Racing Commentary: Fellow puts spring into season's final stages: The restart of Flat racing on turf may prove an anticlimax as anticipating Aintree keeps the winter game alive

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The Independent Online
FOR MANY, the National Hunt season expired at about 6pm on Thursday at the moment when Easthorpe dribbled home 21st and last in the County Hurdle at Cheltenham. But while the Festival has sped past for another year, this jumps campaign retains an unusual amount of energy.

For a start, there will be less expectation about whether the Flat season starts excitingly at Doncaster on Thursday than about whether the Grand National starts at all on 9 April.

Racing's most public event needs a flamboyant episode after last year's debacle and looks as though it will get it. Saturday's trial for Aintree, the Midlands National at Uttoxeter, was something of a non-event as the winner, Glenbrook D'Or, is not even entered for Liverpool and those in the race that are hardly lit up their prospects in neon. However, the signals are that the Gold Cup victor, The Fellow, will turn up to add a skip-full of spice over the huge fences.

Francois Doumen, who trains the French horse, was inundated with calls at his Lamorlaye stables over the weekend and may know now how his countrymen felt at Orleans during the Hundred Years' War with hordes of Englishmen knocking at the door.

A definitive response on whether The Fellow will return next month has been delayed, though, as Doumen concentrated on 'the bubbles' at Auteuil. But once the celebrations have died down, the trainer is expected to give the all-clear, especially as the Marquesa de Moratella, The Fellow's owner, has been persuaded that the Liverpool obstacles are not the equine hay-balers of yesteryear. It is odds-on that her horse will attempt to become the first since Golden Miller in 1934 to complete the Gold Cup-Grand National double.

Jodami, whose crown was dislodged by The Fellow, may enliven the other premier end- of-season event, the Whitbread Gold Cup, as he remains in the shimmering condition that earned him the best-turned-out award at Prestbury Park.

If Martin Pipe is not to lose his crown as champion trainer he will probably have to win the Whitbread and National to overtake David Nicholson.

The Duke is almost pounds 200,000 ahead in the table with 69 winners, two of which, Viking Flagship in the Queen Mother Champion Chase and Mysilv in the Triumph Hurdle, came at Cheltenham. As Nicholson, who was 55 on Saturday, also passed 1,000 winners as a trainer with Ramstar on Friday, it may be that the clinking of crystal became the dominant noise at Jackdaws Castle last week.

The glasses will not be coming out again, however, until Nicholson's first championship is mathematically assured. 'We happen to be in front at this moment in time but we've got to keep going,' he said yesterday. 'I don't start celebrating until it's past the post.'

Nicholson prefers instead to revel in his Festival achievements and reserve his anticipation for Moorcroft's Boy's venture in the National.

'All the horses ran bloody well last week and they're all back fine, including Triple Witching, who had a diabolical fall,' he said. 'Moorcroft Boy is bang on target for Liverpool but I think The Fellow is the best handicapped horse in the race. But mine are running well and I've had a great week, so I'm not complaining.'

Intertwined with the trainer's fortunes have been those of his jockey, Adrian Maguire, who is also seeking his first championship.

The Irishman rode a hat- trick on Saturday to take him to 150 for the season and further out of reach of Richard Dunwoody. When the champion started a suspension 11 days ago he was just seven behind but is now 19 in arrears and is not eligible to return until Thursday. 'Adrian had to make hay while the sun was shining and I think he's done that,' Nicholson said.

That contest will ensure the Flat takes second billing until Newmarket's Craven meeting in three weeks' time, and Dunwoody is expected to make headway late in partnership with Pipe's fast-ground horses.

But as he returned from a skiing holiday in Courchevel yesterday, Dunwoody will have been greeted with odds of 7-4 about his chances with William Hill, with Maguire at 4-9. From here on in he will have to travel in the opposite direction than when on the slopes.

(Photograph omitted)