Racing: Once more on to the Heath

Sue Montgomery joins the optimists drawn to their dawn gathering by a shared dream of glory
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WEDNESDAY morning, 7am, Newmarket. Dreams on the hoof thunder past as an industry goes to work in front of dozens of pairs of eyes; knowledgeable, curious, wondering, shrewd. Watching, learning, hoping. A horse of the century would be nice, but a winner at Folkestone will do.

It is a daily ritual that has been acted out for more than 300 years on the wide-open spaces that surround this tiny and otherwise unremarkable Suffolk town. More horses than you could shake a tack-shop of sticks at pass before your gaze, in the open, through the trees, singly, in pairs, in batches, in positive herds, walking, trotting, galloping. The succession goes on for hours, like the buffalo in the Old West; if the track is racing's shop window, here is its factory floor.

In fine weather, Newmarket Heath just after dawn is one of the most magical spots on earth, hardly needing its ubiquitous skylarks to make the heart soar. This past week it has been somewhat grittier; winter - and in East Anglia that season allegedly comes straight from the Urals without stopping - has returned, in monsoon mode. But with the first of the year's serious Flat fixtures, the Craven meeting, now only two days away it must, by necessity, be business as usual in the workplace.

And although the rain has kept the skylarks grounded and reduced the grass gallops to something of a quagmire, the one thing it has not flattened is hope. With horses, that emotion is - as we know from bitter experience - all too frequently dashed, but it is hope that keeps the whole thing going.

The emergence of the Classic pretenders, proven and unproven, from winter wraps quickens the pulse of Newmarket. And, really, if you love horses with the obsessive passion that a sailor feels for the sea and you cannot be optimistic and excited in this place at this time of year, even with your feet and trouser-legs sodden and water trickling down your neck (King Charles II had a little pavilion built from which to observe his favourites going by; no such luxury for today's work- watchers), you may as well take up basketmaking.

Henry Cecil, now in his 30th year with a licence, champion trainer 10 times and responsible for the winners of 16 English Classics, still admits to feeling a tingle in his toes at this time of year. "It's the thing about travelling hopefully, isn't it?" he said. "At the moment, we can all still believe our geese are swans. We don't yet have to face up to what might be the awful truth."

Out on the Newmarket training grounds, all 2,500 acres of them, there are patterns and protocol contained in the broader ritual. For most of the town's 60 trainers, Wednesdays and Saturdays are work, as opposed to exercise, mornings. You would need a good alarm clock to see how Pegnitz has come through the winter; it is barely daylight when Clive Brittain's horses strut their stuff. John Gosden is another early bird; Cecil is the latest riser of the big guns, though the civilised hours he keeps - his first lot hove into view nearer eight o'clock than seven - still seem to allow him to catch plenty of worms.

In this enlightened age, touts no longer have to hide in bushes - the representatives of the trade papers are accepted, even welcomed, as an essential routine part of the industry's PR machine - but access to the Heath (which is managed by Jockey Club Estates Ltd) is still a privilege, not a right. And although you can watch, you do not, of course, always know the full story; what weights are carried, for instance, or whether a gallop has been arranged to give a particular horse confidence.

On his imposing grey hack, Cecil is an easily identifiable figure and something of a magnet. There is the hint of a royal progress to his arrival on the gallops, accompanied, perhaps, by couple of his stable's insiders, and a little frisson of anticipation, because this year, as always, he has some of the best prospects in town in his care.

The comet's tail soon grows as those already assembled gravitate to within earshot, for the trainer, who is a generous man despite his sometimes flouncy, rather Hello!-ish, lifestyle, has the helpful habit of calling out the names, and even future programmes, of his charges as they pass his vantage point.

Last Wednesday, this little ritual within a ritual within a ritual took place alongside the training ground next to the Rowley Mile racecourse known, as arcanely as any of the Newmarket gallops, as Across The Flat.

Cecil's is a typical representation of the hopes and fears of any of the Formula One yards, where investment by owners can run into tens of millions of pounds, results are, within the accepted parameters of normal horse disasters, expected and pressures intense.

The Warren Place performers we already know are looking good: last year's 1,000 Guineas winner Sleepytime, on course for Wednesday's Earl of Sefton Stakes, her delightful long ears pricked; Daggers Drawn, the chestnut with the irregular white blaze, ready for his rematch with Xaar in Thursday's Craven Stakes; little bay Jibe, a possible for the Nell Gwyn Stakes on Tuesday.

But here, too, are some of the unknown quantities. And talking horses are as much a part and interest of any burgeoning season as their proven brothers and sisters. Predicting bright futures for once-raced maidens may be a speedy route to the poorhouse but Fleetwood (though not exactly the best-kept secret in town) is beginning to look - as they say - the bizzo.

The grand prix analogy is not entirely inappropriate. Cecil's before- breakfast workers arrive in two waves, and it is necessary for the specialist work-riders - jockeys and experienced lads - to transfer from one mount to another during a pit-stop of organised chaos. Instructions are given ("Enjoy yourselves, but look after them on this ground") and anyone who is known to know what they are doing can be seconded for temporary duty as ground staff; I think it was Fleetwood's sweating, panting galloping companion Darnaway on the end of the pair of reins that I was handed during the change-over.

Michael Stoute, Cecil's great local rival, elected to work his team on the other side of town, four miles away, prompting a Hakkinen-style screech of tyres from the assembled journalists. The four-year-old Among Men, who is a candidate for the season's top miling honours, evinced a salaaming we-are-not-worthy response from onlookers with the quality of his work on the Line Gallop, and the 1,000 Guineas contender Exclusive, who will meet Jibe on the racecourse on Tuesday, was also impressive during her spin on Waterhall.

Hope, and even hype, mean dreams. And until Tuesday, at least, those dreams are still running.