Racing: Waiting tactics for the Flat approach: The return of Zafonic is the first focus as backers look beyond the Lincoln meeting

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THE CALENDAR informs us that Flat racing on turf re-emerges on Thursday at Doncaster. The emotions for the summer game may not be activated though until 7 April and a race on the banks of the Seine at the Parisian course of Maisons-Laffitte.

When Zafonic, the 2,000 Guineas favourite, bursts down the straight seven furlongs of the Prix Djebel, the cobweb events of the early season will be blown away in his slipstream. Meaningful competition will have returned.

Recent reports from the Continent, incidentally, suggest that Zafonic's fizzy temperament, which meant he was soothed by two attendants before his victory in last October's Dewhurst Stakes, has not vanished over the winter. Andre Fabre's colt is not proving the most tractable of athletes on the Chantilly gallops, but remains an even-money shot for the Classic on 1 May.

Until Zafonic re-appears, and Newmarket's Craven meeting offers further Classic clues the following week, the bulk of racing interest will remain with the jumpers.

Ireland's euphoria at a haul of six Festival winners remains, as does the suspicion that their success has done nothing but good for National Hunt's climax. Following this series of victories, Irish trainers and, even more importantly, Irish racegoers, who do most to raise the atmosphere and make Prestbury Park in March a unique experience, will be attracted to next year's event in even greater numbers.

Before then, the Irish will have a chance to further their expansion at Aintree's National meeting at the beginning of April, while Britain's retaliatory gestures may come at the Punchestown Festival at the end of the month.

There was some gentle manoeuvring in Ladbrokes' Grand National book yesterday when Jenny Pitman's Royal Athlete, who was third in the Gold Cup, was promoted to 7-1 clear favouritism, having been 25-1 before the Festival. Captain Dibble was also reduced, to 12-1 (from 14-1).

The riding arrangements for a previous ante-post favourite, Toby Balding's Romany King, are unclear. Richard Guest, who was in the saddle when the horse was runner-up in last year's National, is recovering from a broken thigh and will have a fitness test tomorrow. Adrian Maguire, who is down to ride stablemate Cool Ground, is on stand-by.

When the drum roll finishes at Doncaster this week, Town Moor will offer us, as a highlight, the Lincoln, a dreadful race which has more to do with bookmakers' greed than spectator appeasement. This handicap is notable, perhaps, for just one statistical quirk: Lester Piggott, who rides Petite-D-Argent on Saturday, has yet to work his way on to the winner.

Among the frontrunners in the betting for the mile race are Loki (cut to 14-1 from 20-1 by William yesterday) and Amazing Feat, who are trained by Geoff Lewis and Mary Reveley respectively. (The Saltburn trainer revealed yesterday that her stable standard-bearer, Cab On Target, has recovered from an overreach in his latest race and is on course for the Bollinger Champagne Novice Chase at Ascot on Wednesday week).

The trainers meet before then, however, when Silver Wisp, who was third in last season's Derby to Dr Devious and St Jovite, comes up against Mellottie in the Doncaster Mile on Thursday.

Silver Wisp will be ridden by Pat Eddery, who is making an early start to the campaign in an effort to regain his jockeys' championship. Ladbrokes make Eddery an 11-10 chance to succeed Michael Roberts (4-6), who has spent the last few days acquainting himself with Sheikh Mohammed's horses on the Newmarket gallops and in France.

The Mile is effectively a preparation race for the Hong Kong International Cup at Sha Tin, which sees Silver Wisp and Mellottie, as well as the French-trained Urban Sea, forming the European Challenge.

By the time those horses have fought it out for the pounds 405,000 prize- money on 18 April, it may be that Flat racing itself will have been enriched, and enlivened, by the performance of a horse called Zafonic.