Racing: Lincoln trainers sure to hunt high and low

Trainers seeking clues ahead of today's do-it-yourself draw for starting places in Saturday's 146th Lincoln Handicap have been given an outside steer by the man on the spot at Doncaster.

Trainers seeking clues ahead of today's do-it-yourself draw for starting places in Saturday's 146th Lincoln Handicap have been given an outside steer by the man on the spot at Doncaster. For the eighth time, connections of the runners for the time-honoured early- season cavalry charge down the straight mile will pick their place at the gate, the only ballot being for the order of the chance to chose. Yesterday the tip from David Williams, the Doncaster track manager, was to avoid the middle of the track.

"The ground is currently good, good-to-soft," he said. "Most of the softer areas are on the round course. In the straight it's pretty uniform across the track, but if my head was on the block I'd say that it's slightly softer in the middle. And, of course, horses generally run better with a rail to help them, so if I was picking, I'd go high or low."

When the ground is easy, history says that horses drawn in single figures, on the side of the track furthest from the stands, enjoy a significant advantage. But whether or not the draw-for-the-draw, an idea adopted from the Kentucky Derby, has had any impact on results is a moot point.

Take some recent winners. The connections of Right Wing, successful in 1999, were among the early pickers, and grabbed stall eight. Five years ago John Ferneley was put in the number one box almost by default, 21st to choose from 24. The following year his trainer, Paul Cole, picked the same lucky stall for Nimello. Twelve months ago, Babodana's name was last out of the hat and was dumped in the despised 23 slot.

But if there is a large flashing neon arrow over any particular stall, it has to be number six. In the 40 runnings since the Lincoln was transferred from the Carholme to Town Moor, it has launched seven winners, variously fancied and under various conditions, a ludicrously disproportionate bias.

Sovereign Bill, who prevailed on soft ground as 9-2 favourite in 1972, was the first, followed by Captain's Wings (firm, 13-2 favourite) in 1978, Star Of A Gunner (soft, 9-1) in 1987, Fact Finder (good, 20-1) in 1989, Our Rita (good to firm, 16-1) in 1994, Stone Ridge (soft, 33-1) in 1996 and Pablo (good to soft, 5-1) two years ago.

But trying to second-guess events holds little appeal for Michael Jarvis, whose charge Divine Gift is vying for favouritism for the season's first feature handicap. "I think sometimes that too much is made of the draw," he said. "If you look at the results, they come from all over the place. If the ground remains good, I'd fancy from the middle to the stands side. But if they have any rain, then the horses on the far side seem to do better.

"But I think the way they are doing it now is a bit gimmicky and I'm not sure who gets any enjoyment or benefit from it. Trying to work it out just adds extra hassle; it was much more straightforward just to go with the draw you got."

Jarvis has made a splendid start to the campaign, with two winners and two runners-up from seven turf runners, and reports Divine Gift ready for the fray. The four-year-old won a conditions event on Lincoln day last year but missed most of the year through injury. "He had a hairline fracture of the cannon bone," said Jarvis, "and although he had two races at the backend he was not really himself. But we've kept him going through the winter and his preparation has gone smoothly. He seems to be a spring horse and looks really well in his coat."

So does the track at Doncaster, blessed with a healthy covering of grass after a mild winter and due to be tested by 110 sets of hooves today. "It looks good," added Williams. "It was vertidrained two months ago, was fed three weeks ago and we've missed a lot of the recent rain. It should provide a fair test."

In the second leg of the Spring Double, the Grand National on Saturday week, Ruby Walsh will ride the Willie Mullins-trained Hedgehunter, a leading fancy for the race. Walsh replaces David Casey, who dislocated a hip in a fall at Fairyhouse on Tuesday.

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