A new era began at Kempton a week ago and another dawns today with the first running in Britain of recognised Classic preps, the Masaka and Easter Stakes, on an all-weather track. There have been remarks made about their ongoing validity because of the transfer to sand but these two races have always been as much runouts as sharp-end trials and artificial surfaces are widely used behind the scenes. It's the future. Get used to it.
The mile contests have attracted much the same type of field as they always have; a few runners in each engaged in, and on the outer fringes of the betting for, the Guineas, others in search of some minor black type.
The 27-year roll of honour of the Masaka Stakes, named for the 1948 Oaks heroine who began her three-year-old campaign with a victory at Kempton, is not exactly littered with superstars, but it is dotted. The best renewal was in 1982, when Time Charter, who went on to take the Oaks, won and Awaasif (Yorkshire Oaks) was fourth. Since then Nicer followed up in the 1993 Irish 1,000 Guineas, and the last two winners, Hathrah and Vista Bella, finished third at Newmarket.
Two of today's field of 11, Rajeem and Cross Channel, will be hoping to lay 1,000 Guineas markers. Both are available at 66-1 for the Classic and own solid credentials for this lesser event.
Rajeem (2.45), a daughter of Diktat, is a winner at this Listed level, when she won a decent backend contest at Newmarket. At this time of year fitness must be taken on trust but her trainer, Clive Brittain, has started the year in style, with six winners and 12 places from 29 runners. Rajeem carries a penalty, but is a filly of substance and is the physical type to have trained on. Though speedily bred, she liked stepping up to a mile last term.
Cross Channel, too, appears to have progressed through the close season, although, as Giant's Causeway half-sister to smart Sabre D'Argent, her pedigree says she will appreciate farther that today's trip in due course. She will provide the first hint as to the value of some of last year's best juvenile distaff form; she was fifth, albeit a well-beaten fifth, in the Fillies' Mile.
The past five Masaka winners went into the race with a rating of less than 100 and emerged with one slightly more. Two who have already achieved the required standard are Rising Cross and Suzy Bliss. On her seasonal debut the former, who showed smart placed form in top company last year, was an encouraging staying-on third over seven furlongs two weeks ago at Lingfield behind stablemate Kingsgate Prince, but she is exposed and may be vulnerable to an improver.
Suzy Bliss is a most interesting contender, having put in some promising efforts against high-class opposition last year. But she is another who may be seen to best effect later on over further.
The equivalent colt's race, the Easter Stakes, has yet to produce a victor in any Classic, though last year's winner, Rebel Rebel, beat all bar Footstepsinthesand in the 2,000 Guineas.But the race being on Polytrack has brought another factor into the mix; ranged against those with lofty aspirations is a gelding for whom sand is a specialist subject, the four-time Lingfield winner Kingsgate Prince.
The two 2,000 Guineas entries are Asset (3.55), 66-1 for Newmarket, and Dubai Typhoon, among the 200-1 shots. Asset, a son of Marju, progressed steadily last term - after a six-length win in his maiden he ran third on unsuitably soft ground in the Sandown Group 3 won by Opera Cape, subsequently twice Group 1-placed. His yard, that of Richard Hannon, is another rattling in winners in recent weeks and over a mile he can thwart Kingsgate Prince's nap hand on a track which should suit his up-with-the-pace style.
For anyone wishing to go racing today, the optimum town of residence must be Cranleigh, in Surrey, just about centrally placed between the three surviving meetings. Kempton, at Sunbury-on-Thames, is the northernmost of the trio in a ludicrously cramped geographical spread that makes today's date entirely appropriate. A change in the system, from considered allocation to a free market, has made the sport look foolish. To complete the joke Lingfield, less than 50 miles from Kempton, also stages all-weather fare.
At least Fontwell, on the south coast, offers something different. The day's feature handicap is there, a three-and-a-half mile chase - grandiosely called the Southern National - that will be a war of attrition in the mud. Calvic (2.55), in first-time blinkers, can be the one who gallops round least slowly.
Nap: Asset (Kempton 3.55)
NB: Creative Mind
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