Racing: Take Command on day one

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The Independent Online
THERE IS not much vegetation on Newmarket Heath, but for at least six weeks, what little there is has generally had at least one pair of binoculars poking out from between its branches. Flat racing on turf is about to return, and the dozens of quack tipsters who clog up Channel 4's Teletext pages are preparing for their most profitable month. "Unraced juvenile - this catches pigeons," the adverts will run, or "unexposed three-year-old - handicap snip", and for once, punters who should know better might just be ready to believe them.

For there is certainly something in the air when the lissome young things of the Flat emerge blinking from their winter quarters. It is the prospect of new names, fresh challenges, the next Classic generation and perhaps an evening or two at Windsor or Nottingham when there seem to be at least 50 runners in every race. It is also the thought that whatever else your horse may do, it should at least make it back to where it started and give you a chance to jeer the jockey.

As certain as the start of the Flat season, though, is the complaint that Doncaster in March seems a strange point at which to kick off. Which it probably is, but it was ever thus, and no-one ever says that the Beefeaters at the Tower should turn up for work in a suit and tie. And why is it necessary to start with a bang anyway, when the post-Cheltenham blues are still in evidence and many punters are probably happy just to ease themselves in.

The spiritual opening to the season, of course, is the Craven meeting at Newmarket next month, although these days it should probably be the Guineas meeting itself, when the Godolphin horses arrive back from Dubai with a tan and a hungry look in their eyes. Aljabr, however, will not be making the trip, or not yet, at any rate, since the horse who was many people's idea of the best juvenile last season will head for the Kentucky Derby instead.

Those who had already backed him for the 2,000 Guineas have been complaining ever since the plan was revealed, but in a global racing industry, this is simply another pitfall of ante-post betting. It would also be rather appropriate if Sheikh Mohammed could return to the Bluegrass, where 20 years ago he bought the foundation stock of his bloodstock empire, and win the race they covet above all others. In fact, you might say Kentucky owes it to him.

In Aljabr's place, the front end of the Guineas market is occupied by Stravinsky, trained by Aidan O'Brien who won last year's Classic with King Of Kings. He could make his seasonal debut as early as this Sunday at Leopardstown. Dimly remembered names including Mujahid (the Dewhurst winner, in case you're struggling), Enrique and Killer Instinct, are also prominent.

It is time to welcome back familiar faces among trainers and jockeys too, although David Loder, whose strike-rate was a crutch for many a wounded punter, has now left for France and his new job looking after Godolphin's two-year-olds. We will lose another ally too at the end of the year, when Jack Berry retires. He sets off on his final Flat campaign with more than 50 juveniles in his yard, and from that wealth of options he has chosen to run Paris Star (2.05) in the Brocklesby Stakes today. Though this is never a race to bet the bank on, a hint that big is difficult to pass up.

Generous Libra (next best 3.40) has the ability to win the Doncaster Mile, although as happened last year with John Jenkins's Hornbeam, one rival could turn up having been trained to the minute for just this race. There is already some good form behind WESTERN COMMAND (nap 2.35), not to mention a fair weight based on his latest all-weather success and the shrewd hands of Sir Mark Prescott.