Racing: Kite can soar over Goodwood's glorious course

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The Independent Online

The glorious Sussex Downs have had a thorough drenching over the past couple of days but despite yesterday's precipitation the good news is that panamas will be more useful than brollies for the rest of the week. Just as in 1802, when Pantagruel won the very first race on the third Duke of Richmond's estate, the English Channel will be shimmering silver to the south and the rolling cornfields glinting gold to the north.

If the cloudbase descends below 700 feet to nestle on Trundle Hill, or the rain whips in on a summer south-westerly to spoil the five-day elevated glorious garden party, ghastly can be a more suitable alliterative epithet. But providing the weather rides along, the setting is matchless.

Even failing to back a winner owns a certain charm in the greater scheme of things, for in an environment like this it sometimes matters less who won or lost than where the game was played.

Whatever the elements, though, both punters and purists sometimes have unkind words to say about the place. There is no gainsaying that the track, with its twists, turns and gradients, is idyosyncratic, and there is no other top-flight course that produces so much rum luck. Some horses love it, others loathe it, and ditto jockeys.

Now-retired George Duffield had an excellent record at Goodwood, recognised by a recent lifetime achievement award presented by the course executive. "The toughest races to ride are those big handicaps round the bottom bend," he said. "Loads of runners, lots of traffic problems, and you get mangled and turned sideways. The longer-distance races give you more time for things to pan out, but you can run into problems on the bend after the 10-furlong start, where the camber runs severely the wrong way.

"If there's a drop of rain it can be slippery and once a horse's legs start going in all directions, you're just hoping it doesn't come down. And where the track changes direction, if you're a bit cheeky and try poking your nose through, you can get in trouble when the others come across. There are always hard-luck stories."

One who seems to spawn more than his fair share is Kieren Fallon, but Duffield puts that down to the multiple champion's profile rather than shortcomings. "He's a patient jockey, likes to drop them in and fiddle along, and sometimes that style means you're in the wrong place at the wrong time. Because he's who he is, and on well-backed, fancied horses, it gets noticed.

"It's an exhilarating, challenging place to ride. The guy who designed it, though, must have been pissed." Very possibly. It was, after all, the officers of the Sussex Militia who started the whole thing.

The Royal Ascot and York festivals may have more strength in depth, but the gap is closing. The week offers £2m in prize-money and 11 Group races, including tomorrow's Sussex Stakes and Saturday's Nassau Stakes at the top level. The Sussex Stakes attracted 12 final entries yesterday, including the first two last year, Soviet Song and Nayyir.

Today's opening programme provides ample reminder of the role of the local aristocratic family (the 10th Duke is the present incumbent) in founding and nurturing the racecourse, in the titles of the Gordon, Lennox and Molecomb Stakes.

The Gordon Stakes fulfils two roles, a consolation event for nearly horses, the sort who finish mid-division in the Derby, and a rather good St Leger guide. In the past dozen years two horses have completed the double, Nedawi and Millenary, while Broadway Flyer, Bandari and Phoenix Reach won at Goodwood and made the frame on Town Moor.

Four of today's five contestants hold an entry for the final Classic. Unfurled and The Geezer have the Epsom also-ran profile (seventh and eighth) and First Row would have, but for being withdrawn at the start. Preference, though, is for a horse with better Derby form, Brahminy Kite (2.50). The strapping son of Silver Hawk supplied the pace when eight lengths fourth to Hurricane Run at the Curragh and stayed on gallantly when the better ones went past him. He is proven on the ground and trained by Mark Johnston, who makes Goodwood rather a specialist subject.

The Molecomb Stakes is the preserve of young flyers, five furlongs straight launched off the top of a hill. Masta Plasta, a powerhouse of a colt, dished out a comprehensive defeat to some smart ones in the Norfolk Stakes but a chance is taken with one stepping up in class. Pickett (4.00) is from a yard with a tremendous juvenile record and has already won on easy ground.

The first three in the inaugural all-weather Group race staged at Lingfield 17 days ago - Autumn Glory, Court Masterpiece and Vortex - turn out for the Lennox Stakes. On this ground the vote goes to classy, reliable Autumn Glory (3.25). Majors Cast, off the track since a lucrative winter in Dubai, has been working well and may be worth an interest.