Racing: Flat start needs a big push

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After Cheltenham, the racing occasion which engenders anticipation a full 51 weeks before the meeting, comes the racing event that has a build-up of about four days, the start of the Flat racing season on turf.

For those who did not receive a diary from their bookmaker last Christmas in thanks for their pathetic punting efforts, the small, wiry ones return at Doncaster on Thursday, commencing at 1.30pm with an apprentice handicap (Class F).

Doncaster faces some insuperable problems with the staging of this meeting - its proximity to the great Gloucestershire Festival chief among them - but to introduce the season on such an apologetic note is like launching a liner with a bottle of British sherry.

Of all racing's foibles that can still sometimes make it look as though it is run by a sixth-form social committee rather than by the administrative titans of the British Horseracing Board, the lack of fanfare to accompany the start and end of the Flat season - which until last year concluded on a Monday afternoon at Folkestone - has been the most difficult to explain to those that have not become accustomed to the ways of this sport-cum- industry.

So what is the answer? Well, starting the season on the main betting/viewing/racegoing day, Saturday, would at least take it a couple of days further from Cheltenham and allow a little more anticipation to build up. Change the main betting race from the Lincoln Handicap - useless as a medium for ante-post betting because of the effect of the draw - to one that could be bet on sensibly (if that word can ever be applied to ante-post betting) and for which there could be several specifically labelled trials at the all-weather tracks. A consolation race, like the one that caters for horses that fail to make the cut in the Ayr Gold Cup, could be run just before the main event.

Trying to lure the top Classic hopes out of their boxes for such a meeting is always likely to get a chilly reception, but bumping up the prize-money for a couple of races for three-year-old maidens could encourage those with Group-race expectations to get a move on and get some extra experience in before the round of recognised trials begins.

Why meddle? Why bother with all these changes? Simply, because Cheltenham raises racing's profile to a level at which it starts to attract attention from the uninitiated. If they have managed to win a few quid, they will want to reinvest and should not be discouraged from doing so by being presented with such a feeble follow-up to the Festival. The Grand National follows hard on the heels of the start of the Flat, and if new interest can be sustained through that short but important period then it might just be captivated for life.

For those already on board, the National is the race that aroused betting interest over the weekend. Lord Gyllene, who had been favourite for Aintree until taking to the track on Saturday, has been pushed out to 10-1, from 8-1, for the race by Ladbrokes after his defeat by Seven Towers at Uttoxeter. Go Ballistic, fourth in the Gold Cup, is now joint market leader having been cut to 10-1 from 12-1. Aintree stalwart Into The Red has attracted each-way support and is 25-1 from 40-1.

In the Lincoln, Ladbrokes have found someone who has been studying the form (if not the effect of the draw) through the winter and have taken a pounds 1,000 each-way cash bet on Kuala Lipis from a London customer. The firm has cut Paul Cole's colt to 10-1 favourite from 16-1.

Excitement is mounting, for Cheltenham 1998 that is.