Racing: Trainers attracted by draw

ASKING racehorse trainers to think for themselves was a brave decision, but Doncaster pulled it off with something of a flourish yesterday as a radical new procedure to determine the draw for tomorrow's Lincoln Handicap passed with barely a hitch. If there was a team of paramedics on standby to treat any handlers who found the effort all too much, then their services were not required, and for once there was a definite hint of excitement about the first day of the Flat season on turf.

The effect of the draw is a fertile source of debate before many big races, particularly handicaps on a straight course, and often a useful excuse afterwards. There should be less reason for trainers to grumble after the Lincoln, however, since yesterday's draw gave most of them a chance to choose either the stall they wish their runner to occupy, or at any rate a choice between a berth on either the near or far side.

Numbered lots - antiques on loan from York's racing museum - were drawn by the actor Steve Huison, one of the most famous Yorkshiremen in the world thanks to his leading role in The Full Monty. When their runner's number emerged from the velvet bag, its trainer or owner had 60 seconds to nominate an unclaimed stall, and their various strands of thought were both intriguing and informative.

It was no surprise, however, when Grant Harris of the National Trainers' Federation, who was representing the connections of Right Wing, opted for stall six when John Dunlop's runner was first from the bag. Improbable as it may seem, there is a theory that the locals who walk their dogs on Town Moore for much of the year tend to do so on a strip of grass exactly six stall-widths from the far rail, to the extent that the ground is compacted and thus that vital fraction faster.

Whatever the reason, though, the horse from box six has been a regular feature of the finish over the last few years, with four winners in the last 11 Lincolns and three second places too. Right Wing, already among the favourites, was immediately clipped to 6-1 (from 7-1) by the Tote.

The next three horses were slotted into adjacent stalls in four, five and three, but when it fell to Bruce Raymond, representing Maktoum Al Maktoum, to find a home for Hajr, he chose 20. "To be honest," he said afterwards, "I dont think there is any real advantage for either side, but I asked Michael Hills and he said he would want to be high, we didn't want to be in the middle, and we preferred not to have an odd-numbered stall, because they go in first and you're waiting around longer."

This last point was also in the mind of Gay Kelleway, when she chose two - "the stall I wanted" - for La Modiste, rather than one, right against the far rail. The only trainer who did not get a choice was Tony Newcombe, whose Silca Blanka was the last of the 24 runners to be drawn, and found himself in the unwanted stall 15.

Silca Blanka, of course, will probably now proceed to win in a canter, but whatever the result tomorrow, yesterday's draw was a very clever and successful innovation, and one which may in time become a familiar part of the build-up to big races.

It certainly provided the boost for which the opening day on the turf has long been searching, although there was also much to like about the winners of both the Doncaster Mile and the Tote/49s Handicap, the first of the British Horseracing Board's "showcase" races.

Hornbeam, a rare runner in a Listed race for John Jenkins, ran away with the Doncaster Mile, although it seems unlikely that many of his rivals had been trained to the same level of fitness. The handicap, meanwhile, fell to Proud Native, the top weight, and while a 16-1 winner will not have satisfied many punters in a race designed specifically to encourage them, Proud Native will surely repay further support. A winter recruit to David Nicholls's yard, he is yet another advertisement for his trainer's considerable talent, and may be ahead of the handicapper for a while to come.

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