Racing: Conditions come right for Topsham: The leading chasers are poised to bow out in style as the winter game gives way to summer - Greg Wood on a spring tide that can finally lift one trainer's season out of the doldrums

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RACING is sometimes accused of lacking a sense of occasion, but today's Whitbread Gold Cup card at Sandown offers the case for the defence. The Flat season on turf may have arrived with a whimper at Doncaster, but at least the jumpers get a rousing send-off.

As an example of baton-passing, it would do credit to an Olympic relay team. In the space of 70 minutes, brave chasers like Young Hustler and Docklands Express will make one last effort before their summer rest, while several Derby entries take a first step towards Epsom - now less than six weeks away - in the Thresher Classic Trial.

But it is the Whitbread which commands the attention, not least because Topsham Bay attempts to become the first horse to win the race three times.

Given his past record in the season's last major handicap chase, it is perhaps surprising to find David Barons's gelding as long as 8-1 for this afternoon's renewal. 'The stable's a little bit in the doldrums,' the trainer said yesterday. 'We had a virus right through the winter, the other horses aren't running so well and that's probably the reason we're not a shorter price.'

The bookmakers may be taking a risk, though. Topsham Bay tends to improve by a stone the moment the clocks go forward. 'He's very much a spring horse, he always comes to himself then,' Barons said. 'He likes the sun on his back, and he loves good ground. He's had a terrible winter because it's been so wet.'

Despite the soft surface, Topsham Bay stayed with the pace for almost a circuit in the Grand National earlier this month, before he was brought down at the 13th. That was evidence of his well-being and, with the going at Sandown currently good, Topsham Bay must have every chance of becoming the first horse since Red Rum to win one of the season's major handicap chases for a third time.

The one to watch in the Classic Trial is probably Innishowen, since he is the only runner not thought worthy of a Derby entry. His proximity to the winner will give a clue to the overall standard of the race (it has not been good in recent years).

The trials for next Thursday's 1,000 Guineas are over, and so is Richard Hannon's attempt to get Lemon Souffle, the ante-post favourite for the race throughout the winter, ready for Newmarket. The filly has been a doubtful starter ever since she returned from the Cheveley Park Stakes last October with a badly gashed leg, but the gloomy spring weather has been a final insurmountable obstacle to fitness.

Lemon Souffle worked yesterday morning for Lester Piggott. While the veteran jockey felt she would run well in the Guineas, according to Lord Carnarvon, her owner, he did not feel that last season's top-rated juvenile filly had fully come to hand.

Lemon Souffle's absence may not deny Piggott a ride in the 1,000 Guineas. The 30- times Classic winner is may be on the Neville Callaghan- trained Fairy Heights in the race. 'Lester's tremendous Classic record always makes him one to consider,' Callaghan said yesterday.

In the 2,000 Guineas, two days later, Piggott could be called upon to partner Luca Cumani's Suplizi, one of the favourites, (though at present this information belongs in the file labelled Rumours and Hearsay).

A further complication in the riding arrangements for the first colts' Classic is the availability, or otherwise, of Pat Eddery. The champion jockey has decided to appeal against a two-day ban for careless riding imposed by the Beverley stewards yesterday, and could yet be free to partner Henry Cecil's Distant View.

Redoubtable is on course for the 2,000 Guineas after pleasing in a gallop yesterday. Richard Hannon's colt, ridden by Pat Eddery, worked at Newbury racecourse in company with Lemon Souffle. 'He worked well and will definitely go for the 2,000 Guineas,' Hannon said. 'I'll wait to see what happens over the next few days before finalising jockey arrangements.'

King of Naples became a Derby contender yesterday following a three-length win in the Forte Conditions Stakes at Sandown. Roger Charlton's colt galloped clear of Mediterraneo to earn a 20-1 quote for Epsom from William Hill and Corals, and a 33-1 price from Ladbrokes.

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