Racing: Losers look to Tim whatsit

THE IDEA of a nation so transfixed by Tim Henman's semi-final date with Pete Sampras at Wimbledon on Saturday that even regular racegoers would be consumed by interest in the English hero's effort was soon laid to rest at Sandown Park.

Of course, frequent inquiries were made about Henman's progress and plenty of people paused in their deliberations to catch a glimpse of him on television, but for the proletariat it was business as usual. The majority of punters, as ever, waiting for a sign that things would soon get better, joking through an oppressively hot afternoon, laughing lest they cry.

Some prowled the course in various stages of undress, often landing up at a bar to lift one in memory. "How's that Tim whatsit doing?" a bare- chested hulk asked over the rim of his half-empty glass. Told that Henman was down two sets to one and hanging on in the third, he grunted, cruelly, "No bleedin' bottle."

Shortly before Sir Michael Stoute sent out Lonesome Dude under Gary Stevens for the second race we fell into conversation in the parade ring. "How's Henman doing?" he asked. "Won the first set, but it looks as though Sampras is coming on to his game," I replied. Stoute's response was that of a man who knows the perils of heart over head. "Love Henman to win," he said, "but you wouldn't bet against Pistol Pete."

Stoute's attention was soon diverted by developments in the race that saw Richard Quinn snatch a crucial advantage on Brilliant Red two furlongs out to hold off Lonesome Dude, who failed to find room on the rail.

From a raucous reaction in front of the stands it seemed that hunch players groping around for a good thing had taken a shine to the notion of a rare success on the Flat for Brilliant Red's trainer, Lydia Richards, who is far more prominent in jumps racing. "I thought I might be in the same boat as last year when nobody seemed interested in putting any horses with me," she said, "so it was brave of Marina George [Brilliant Red's owner] to give me a chance."

After three races, only one favourite had shown in the money, and business was slow around the boards when prices were posted for the Eclipse Stakes. Because the general opinion was that the Eclipse's 102nd staging would not be a truly run race, the Chantilly-trained favourite Croco Rouge drifted to 5-2 in the betting and, despite a valuable victory in the United States last month, Running Stag was not considered good enough to make a mark in Group One company.

By then Sampras had seen off Henman and all thoughts were concentrated on finding a way through the Eclipse's tangled web of uncertainty. Punters pored over their racecards seeking a clue, and hunch players were at it again finding encouragement in the idea that one of the two three-year olds, Fantastic Light, would be a terrifically appropriate name for an Eclipse winner.

At this point, a friend made reconnaissance under the stands and returned with a report. "They're betting Frankie's horse [Xaar]," he said.

Darryll Holland's smartly achieved victory in the previous race on Cortachy Castle suggested he was in form but not a great deal of interest was shown in his appearance on Compton Admiral in the feature race.

Banned for five weeks earlier in the season, Holland deserved a break and it came, crucially, as he sent Compton Admiral to challenge Xaar a furlong from home. A gasp went up when Holland let the reins slip from his hand, but horse and rider recovered to beat Xaar by a neck with Fantastic Light half a length away in third.

Understandably, Holland was all smiles. "Being out for such a long time hit me hard," he said, "but I had to take it on the chin. It has been a struggle, but winning this has helped to make up for the bad days." He then went out and completed a treble on the 12-1 shot That Man Again.

Holland's joy was shared by Compton Admiral's owner, Erik Penser, and his gifted young Irish trainer Gerard Butler. Not, though it seems, by many punters. "How did Henman go?" one asked, forlornly tearing up a ticket. "Lost," came the reply. "At least that's one loser I didn't back," he said.

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