Racing: Eyes down for the first gamble of spring: Punters traditionally dance with disaster in the Lincoln lottery, but this year the winner may be on the house

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EVERYONE knows that the Lincoln Handicap is bingo on 96 legs, but many otherwise shrewd punters will still walk open-eyed and empty-headed towards disaster this weekend. Like morris dancing, losing money on the Lincoln is one of those traditional, humiliating rites of spring.

The Flat turf season's first important race, down the straight mile at Doncaster, offers a closely weighted field of 24 runners with little or no recent form. The draw, meanwhile, will play a significant role, but whether high or low numbers are favoured will be apparent only when the race is over. Unless, of course, this is one of those years in which the draw makes no difference at all.

Yet despite these hopeless imponderables, the Lincoln is one of the top 10 betting races of the season, holding its own against such as the Ebor and the 1,000 Guineas. It is popular, too, with up-and-coming trainers and jockeys, who can grab priceless attention before the big yards hit their stride.

One such rising talent is Gay Kelleway, who will saddle Castel Rosselo, the ante-post second-favourite, at Town Moor on Saturday. By the brilliant miler Rousillon out of the 1,000 Guineas winner On The House, Castel Rosselo will be an automatic choice for those who place their trust in good breeding. Yet the very fact that the four-year-old is lining up at Doncaster, rather than being already at stud, is proof that Castel Rosselo's career to date has not gone according to plan.

'We bought him out of Geoff Wragg's yard,' Kelleway said yesterday. 'He'd had injury problems and had perhaps got a little sour in such a big stable, but now he's sweetened up and looks terrific.'

The trainer's thoughts turned to Doncaster after Castel Rosselo's first run for her stable, at Southwell in December. 'We ran him over six furlongs, short of his true distance, to see how good he was,' she said. 'He was carrying 9st 11lb and giving weight away to older horses, but he won by five lengths and I was very impressed.

'He started working at the end of February and he's improved so much, he's twice the horse he was at Southwell. It's great to have a horse that's going in as a favourite, and great to have one that's so fit as well. He's jet black, and his coat looks like silk.'

In the face of such persuasive enthusiasm, it is easy to forget that there will be 23 other runners installed at Doncaster on Saturday afternoon. Yet the connections of one, at least, do not seem confident. Jack Ramsden, whose wife Lynda saddled High Premium to win the race last season, was less than optimistic yesterday about the chance of their representative this year, Hob Green.

'I can't really fancy him, it's not his time of year,' Ramsden said. 'But I'm not here to tell punters what to do. All I can say is that the horse is healthy and there to do his best.' If Ramsden, a famously clever punter, was trying to get the bookies to extend Hob Green's odds, the ruse did not work. The gelding was cut two points to 14-1 by William Hill.

Market confidence is more likely to evaporate from Moorish, the current ante-post favourite, and Penny Drops, trained by Lord Huntingdon, as the Doncaster going continues to dry out. Moorish, who finished runner-up to Mysilv in the Triumph Hurdle last Thursday, definitely needs cut to show her best, while Penny Drops is not expected to run at all if the current forecast of good, with good to firm patches, persists.

That would suit Castel Rosselo, and the colt's ) current odds of 12-1 can be expected to shrink as a result. There should be more money too for Wainwright, cut to 20-1 from 33-1 yesterday on the news that he will carry Lanfranco Dettori in his first important assignment for the John Gosden stable.

Yet even with his three-figure string, Gosden may not be able to compete with Kelleway's secret weapon. 'I'm a lucky person,' the trainer said. In the Lincoln, little else matters.