Racing: Salty Jack whets the appetite

THE FREE HANDICAP is often thought to be the poor relation among the Classic trials at the Craven meeting, but 12 months ago it came into an unexpected inheritance from a long-forgotten aunt. Racegoers headed away from Newmarket at the end of the week with thoughts only for Xaar, who had just won the Craven Stakes, but it was Desert Prince, the Free Handicap winner 24 hours earlier, who turned out to be by far the best horse to appear at the meeting. His next four outings were all in Group One events - and he won three, and finished second in the other.

It is a thought to bear in mind when examining this year's renewal, which as usual does not appear to be overflowing with potential champions. It is not even all that flush with runners, and just six will go to post, which will not please its new sponsor, the bookmaker Victor Chandler.

Bertolini, the runner-up - though a distant one - to Lujain in the Group One Middle Park Stakes last season, will be a popular choice, particularly after the success of John Gosden's runner in the Nell Gwyn Stakes yesterday. Vision Of Night, though, was only narrowly beaten into third in the Middle Park, and is now 2lb better off.

This is probably another of those early trials which is best watched without the bias of a bet, although Undeterred (3.10), who was improving fast at the end of last season, may offer a small slice of value. The same goes for the Earl of Sefton Stakes, although there is a particularly interesting runner here in Shiva. Henry Cecil's four-year-old has obviously had her problems, having raced just once, but that single winning appearance, in a Kempton maiden, promised much.

She has plenty of catching up to do in terms of experience, however, and is unlikely to start at a worthwhile price today (although Cecil did have a winner at Newmarket yesterday who drifted all the way to 8-1). Stick instead to the handicaps, and in particular SALTY JACK (nap 2.05), who was a little disappointing on his last run last year but did not have Ray Cochrane in the saddle that day. Cochrane had previously won twice on Salty Jack, who may not have stopped improving yet, and he is back on board today.

Rainbow Ways will probably head the market for the 12-furlong handicap, having won his last three races since being fitted with blinkers, including one over this course and distance. He may meet his match, though, in Mark Johnston's Alberich (next best 3.45), who is very lightly raced and could develop into a fine staying handicapper.

Cheltenham begins its penultimate meeting of the season with something of a whimper, although the novice hurdle, with pounds 20,000 in added money, is a prize worth having. Plan A is to try and persuade your bookmaker to lay a price about a trainer called Williams winning it, which would cover five of the nine runners, but if that fails, Wilmott's Fancy (3.30) is probably the one. Gigi Beach (2.55) should go close in the Golden Miller.