Albabilia to play forward role in Nell Gwyn

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The Independent Online

Although Flat racing is these days a year-round fixture, now is the time when the pulse of the season really begins to quicken. This afternoon on the Rowley Mile, racing action returns for the first time in more than five months to the Suffolk town that is the sport's historic headquarters.

It is a convention that has been taking place for some time; the first Craven Stakes, the Classic trial that gives this week's meeting its name, was run in 1878. As did the carriages of Victorian racegoers, cars and horseboxes today will take the same arrow-straight path towards Newmarket of the old Roman road. The topic of conversation 130 years ago may have been of political change in the Balkans – Serbia and Montenegro had just been granted independence, Bosnia was looking for it – and the unrest in Afghanistan. More likely it concerned the likelihood of seeing a Classic winner on the wide-open Heath. Plus ca change, plus c'est le meme chose.

Yesterday, another time-honoured ritual was taking place on the gallops: that of riding out with hope in the heart, for at this time of year geese are still swans. If heaven has a place on earth, it may be Newmarket Heath early on a bright spring morning. But this new young season has been a long time coming and though the sky was bright, the wind was cold and keen. One of this week's modern customs is the Tattersalls sale of unraced two-year-olds and the fortitude of those watching the youngsters show their paces on the racecourse before being auctioned tonight was severely tested. It may have been worth being chilled to the bone, though; last year's graduates include Guineas candidates Rio De la Plata and Sir Gerry.

On the training grounds, Tuesday is a routine day for most, and the Newmarket-based fillies who will turn out in the Nell Gwyn Stakes this afternoon did no more than stretch their elegant legs. More than colts, the female of the thoroughbred species are discommoded by cold weather; nature tells them to hold on to their fluffy winter coats.

"Look at the trees," said John Gosden, gesticulating to as-yet bare branches. "What chance have fillies got?" Gosden has won today's seven-furlong trial twice (most recently with Karen's Caper, who went on to finish fourth in the real thing three years ago) and this time fields once-raced Infallible.

The daughter of Pivotal, a Cheveley Park Stud colourbearer, now carries Gosden's sole Guineas hopes; her stablemate Sense Of Joy, the hitherto fourth favourite, was yesterday ruled out of the Classic with an injury.

Infallible made an excellent impression when she won at Newmarket in November but her trainer is too level-headed to count any chickens at this early stage, and seven of her Nell Gwyn rivals also hold the Classic entry, though she is the most prominent on the big-race betting. Little Nijoom Dubai has not raced since winning at Royal Ascot and will be Mick Channon's first shot across the bows before the appearance of her perceived better stablemate Nahoodh; Rinterval, from Richard Hannon's in-form yard, deserves much respect after her progressive second place to Lush Lashes in a valuable Irish sales-related race.

But it may just be worth taking a chance today with the one filly who has mixed it at the highest level, and who is probably the most streetwise of the field. Albabilia (3.45), a strong, rangy daughter of King's Best, has not had the most straightforward of careers to date; after winning on the July course and finishing a creditable fourth in the Moyglare Stud Stakes she was found to have a heart murmur when virtually pulled up in Rinterval's Irish race, and then took time to acclimatise when sent to Dubai for a tough assignment against older horses. But Clive Brittain has never made any secret of the high regard in which he holds her, and he is not that often badly wrong. Neither today's distance nor the ground will hold any fears, she will have the able assistance of Seb Sanders and, having spent the winter in the warm, she won't have been watching the leaves on the trees.

Epsom candidates are starting to poke their heads above the parapets and, although he will undoubtedly improve for the outing, Kandahar Run (4.20) is expected to launch Henry Cecil's bid for a fourth Blue Riband.

Back in 1878, there was a Classic winner on view; the subsequent Derby hero Sefton finished second to Thurio in the Craven Stakes.