Simon Crisford, their manager, is refusing to read too much into the sprightly performance of their horses since a brief suspension of activity. "There's a big difference between running in lesser races and championship races where your participation is governed by the calendar," he said yesterday.

"As everyone knows, our horses had two weeks during which we couldn't press any buttons - at a time when buttons needed to be pressed. We would love to be going to Ascot brimming with confidence, but that can't be the case. We're running some really good horses there but we just have to hope that rustiness doesn't creep into their performance."

Chris McGrath

Nap: Takanewa (Carlisle 4.15)

NB: Bahamian Duke (Carlisle 5.15)