Racing: New Century to dawn for Nicholls

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Many and varied are the insults which have been hurled at the Lincoln in recent years, not least by punters who feel they have been suckered once again by a race which has not produced a winner at less than 16-1 for almost a decade.

One frequent complaint, however, will not stick, and those who feel that the first big handicap of the Flat season is not the race it was, should take half an hour to sift through the form for the 1997 renewal. However bitter your memories, no backer worthy of the description could deny that today's feature race is a fascinating contest.

The huge ante-post plunges which were once a feature of the Lincoln may have gone - the fact that the draw can play such a crucial but unpredictable role in the result may have much to do with that - but with 10-1 the field available this morning, many punters will need little further invitation to start making up for lost time.

Like any worthwhile challenge, the Lincoln is demanding -and demoralising failure is the probable outcome - but the prize for success is a deposit in the betting bank which should last until the Craven meeting at least.

An added difficulty this year, though, is that the draw seems unlikely to play a significant part in the outcome. The Spring Mile over the Lincoln course and distance yesterday produced a winner from stall six who came up the middle of the track but would clearly have won from anywhere. There are also obvious pacesetters drawn close to both rails, and another in the middle, so one useful filter is denied to us.

Study the form and weights, however, and the list of possible winners can be switly reduced to little more than half a dozen improving horses who should still be a step ahead of the handicapper. Grand Musica, Kuala Lipis and New Century are the most obvious candidates, while Alamein and Tumbleweed Ridge, Sky Dome and Hawksley Hill must also be respected, albeit simply because of the confidence they appear to be carrying into the race.

Tumbleweed Ridge, incidentally, is also carrying something far more significant, since he is the second leg of a double placed by Brian Meehan, his trainer, which started with Mr Mulligan's 20-1 success in the Gold Cup. The name which stands out, though, is NEW CENTURY (nap 3.40), who can boast every attribute you could wish for in a potential Lincoln winner. In winning form on the all-weather this year, he is generously weighted on his best form and has a liking for big fields, as his victory in last season's Thirsk Hunt Cup demonstrated. Add the fact that David Nicholls, his trainer, has saddled several major handicap winners in his short career, and his chance is obvious, even if today's race is not the culmination of a long, carefully-crafted plan.

"He was going to run over hurdles," Nicholls said yesterday, "which he did at Wetherby when he finished third, and the prize-money for that was so poor that I persuaded the owner to run him on the all-weather at Wolverhampton. He won that and he didn't get a penalty, so he's 7lb better in for the Lincoln than he would be if he was on the all-weather. He's in good form and he'll give a good account of himself."

Today could be one which Nicholls will long remember, since his Venture Capitalist, to be ridden like New Century by Alex Greaves, his wife, will go to post with a leading chance in the Cammidge Trophy, a Listed event. Here, though, it may pay to side with another of the brightest prospects in the new generation of trainers, Gay Kelleway, who saddles the rejuvenated Astrac (4.45).

The search for other winners is best directed towards Newbury, where Lucia Forte (2.15) must go close in the valuable mares' handicap hurdle, and Blair Castle (1.45) also goes to post with every chance.