Britain's Flat season explodes into action at Doncaster this afternoon, not with a genesis of crackling fireworks across the firmament, but rather the great force of a spent match.
After all the months of waiting for fast horses to resume combat on the turf the best we can come up with as a curtain raiser is the Racing Schools Apprentice Handicap (Class E). That hardly gets the material off the stage, even at Town Moor.
Yet it has always been this way in a most conservative of sports. Around the edges, however, the dampness of revolution has been creeping around racing in the modern era.
Despite the trumped-up claims of the Lincoln, the race bookmakers dream about on the decks of their Caribbean-based yachts in the deep mid-winter, it has been generally accepted that the season proper starts at Newmarket in mid-April.
It used to be the Craven Stakes and the Nell Gwyn, followed by Newbury's Greenham and Fred Darling, to determine the likely horses for the following month's Guineas. While the date remains the same, however, the real action no longer takes place at a dripping Headquarters and soggy Berkshire, but in the rather more arid surroundings of the Emirates.
Flat racing these days is little more than a head to head between Godolphin, in the blue corner, and the Irish giants of Coolmore. The first significant pointer to the Guineas will not be in the land of the race, but at Nad Al Sheba two weeks after Saturday's Dubai World Cup, when members of Sheikh Mohammed's aristocratic equine team will be asked to determine their place in the hierarchy.
The ante-post prices will immediately change as a consequence of that massed gallop in the desert, and there will be reform too after the work is cranked up this spring at Ballydoyle. While much in racing, as in life, is changing at a bewildering pace, it is comforting to understand that the impetus for the backing of Classic horses is much as it always has been.
The red lights start flashing, the airhorns go off, at major bookmaking centres not when a rich man plonks down his cash brick, but rather when more modest amounts are placed by smaller men with smaller funds. The red-knuckled boys from the gallops are still the figures who make prices move.
The great prize of the 2,000 Guineas is no longer the jewel it used to be in any case. The premier bauble at the beginning of May is now the Kentucky Derby, a race which highlights the main difference between the romantic notion of Godolphin and the business machine of Coolmore. Sheikh Mohammed would like to collect the Run for the Roses both because it is just about the only major race he has not yet captured and the notion that victory would bring great honour to Dubai. John Magnier wants to win for the money. The prize-money, the stallion-fee money, the money that Coolmore would attract as the cradle of champions. The money, the money, the money.
It has always seemed that when the greenbacks come pouring past in a rushing wind, most of them have stuck to Magnier. Now he seems poised on the biggest bankroll of all. If Johannesburg wins the Kentucky Derby, for which he is a 7-1 shot even with the doubting yankees, then he will be switching on his lighter in one of the largest goldmines of all.
Coral's Classic prices exemplify just how much of a stranglehold the big two exert on the game at the moment. The first six in the betting for the 2,000 Guineas emanate from one or other camp. The only respite is in the 1,000 Guineas, where Mick Channon's Queen's Logic leads the list from Gossamer, who is trained by Luca Cumani and ridden by the best of the new generation of jockeys, Jamie Spencer.
This hints at a further new order, as Channon and his fellow trainer Mark Johnston have now caught up and passed all but Sir Michael Stoute of the old guard in terms of the size of their strings. Stoute has the largest community in Europe at around 190, while Channon, Johnston and John Dunlop have about 10 fewer.
The belief that owners generally employ a trainer younger than themselves is given further credence by the fact that Dunlop's son Ed can report the biggest increase in his firepower, up 26 to 154 at his Gainsborough Stables in Newmarket.
The principal victim in this numbers game appears to be Henry Cecil, who is down to 122 inmates at Warren Place. There are patches beginning to appear in the fur of the one-time king of the jungle. This is his smallest string since 1979 and 35 fewer than last year. Unless the likes of Revealing and Protectress can buttress his increasingly failing confidence then this season may well be the end of the road.
Again there is evidence of a modern trend in the market for the jockeys' championship. This year's title will not be won by an associate of the big guns, but instead a rider who is happy to take his musket all around the country in search of success. Michael Kinane, Coolmore's jockey, no longer wins the Irish championship, while you can get 50-1 that Godolphin's Frankie Dettori can reclaim his crown.
In betting terms, the title is a two-horse race between Kieren Fallon and Kevin Darley, with Richard Quinn at an each-way price. Then it is 20-1 bar. Day in, day out, the big lads do not bother any more. And while a victory in the Derby is worth the same in the numerical league table as the Racing Schools Apprentice Handicap why should they. It is not who rides the best horses, but who partners the best of the dross.
At the end of the next eight months he with the hottest saddle will be acclaimed. Yet his victories will not appear in most people's memories. The high spots, the imprints on the mind, will be provided almost certainly by the turf monopoly, by the twin peaks of Godolphin and Coolmore.
2,000 GUINEAS (4 May) Coral: 2-1 Johannesburg (with a run), 5-2 Hawk Wing, 6-1 Meshaheer, 10-1 Rock Of Gibraltar, 16-1 Tendulkar, Waldenburg, 20-1 Right Approach, Landseer, 25-1 others
1,000 GUINEAS (5 May) Coral: 5-2 Queen's Logic, 7-2 Gossamer, 10-1 Revealing, 14-1 Maryinksy, 16-1 Quarter Moon, 20-1 Muklah, Silent Honor, Protectress, Half Glance, Love Excelling, 25-1 others
DERBY (8 June) Coral: 9-1 Hawk Wing, 16-1 Shaanmer, Right Approach, 20-1 Dubai Destination, Sorcerous, High Chapparal, 25-1 Hathaal, Dubai Excellence, Naheef, Canberra, King Of Happiness, Tikkun, Ballingarry, 33-1 others.Reuse content