Racing: Luck of the draw ruined by rain

CHURCHILL DOWNS, Kentucky, and Town Moor, Doncaster, do not have a great deal in common. The former will soon stage one of the world's great races, the Kentucky Derby, when there will be communal singing, mint juleps by the tankerload and a wild infield party in the steamy southern heat. It will be something of a contrast with Doncaster racecourse yesterday, when a small crowd watched the first day of the 1999 Flat season unfold in cold, grey murk, and it was not the prospect of the Doncaster Mile which was giving everyone goosebumps.

Yet in one, very small way, a little bit of Kentucky came to Yorkshire yesterday lunchtime, as the trainers and owners of tomorrow's field for the Lincoln Handicap assembled to choose their stalls. The Derby at Churchill Downs was the first race to introduce an element of thought into the process of deciding the draw, and the Lincoln followed its lead 12 months ago. Racecard numbers were picked from a hat by David O'Leary, the Leeds manager, who was described beforehand by John Sanderson, the clerk of the course, as "the thinking man's Irishman" - as if there is any other sort. The connections of the horse concerned then had 60 seconds to choose its draw from the boxes which were still available.

Not everyone is delighted by Doncaster's innovation. David Nicholls, who will saddle Further Outlook, one of the favourites tomorrow, recently described it as a "publicity gimmick", and claimed there were "a lot more important things in racing they should be spending money on," with "the hovel they call an owners' and trainers' bar" prominent among them. But it was at least a distraction from close study of the Spring Apprentice Handicap Stakes, the first race of the turf season (and a valuable one, since the winner was Prince Nicholas, the outsider of the entire field at 40-1).

You could hear the cogs grinding in 24 heads as the process began, and Therhea became the first horse out of the bag. Rod Millman, his trainer, thought for a few seconds and chose stall six. Next up was China Red, whose owner chose 24, the stands' rail box, from which Hunters Of Brora was successful 12 months ago. Interestingly, though, the next six picks were all towards the opposite side of the course. As soon as Nigrasine, the top weight and eighth horse drawn, was placed in number four, Coral took enough money to cut him from 25-1 to 16-1, although what "enough" means is anyone's guess.

Punters with an appreciation of Sod's Law, which is most of us, will probably end up backing Dushanbe, who was the last horse out and thus the only one whose connections had no choice in the matter (he ended up in 16). A greater irony, though, was that within a few minutes of the draw being completed, the Yorkshire sky started to deposit steady rain onto Town Moor's straight mile. All the trainers diligent enough to walk the course before choosing their stall may therefore have been wasting their time.

By the time of the Doncaster Mile, yesterday's feature race, there were good-to-soft patches in the previously good going. It was soft after the fifth, and it could easily be heavy by the time of the Lincoln, at which point backers would probably be better off playing roulette. The Spring Mile, over the same course and distance this afternoon, may be a much better guide to the draw than plans which were laid before the rain arrived.

The runners in the Mile were kicking up heavy clods of turf, and the winner was White Heart, who has a preference for cut in the ground. Darryll Holland slipped his field at the two-furlong pole, and while Kieren Fallon did his best to chase him on Generous Libra, he could not find a finishing kick on the rain-softened going.

The Brocklesby Stakes, the first two-year-old contest of the season, fell to the filly Seraphina. It took her 62 seconds to run down the straight five furlongs, and like most winners of the race, she will probably retreat into obscurity just as quickly. The Flat season has to start somewhere, but like the weather, things can only get better.

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