Rising star Sackville plunders the early-season glory

A bright, slanting late autumn sun limning the Devil's Dyke as it dips in front of populated grandstands on the Rowley Mile for the final time in a year has for centuries been a signal for a change in emphasis. And sure enough, as the last rites at Flat racing's headquarters were enacted yesterday in the form of the ongoing tussle for the jockeys' championship and the traditional end-of-term slog for two-year-olds, the Zetland Stakes, a new steeplechasing star emerged at Wetherby in the shape of the Irish-trained eight-year-old, Sackville.

A bright, slanting late autumn sun limning the Devil's Dyke as it dips in front of populated grandstands on the Rowley Mile for the final time in a year has for centuries been a signal for a change in emphasis. And sure enough, as the last rites at Flat racing's headquarters were enacted yesterday in the form of the ongoing tussle for the jockeys' championship and the traditional end-of-term slog for two-year-olds, the Zetland Stakes, a new steeplechasing star emerged at Wetherby in the shape of the Irish-trained eight-year-old, Sackville.

The next time horses gather in anger here, the 1,000 and 2,000 Guineas will be only weeks away, but any clues to the future at this late stage of proceedings are more likely to concern longer and later Classics. The 10-furlong Zetland Stakes has produced two St Leger winners, Bob's Return and Silver Patriarch, in the past 10 runnings, as well as a pair of high-class Cup horses, Double Trigger and Double Eclipse. The latest winner, Alexander Three D, will probably not follow in their footsteps, largely because she is a filly, but she accomplished her task in the style of a progressive young stayer with the minimum of fuss.

Her defeat of Dusky Warbler and hot favourite Bestam was the first victory of her career, but it should not be the last for the daughter of Pennekamp. "Now that she has twigged what the game is about, she will be a very nice filly for next year," said the winning rider, Michael Hills, son of trainer Barry. "On her previous run at York the penny was beginning to drop and she made up a huge amount of ground to finish second. The smallish field today was ideal to help her learning process, because it meant I didn't have to bustle her along in the early stages."

Whereas once this time of year meant time off for jockeys, Hills had arrived in Newmarket from Dubai at six o'clock yesterday morning and will be back riding there, where the season is just beginning, on Wednesday. The journey proved doubly worthwhile after he had made it a Listed juvenile race double on the appropriately named Sundrenched in the closing Montrose Stakes. The William Haggas-trained filly quickened clear inside the final two furlongs and stayed on strongly up the hill to advance her claims as an elite performer next year, and also to pay an indirect compliment to the highly regarded Revealing, who trounced her on their debuts last month.

Hills may return to Britain for the finale of the Flat turf season at Doncaster on Saturday. "The travelling doesn't worry me at all if there's something to travel for, like these fillies," he said.

The day's other two-year-old feature, the first running of the Critérium International at Saint-Cloud, was notable on two counts. Firstly, victory for the unbeaten French-trained colt Act One ended Aidan O'Brien's quest for total domination of this year's Group One races for two-year-old colts. Until yesterday the Irishman had trained a remarkable eight out of eight winners, but the best he could manage this time was the runner-up spot with Landseer. Secondly, the Jonathon Pease-trained winner gives owner-breeder Gerald Leigh something else to brighten his winter. Leigh already has the Fillies Mile heroine, Gossamer, installed as 1,000 Guineas second favourite and Act One, by In The Wings, must come under consideration for the Derby.

But before all that the delights of the jump season are due to unfold and the promise of what is to come hung tantalisingly in the air at Wetherby, as nine high-class chasers assembled at the start for the Charlie Hall Chase, the first signpost to the Gold Cup at Cheltenham in March.

The Grade Two contest had been won for the past two years by See More Business, but the winner Sackville, runner-up Sleeping Night and third Shotgun Willy represent the new generation of fencers. Sackville, last year's leading Irish novice, could hardly have been more impressive in scoring by two lengths from Sleeping Night, with Shotgun Willy 17 lengths adrift.

Sackville, who has now won 16 of his 24 races, had finished only third on his comeback over an inadequate two miles at Punchestown last month. But, reverting to three miles and a furlong, he was always in command after his sheer joie de vivre had taken him to the front at halfway.

"I didn't really plan to go on so early," said the winning rider, David Casey, who was also successful on Irish hurdler Boss Doyle during the afternoon, "but he was enjoying himself so much that I just let him bowl along. I gave him a bit of a breather after the last on the far side and I had plenty left up the straight. He has an absolutely super attitude, he'll just do whatever you ask in a race."

Sackville's paws-out leap off a long stride at the last to shake off the persistent attentions of Sleeping Night was certainly not the response of a tired or unwilling horse and the worrying thing for the home side is trainer Frances Crowley's assertion that there is more to come from the bay son of Satco. Of his rivals, Lord Noelie was still in contention when he fell three out, but good horses like Legal Right and Beau were left behind.

"He'll be better when he's a bit fitter," said O'Brien's sister-in-law. "He blew up today and he'll improve for that." The best price available for the Gold Cup is the Tote's 10-1.

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