No course in Britain can trace its ancestry further back than Chester; in recounting its history, the phrase "after the Civil War" comes 140 years in. It was in 1511, when Henry VIII had been on the throne for two years, that the annual Shrovetide Fair on the Roodeye was enlivened by a horserace, with the reward to the winner of a painted ball.
Today's top prize on that same "island with a cross" hard by the city walls in a loop of the River Dee is worth rather more: £69,600 and a 50lb truckle of Cheshire cheese. The Chester Cup started life in 1685, when the local Mayor and corporation put up a silver trophy to be run for "five times round". Thankfully, the modern jockey has to cope with passing the winning post but thrice.
Today's renewal is the 169th since the two and a quarter mile contest attained more or less its present form in 1824 ("starting at the Castle pole, twice round and ending at the coming-in Chair") and the race's tapestry is as colourful as that of the track on which it is run. By 1836 it was the biggest betting race in the calendar, with a local paper reporting "upwards of a million of that sterling stuff which keeps the world going round changing hands".
One Cup yarn is worth the retelling. A huge punt was landed in 1844 by the 7-2 favourite, Red Deer, carrying 4st. His rider, the boy Kitchener, weighed 3st 4lb, less than a giant truckle, and was virtually run away with as Red Deer grabbed a flier after four false starts and scorched off to score by 12 lengths. One of the beneficiaries in the coup, with winnings of £100,000, was Lord George Bentinck, manager to the winning owner, the Duke of Richmond. Bentinck had taken a day off from the Turf reforming duties for which he was famous. He was the Chester starter.
The race is not a good one for market leaders, though, Red Deer being one of just 36 successful. There have been a mere four in the past three decades, most recently Rainbow High in 1999, but punters can strike back today, courtesy of Anak Pekan (2.55). The four-year-old strode to favouritism with a five-length win on his seasonal debut in the Queen's Prize at Kempton, a performance that marked him as a progressive stayer and, despite a rise in the weights as a result, one who may still be ahead of the handicapper.
There are ticks in all the right boxes. The ground, softening by the minute, is in his favour; he is ridden by one of the best tactical brains in the business; he has the perfect draw for a horse who is happiest close to the pace, on a course that suits a bold style. It will be the chestnut's first try round the idiosyncratic bends (the track is just over a mile round, with a run-in of only 230 yards) but his physique - appropriately for a carousel of a course he is built like a nimble fairground galloper - should help him to cope. "He's a neat little horse, not over-big," said Michael Jarvis, his trainer, yesterday. "You never know round there until you try but I can't see any problems."
Five of today's runners - Big Moment, Rahwaan, Mana D'Argent, Archduke Ferdinand and Distant Prospect - have taken part in the Cup before, with the first two, second and fourth last year, faring best. Big Moment was unlucky last year, checked in his run at a crucial stage, and his wider draw now may favour his come-from-behind style. He has not had a Flat run since October but is fit from a creditable hurdles campaign (though no Chester Cup winner has warmed up at Cheltenham since Attivo 30 years ago).
Chester is a course that guards fiercely its track records - oldest, smallest, tightest and, these days, one of the best-attended - which leads to an apposite name among today's runners. Oaks entry Proud Tradition (2.25) can take the county version at the expense of another Epsom candidate, Crystal Curling. In the opener, which celebrates the dam of locally bred 19th-century champion Ormonde, Canton (1.55) can build on his Lingfield success.
* The Duke of Devonshire, owner of the outstanding race mare of the 1960s Park Top, has died at the age of 88.