Racing: Neptune can prove the grey heir to One Man

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The Independent Online

One of the statistical curiosities of the last jump season at elite levels was the charge of the white brigade. More Pattern races - the Grade One, Two and Three contests that identify the best performers - were won by amazing greys than ever before, 17 victories by 14 individuals. There seems no particular reason for the phenomenon; for sure, the good stallion Roselier made a contribution, with four offspring in his ghost-coated image, but the other 10 had nine different grey parents.

The only certainties are that each of them inherits the distinctive mantle from the same long-dead stallion, one Master Robert, who was foaled in 1811. And that being silver-haired, or otherwise, has no effect on athletic ability. Coat colour is only the packaging; what matters is the configuration of bone, muscle, sinew, heart and lungs beneath.

But there is no doubt that grey horses hold a special place in the racegoer's heart. Perhaps, rather prosaically, it is because they are easy to spot, particularly on a dull winter afternoon. But more likely because of the association with myth, legend and nobility. Since Bellerophon tamed Pegasus white horses have held man in thrall; they belong to gods, princes, good guys. And while Desert Orchid's class may anyway have taken him over the fence that divides adulation within the sport from worship by the wider public, as did that of Arkle and Best Mate, being snowy did him no harm at all.

Because their colour is from limited sources, greys make up only a tiny proportion of the thoroughbred population, yet muster a third of the nine-runner field for this afternoon's Charlie Hall Chase, the first domestic shakedown of the staying chasing hierarchy. All three - Iris's Gift, Royal Emperor and Neptune Collonges - add to the interest.

The career over fences of top-class staying hurdler Iris's Gift has been more hype than substance so far. Yes, he did win three novice chases, but despite, rather than because of, his jumping. His inexperience was ruthlessly exposed on his debut in senior company, in the Gold Cup itself. He may come good yet but Wetherby's fences are a tough test, among the stiffest in the country and a watching brief may be in order today.

Royal Emperor combined large and small obstacles last season, performing with credit over both, particularly on his last outing, a close third under a huge weight in the Scottish National. He will cope with the ground, knows the track and is a better horse than when third in this two years ago. On that occasion Sir Rembrandt was second and today's field also features last year's two placed horses, Kingscliff and Take The Stand.

But the time may have come for the old guard to give way to the young. Neptune Collonges (3.35), one of last season's best novice staying hurdlers, is only five, and has yet to race over fences in Britain. But in his native France last year, when he was one of the best of his generation, his victories included one over the daunting Auteuil obstacles. He gets a weight allowance for his tender years and can turn the clock back for owner John Hales, who won this 10 years ago with one of the most charismatic of the white wonders, One Man.

The absence from Wetherby's feature Grade Two hurdle of last term's crack staying novice Black Jack Ketchum because of unsuitably testing ground grants senior champion My Way De Solzen (2.50) a formality.

Back with shades of grey, Kinburn (2.20) can continue his progress at the expense of Ross Comm in the two-and-a-half mile handicap on the same card. And look out at Carlisle tomorrow for the one who may prove the best of the lot of the silver darlings, Monet's Garden, though sadly the soft ground has put paid to a clash with Racing Demon.

Jumping returns to Ascot today, with a new three-mile chase and a valuable handicap hurdle, unseasonably fast, post-refurbishment, ground and the possible emergence of a British challenger to Ireland's Champion Hurdle hegemony.

Paul Nicholls tends to regard hurdling as but a step on the road for prospective chasers and Desert Quest (1.40) is the antithesis of the usual inmate of Manor Farm Stables, being a sparely made Flat-bred type. But after bolting up in the County Hurdle in March his timber credentials are now taken seriously at home.

He and Andreas (1.10), who will both bounce off the ground, can start a good day for the champion trainer on the first serious Saturday of the season. For the biggest prize, though, Bewleys Berry (2.10), untried on a faster surface but with bags of potential, is a tentative suggestion.

This morning in Australia, Kieren Fallon continues local familiarisation, ahead of riding Yeats in the Melbourne Cup, with six rides at Moonee Valley, including well-fancied Aqua D'Amore in the Antipodean "Arc", the Cox Plate. With the whistle poised for the end of the domestic Flat season, Clarricien (2.05) can put a late one in the net at Newmarket for owner Paul Scholes.