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RACING: Maguire makes a powerful return

The 4.15 at Uttoxeter yesterday afternoon was only a minor novice hurdle, but it will have held considerable significance for punters throughout the country. Adrian Maguire, absent since early last week following the sudden death of his mother, not only rode the winner, but did so in a manner which no other jockey could match.

So clearly does Maguire give his all on every horse he rides that plenty of backers who know him only from television screens still consider him almost a personal friend. The thoughts of many were with him during last week's Festival, and yesterday's events at the Midlands track were a striking reminder of what was missing at Cheltenham. In the novice hurdle, Maguire was riding Greville Again, second favourite behind the odds-on chance, St Mellion Fairway. They jumped the last together and went neck and neck up the run-in, but it was Maguire's mount, almost inevitably, which was a short-head in front where it mattered.

An hour later, he did it again. Norman Williamson, the jockey of the moment, was strongly fancied to win the handicap hurdle on Kino's Cross. In another driving finish, though, it was Maguire and Future King who got up to grab the verdict.

That double took Maguire level with Richard Dunwoody in the riders' table, both champion and challenger now having partnered 123 winners. A fight to the finish, perhaps even to the final day of the season as it was 12 months ago, is now in prospect, which should bring in excellent crowds at otherwise nondescript meetings. The tracks concerned would no doubt wish it to be pointed out that if the title were awarded on prize-money rather than number of winners, the race would already be all but decided - in favour of Williamson, intriguingly, with Jamie Osborne his closest pursuer.

What with Maguire and Dunwoody, and the Grand National just ahead, the start of the Flat season on turf this Thursday will, as ever, offer all the promise and excitement of a winter evening in Reykjavik. That said, the Doncaster Mile, generally the weakest Listed event of the year, has for once assembled a field which is significantly better than the usual assortment of handicappers and has-beens.

Missed Flight, a Group Two winner in France last year, will be opposed by Our Rita, a fast-improving mare and last year's Lincoln winner, and Bin Ajwaad, third to Zafonic and Barathea in the 1993 2,000 Guineas. Another possible is Penny Drops, currently top weight in the Lincoln on Saturday, but already a winner in Group company.

"Our Rita improved rapidly at the end of 1993 and throughout last year," Jon Scargill, her trainer, said yesterday. "Once these mares start improving, there's no telling where it'll stop."

The presence or otherwise of Penny Drops, not to mention the unpredictable effect of the draw, make the Lincoln a no-go area for punters even after yesterday's five-day declaration stage. An additional consideration, both for backers and for Lord Huntingdon, Penny Drops's trainer, in particular, is that the same handler's Country Lover would be favoured by the weights remaining where they are. Whatever Lord Huntingdon's decision, however, Lanfranco Dettori will fit into the equation somewhere. He will be on Penny Drops if she runs, and Country Lover if she does not.

Eighty two names remained in the Lincoln yesterday, but only the top 24 can take part. The same number will be offered a place in Friday's William Hill Spring Mile, a consolation event for horses balloted out of the Lincoln. Fancied entries such as Mahool and Ertlon are not certain of making the main event. They need two and five withdrawals respectively to be sure of a stall at the top of Doncaster's straight mile on Saturday.