Racing: Continent to solve the Nicholls conundrum

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The Independent Online

There is most likely today to be a shortage of Flat jockeys - a phrase which could be a neat collective noun for the little men - as huge fields sprout across England and Scotland and five daytime meetings.

Among the televised tracks Newbury is bad enough, as 23 runners will poke their noses out for the sales race at the Berkshire course. Yet that is almost sparse compared to the west coast of Scotland, where a stampede of 28 headlong participants will crash around under the title of the Ayr Gold Cup.

In these type of contests there is always one key, two-word phrase, to bear in mind and that is "David Nicholls". Unfortunately, that usually precedes another double-barrelled expression in "which one?".

The Thirsk trainer has won Europe's most valuable sprint handicap four times in the last five years and warmed up yesterday with victory in the consolation race, the Silver Cup. Now he has boiled down his Gold Cup entry from 20 possibles earlier in the week to a comparatively negligible representation of eight runners.

One of these will probably win, but you have to play eight little indians to get down to the single name.

The knockout process ultimately leaves you with the 2001 winner, CONTINENT (nap 3.40), who appeared destined for taxidermy at the age of eight until he threw in a fast- finishing third in the Portland Handicap at Doncaster recently, on which form he should account for the winner, Out After Dark. Continent may be a reduced athlete and indeed heading for his incontinent years, but here we have a reinvigorated dual Group One winner running off a mark of 93. Chances like this do not come along very often.

Mixed Blessing (2.25) in the Firth of Clyde Stakes is the other Ayr tempter, while the sieving process for the sales race at Newbury is not as complicated as usual owing to the participation of Flashy Wings (2.10). It is not every day that the 1,000 Guineas favourite runs in a race of this nature.

Mick Channon, Flashy Wings' trainer, is another to have block-booked a sprinting contest, in this case with six runners. But there is no doubt which is his favourite. "The ground should be absolutely perfect for her [Flashy Wings] and everything has fallen into place," Channon said yesterday. "It wasn't about the money. It seems the right race and it was my decision as we know how quickly the weather can change at this time of year."

Channon runs the fancied Ajigolo in the Mill Reef Stakes, but the dullest and surest selection here is Cool Creek (2.45), whose form behind Sir Percy in Goodwood's Vintage Stakes at this level is undeniable.

Also in the book and persuasive is a recent run from The Tatling (3.55), who was second in the Nunthorpe Stakes at York, which should be good enough for a first in the Group Three World Trophy. The John Smith's Stakes is a dire puzzle to which the value answer appears to be Prince Nureyev (3.20), who does not win often but has done so here.

Ireland offers an attractive programme over the weekend, culminating in Aidan O'Brien's attempt to collect a sixth National Stakes at the Curragh tomorrow via either George Washington or Horatio Nelson. Before then, though, we have the Irish St Leger at the same course and Vinnie Roe's effort to win the Classic for the fifth consecutive season.

They have put up the barricades before for Vinnie and he has clambered over them all, but now there is Yeats, the likely favourite, in his wrinkled path representing O'Brien, a virgin in this race. Shalapour, from John Oxx's yard, is also a rival with a sharp sword.

"Without a doubt he can win again," Pat Smullen, Vinnie Roe's jockey, said yesterday. "If there is one horse who can do it, it's Vinnie Roe and I have been very pleased with everything he has shown this year.

"He gave weight to the horses in Leopardstown the last day and was beaten by a Group One winner in Chelsea Rose. His run was very good and it left me looking forward to the Irish Leger.

"I think he is a better horse at the Curragh than anywhere else. He is inclined to lug a little bit right-handed and he likes to go right-handed. It will be a smart horse who beats him on the day. While he is getting older he is probably losing a little bit of his pace, but he has got it in his heart and that should be enough to get him by."

Richard Edmondson

Nap: Continent (Ayr 3.40)

NB: Underscore

(Ayr 5.45)