Racing: Flat start ends in blind alley

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The Independent Online
THE SOUND of summer drifted through the Tattersalls enclosure here yesterday before the first race of the Flat season on turf, but the steel band hired to bring the Caribbean to Yorkshire also rather gave the game away. They had chosen, very shrewdly, to perform indoors.

No one could blame them. An icy wind was gusting across Town Moor and it was no place to be with just a floral shirt for protection. Or a silk one, for that matter, and the jockeys' features were even more pinched than normal as they walked into the paddock to mount up.

Most of the faces were unfamiliar, and some impossibly immature, since the turf campaign is now launched by an apprentices' handicap. The season must start somewhere, but each year this meeting seems to usher it around to the back door like an unwanted guest. An opening race with unknown jockeys on low-grade handicappers scarcely stokes up excitement or anticipation.

Stuart Lanigan, on Broughtons Formula, was the one to enjoy a moment of glory, coolly squeezing past three rivals on the far rails, 50 yards from the line. It was a performance which deserved a more rousing reception from the stands, but most of the thousand or so racegoers had decided to join the band in the bar.

The return of Flat racing has not always been greeted with such disinterest. 'There used to be thousands, in three enclosures and the middle of the course,' Harold Gould, who has been laying odds at Doncaster for 50 years, said. 'But they've priced themselves out, the entrance is too much for working-class people.'

Gould and his fellow bookmakers in the Silver Ring may have been reduced to betting with each other, so scarce were punters in the bottom enclosure. The attendance should climb tomorrow, when 24 runners dispute the Lincoln Handicap.

The final declarations for the race were made yesterday, to allow for today's Spring Cup, a consolation contest for horses eliminated from the Lincoln itself. The absence of the soft-ground performers Penny Drops and Fox Sparrow, both prominent in ante-post betting, means that the bookmakers are already well ahead.

The early declaration stage for the Lincoln did not catch out any trainers, unlike 12 months ago when Ian Balding forgot to declare the well- fancied Pay Homage. The six-year- old gained a measure of compensation yesterday by taking the Listed Doncaster Mile, giving Lanfranco Dettori a first winner on grass this year to add to 51 on the all-weather.

The Brocklesby Stakes, the season's first two-year-old event, fell to Jack Berry's Mind Games, and the trainer will secure a charity bet worth pounds 2,000 if his runners in the meeting's two remaining juvenile contests are also successful.

There were several close finishes, but for gripping tension nothing could match the efforts of Star Performer before the penultimate race. Hooded after proving difficult at the stalls, Star Performer broke free, unseated Willie Ryan and galloped blindfolded across the course. After crashing through six rails, and somehow avoiding dozens of advertising hoardings, the gelding pulled up with just a minor scratch on one leg.

The relief which swept the stands as Star Performer's reins were finally grabbed by a stable lad made it an opening day to remember. Almost.