Germane can spoil the Nell Gwyn Carvival

RACING: Fillies from the top yards contest a Classic trial that could prove to have a significant impact on the 1,000 Guineas market
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And so, at last, it begins, the Flat season which has allegedly been with us since shortly after Cheltenham but has yet to raise the pulse- rate by so much as a single beat. Suddenly even the featureless expanse of Newmarket Heath seems fertile with promise, as we launch ourselves into the Craven meeting buoyed up by optimism.

But it's likely to be false optimism, as becomes clear when you consider some of the winners and runners at this meeting last year. Certainly, Mehthaaf and Wizard King were successful on this day 12 months ago. Wizard King, in fact, somehow started at 7-1 in the seven-furlong handicap even with the minimum weight on his back (by the time of his victory in the Festival Handicap at Ascot in September, he was 32lb higher in the ratings).

Yet whatever became of the maiden winners, Sieve Of Time and - such irony - New Reputation? Between them they had 13 subsequent runs, with barely a place to show. There were well-touted horses from major yards, too, which began their season in mediocrity and got steadily worse (remember Zaldivar? It's hardly surprising). The best approach, perhaps, is to keep the eyes open, the mind sceptical, and the purse-strings tight.

No contest could lend itself better to this plan of action than the opener, which sees the debut of Henry Cecil's Sebastian, whose name has been on the lips of every Newmarket gossipmonger for months. Just to add extra spice, Cecil introduced Commander In Chief, the 1993 Derby winner, in the 10-furlong maiden at the other end of the card, and since Sebastian is among the Warren Place entries for Epsom, he will start at very short odds today. But while he is impossible to support, it is equally unrealistic to oppose him, and careful unbiased scrutiny of Sebastian's opponents should prove more worthwhile in the long term.

The Nell Gwyn Stakes, which is the focus of today's card, will probably exert a considerable effect on the ante-post market for the 1,000 Guineas, but whether it will seem quite so relevant after the Classic itself is more doubtful. Oh So Sharp in 1985 was the last Nell Gwyn winner to follow up in the Guineas, though today's renewal does appear considerably better than some in the decade since.

Red Carnival, the winner of the Cherry Hinton Stakes on the July course last year, and Epagris, who put 10 lengths between herself and a field of maidens on Cambridgeshire day, are likely to head the betting, but Germane, the Rockfel Stakes winner, and With The Fairies, who beat Eltish last June but has not been seen since, must also be considered. At the probable odds, Germane is the value bet.

The Abernant Stakes may do little more than demonstrate how thin the sprinting ranks are following the retirement of Lochsong. Montendre is wonderfully tough and still in good form despite his advancing years, but if he is the best sprinter in Britain, even the Scandinavians will be launching raids on the best prizes later this season.

In fact, they have already started. The Abernant sees the British debut of Windmachine, Norway`s fastest, and while that may sound a little like being the best surfer in Switzerland, it would still probably be wise to save the sniggers until after the race. Lake Coniston may be the one to spare our blushes.

If the sprinters produce anything like the finish after the three miles five furlongs of the Irish Grand National yesterday, that alone will be worth the ticket money. Rust Never Sleeps jumped the last at Fairyhouse with victory apparently assured, but Jamie Osborne spurred on Flashing Steel, the top weight, to snatch the prize on the line.

"I am more delighted for the horse than anyone else, he deserved this," Flashing Steel's owner, the former Taoiseach Charles Haughey, said, before receiving the trophy from the present incumbent of that position, John Bruton.

The English National winner, Royal Athlete, was among the declarations published yesterday for the Scottish National at Ayr on Saturday, but is not a certain runner. Entries also appeared for the Greenham Stakes at Newbury this weekend and - thankfully, after all the hype - Celtic Swing was among them. He may face a searching test. Diffident, trained by Andr Fabre, Green Perfume and Art Of War are among the possibles.