At this time of the year, the Turf is a plot in search of characters. There are 42 days to the first Classic weekend of the Flat season and many of the half-fit, half-formed animals supposedly in contention will have been blown abruptly into reverse by the icy winds of the past week.
But it is not just horses that need to stamp their identity on the months to come. There can have been few more industrious champion jockeys than Ryan Moore (below), and perhaps none more anonymous. A certain diffidence is inevitable in such a young man, but it must be hoped that he grows somewhat in stature and assurance in the defence of his title. He has got off to the worst possible start, poor fellow, breaking a bone in his arm. As it happens, he cannot lose much ground, because it is impossible for anyone to steal a meaningful march during the sparse skirmishes of April.
By a familiar anomaly, those warming up at Lingfield today include Neil Callan, who has already ridden 49 winners in 2007. Of course, these will not count towards the turf championship.
But there is a still more striking division of labour in Gentlemen's Deal. Success in the Betdirect Winter Derby would qualify him for an even more delectable harem when he returns to stud, having already interrupted his racing career once to cover 40 mares last spring.
If he seems to have improved since, few could wonder why. His genes certainly qualify him for both roles, as a son of Danehill out of the 1,000 Guineas winner, Sleepytime. And certainly the part-time stallion's swaggering performances during the winter make him highly eligible for this prize, his big, bold style of galloping having been underpinned by unsuspected pace.
But this is a fiercely competitive race, with a sound case to be made for more than half the field. The outcome will almost certainly boil down to the jockey who best seizes his moment in the sprint off the turn, and marginal preference at the odds is for the John Egan-ridden Mighty (3.15). He may have run a little flat last time - it was his third start in three weeks - but had previously been breathlessly progressive.
Hurricane Spirit (2.40) sets a solid standard in the Bet Direct Spring Cup, having tasted his first defeat of the winter last time taking on older horses on unfavourable terms. Turn On The Style (3.50) has been clocking excellent times in defeat and can gain overdue reward in the listed sprint.
Dark matter chokes Flat season's start
It would be far easier to grasp Big Bang theory than the incoherent beginnings of a British racing season. Both Flat and jump racing, unfathomably, still persevere with the Big Whimper.
The present National Hunt season reaches a formal conclusion at Sandown on 28 April. The new one commences on 29 April, at Ludlow and Wetherby. Flat racing meanwhile resumes on turf at Newcastle next Saturday - a marginal advance, perhaps, from Southwell on a Friday, as was the case last year - but of course it has continued almost daily through the winter on four sand tracks.
The all-weather circuit contrives an official conclusion at Lingfield today, crowning its champion jockey and trainer at a dinner after racing - leaving meetings staged through the week at all four venues, starting tonight at Wolverhampton, to their own limbo.
Obviously there are great British traditions of muddle and compromise to uphold. Obviously the ungovernable greed of racecourses must be given its head. But more blatant still, surely, are the benefits of narrative clarity and public anticipation.
Would it really kill the tracks that stage summer jumping if they had to abide a fortnight, say, without fixtures after the Sandown finale? Or would they prefer to wait until a jockey is killed, hammering up and down motorways for the 363rd time in a year?
Thankfully, in the new Flat season jockeys will be limited to riding at nine meetings in seven days. Seb Sanders has been complaining that this amounts to restraint of trade, and well he might, having hoarded 50 winners during the height of the evening racing season last July and August.
As a top jockey, however, he will often be jumping into a waiting aeroplane and does not share the same mental and physical corrosion as his struggling rivals.
Jockeys are in such frantic competition that few dare to take a holiday, or "let down" a regular patron. Be in no doubt, trainers are ruthlessly indifferent to their schedule. Now, at last, agents will be able to tell trainers that their riders' availability is, to a degree, out of their hands.
Over The Flow to turn tide for Buckler
It is far too early to be interring the jumps season, with some of its most important races still to be staged at Aintree and Punchestown. But there is no mistaking its depleted flavour during these first days after Cheltenham.
Still, there is some wholesome sport at Newbury today, with two valuable prizes confined to mares. And there could be no more heartening winner of the EBF Mares' Handicap Hurdle than Over The Flow (3.30). Her trainer, Bob Buckler, endured the worst of days at Wincanton on Monday when he lost Warlord, the most promising young horse in his care. But Over The Flow can show that there is more depth to his Dorset stable than has been the case for a good while.
The form of her hurdling debut at Exeter worked out well, and she chased home a decent type over an inadequate trip at Sandown last time. A longer trip and better ground today can trigger the necessary improvement.
This race was won last year by Harringay, and she is back for the EBF/TBA Mares' Novice Handicap Chase. While she runs off an 8lb higher rating this time, she has retained a progressive aspect during her first season over fences, albeit without winning. Her stable has shown signs of emerging from a quiet spell and Harringay (2.55), returning from the same midwinter break as last year, has almost certainly been primed for this target.
Meaningless value of prize in a Million
Earlier this week Newmarket and Britain's premier bloodstock sales company announced the Tattersalls Million, a race surpassed in value only by the Derby, along with two other hugely lucrative prizes.
But do not be deceived that this is good news for anyone other than Tattersalls, who must compete with a similar enterprise at Goffs in Ireland, and the purchasers of a bare handful of yearlings at their sales this autumn.
In common with all races on this model, confined to graduates of a specific auction, the vast majority of the prize-money will be raised by the owners in exorbitant stakes. And one or other outcome is inevitable: either these glittering private stakes will seduce runners from open championships, such as the Middle Park Stakes and Cheveley Park Stakes, and so undermine the Pattern system; or they will not, in which case they will grotesquely reward mediocrity.
National prices point to Billyvodan
With tragedy claiming successive favourites in Little Brick and Nil Desperandum, and two pivotal Irish runners, Far From Trouble and Hedgehunter, suffering awkward preparations, the John Smith's Grand National market is ripe for harvesting.
One horse that seems overpriced is Billyvodan, whose unlucky third in the Ryanair Chase at Cheltenham confirmed his transformation by blinkers. The obvious reservation is that he may not last home, but that zest through the race has become a common trait in modern National winners. Granted decent ground, he seems sure to run a bold race and it is easy to picture him starting half his present odds of 25-1.Reuse content