Racing : Ali-Royal to keep Cecil's ambitions alive

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Swirling leaves apart, there is beautiful evidence of the pattern of the seasons this afternoon. The seven races of an immature National Hunt campaign at Ascot produce just 30 runners, while a single event at Newmarket, the Burrough Green Handicap (Class D), involves just one fewer.

This is the stage of the Flat season when the only sound in yards around the country is the banging of stable doors. The ground is good, the finishing line is in sight, and the legions of horses who are below top class are being sent out to play. This phenomenon makes punting an even more devilish occupation than usual.

Evidence of this is available in the closing two handicaps at Headquarters. These missions are so complex that if you find both winners you should certainly walk home, as a ruby will inevitably be twinkling up from the gutter. For those for whom gambling has become a problem, the best options may be Artful Dane (3.45), who has form with several of his opponents, and the Newbury winner Amber Fort (4.15).

There are two Listed contests for those who like to think of themselves as serious backers, and the main thread, as it has been for several days now, will be the battle for the trainers' championship between Henry Cecil and Saeed Bin Suroor. A win apiece at Newmarket yesterday failed to help Cecil close the gap. If the Warren Place man does not score with Ali-Royal in the Ben Marshall Stakes, he might as well climb into his top-of-the- range car and travel to the airport for a flight to the Caribbean to ponder what a desperate year it has been. Bin Suroor saddles Fatefully, one of the Dettori seven at Ascot five weeks ago, but she will do well to repel Ali-Royal (2.40), who is a better beast on the official ratings.

Mark Johnston likes to capture the Zetland Stakes, but has taken the unusual step of entering an animal without the prefix Double this year. Nevertheless, Eldorado (next best 3.10) showed at Bath on his debut that he has the promise to match the feats of the brothers Trigger and Eclipse.

At Ascot, the pinnacle event, the United House Construction Handicap Chase, features Big Matt and Storm Alert, who ran in the race last year. At these weights the latter is preferred, though Uncle Ernie (2.30), who has also had good days here, should take care of both of them.

Senor El Betrutti, one of the day's dashing greys, will be considered for the previous encounter as he gained two of his three wins last season at this track. The seven-year-old will employ the same tactics that the hare does around dog tracks.

Less keen may be Commercial Artist, who is liable to whinny the equine version of "stuff this for a game of soldiers", having refused on his first two outings last year. In the circumstances, STRAIGHT TALK (nap 1.55), who has had the benefit of a race this season, must have an outstanding chance.

The dashing grey One Man (3.25) reappears at Wetherby and is reported in spiffing form by his trainer, Gordon Richards. You can get 14-1 about the gelding for the Gold Cup and that will almost certainly contract after this afternoon's venture as he has won on his debut in each of the last three seasons.

As Barton Bank tends to have the effect of a grenade on at least one fence in each round, the one for the forecast may be Young Hustler.

Less predictable is the identity of One Man's jockey. Richard Dunwoody is expected to take the ride, but the Irishman again missed mounts yesterday as a consequence of the food poisoning he contracted earlier in the week.

Dunwoody should be back though -just as Danoli proved he was when winning on his chasing debut at Clonmel yesterday. The former invalid's doddle round persuaded Rob Hartnett of Coral to go 20-1 from 33-1 about Tom Foley's charge for the Cheltenham Gold Cup, which must mean, for the first time ever, that 1 April falls before the Festival.