Merlins sets out along the enchanted way

Greg Wood finds promise and pitfalls in today's racing on the home front
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The Independent Online
Plans were announced this week for a dedicated racing channel on satellite television, perhaps starting as early as Monday week, but if you switch on your set this afternoon you might think it has already arrived. Coverage from Ascot, Wetherby, Newmarket and, for those with a dish, the Breeders' Cup at Belmont Park adds up to 16 live races, a schedule which would be unheard of in most other major racing countries. Yet by the end of it, of course, we could well wish that we had watched the rugby league instead.

There are certainly plenty of potential pitfalls, above all the 30-runner Autumn Handicap over the Rowley Mile at Newmarket. Quite simply, at least two-thirds of the field have at least a reasonable chance of success, and your bookie will be pushing it with all the enthusiasm of a patent medicine salesman. The answer is to just say no, and it is not as if there is a shortage of alternatives.

For many, the highlight of the afternoon's viewing will be the three races from an excellent National Hunt card at Ascot. There was excited talk of the Festival - now just five months away - after at least one of Wednesday's races at Cheltenham, and it will be no surprise to hear of similar plans following the opening novice hurdle.

Oliver Sherwood has used this race to introduce Large Action and Berude Not To in the last two seasons, and is represented today by Merlins Dream. Four fairly moderate and unsuccessful efforts over timber last season gave little hint that Merlins Dream might ever figure in the same breath as two of Sherwood's finest performers, but his first race of the new campaign was a revelation. He cantered to a seven-length success at Taunton, and while today's opposition is much stronger, Merlins Dream (next best 12.55) is now a horse on the rise.

Storm Alert, who has won the last two runnings of the United House Construction Chase for Andy Turnell, attempts to repeat the trick for David Nicholson later in the afternoon. He is clearly at his best in the early part of the season, but this year he may struggle to overhaul CLAY COUNTY (nap 2.05).

Micky Hammond's chaser improved throughout his latest campaign, most notably failing only narrowly to hold off Coulton at Aintree on National day. Hammond is more than capable of getting him ready first time.

Over at Wetherby, by contrast, only the very brave will risk backing Barton Bank, whose shortcomings are now notorious.

In fact, David Nicholson's chaser is not a fundamentally bad jumper. His problem is that while he may jump 19 fences quickly, fluently and safely, he will then miss out the 20th completely, and it is doubtful whether a summer spent practising with Ginny Elliot, the three-day eventer, can eliminate this blind spot. Young Hustler (3.35), who took advantage of his departure in this race last year, can do so again.

Cab On Target (3.00) must go well in the stayers' hurdle for Mary Reveley, while back at Newmarket Polar Eclipse (2.10) looks to be the one in the Zetland Stakes, the season's last worthwhile juvenile event. Clan Ben (2.45) also deserves close inspection.

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