Before the Lincoln Handicap, the first leg of the traditional spring double, was run here yesterday, bookmakers were already in pocket over the second, the Grand National. And a day that began badly for punters with the defection of the well-backed ante-post Aintree favourite, Prince De Beauchene, carried on in similar vein. The first winner of the domestic turf season, Norse Blues, started at 50-1 and the Lincoln went to 25-1 shot Brae Hill.
A dull display at exercise had prompted concerns about Prince De Beauchene, the market leader for the National since an easy victory in Ireland's premier trial, and veterinary checks revealed a hairline hip fracture. "It will mean eight weeks' box rest," said his trainer, Willie Mullins, "so, unfortunately, there will be no Aintree for him this year."
The Aintree market is now headed by Junior, 9-1 with William Hill followed by Cheltenham Gold Cup hero Synchronised (10-1), Cappa Bleu (11-1) with Seabass and last year's winner Ballabriggs both 14-1. Prince De Beauchene accounted for 20 per cent of the Hills ante-post National book but in truth the firm's pre-race betting activity, less than £40,000, is nothing compared with turnover on the day, £26 million last year. "The Prince De Beauchene takings are a drop in the ocean," said Hill's spokeswoman Kate Miller, "but at least it's a drop in our direction."
The William Hill-sponsored Lincoln, worth £62,250 to the winner, may not offer the riches of the $10m Dubai World Cup, nor a chilly Town Moor the exoticism of Meydan, but the mile handicap at least has heritage on its side; it was first run in 1853 and historyis one reason why Brae Hill's trainer, Richard Fahey, was especially pleased to take the venerable contest after umpteen near misses. "I've had three seconds, and plenty of thirds and fourths," he said, "and it's great to get the box ticked at last. It's a race that's part of the tradition of the sport as well as being a decent prize and a good one to have on your CV."
Twelve months previously Brae Hill had been one of those runners-up but made his trainer sweat as he put the record straight under Tony Hamilton, fending off the late charge of 10-1 chance Mull Of Killough by a short head. A length behind Fury (8-1) had justa head to spare over Edinburgh Knight (11-1), with 11-2 favourite Eton Forever fifth.
Another note of satisfaction for Fahey was the fact that Mull Of Killough had been under his care until a recent sudden transfer, but though his Malton-based string has been in good form on the all-weather circuits, the Irishman had not been sanguine about victory in an ultra-competitive handicap with a horse who had yet to acquire a spring bloom on his coat. "He's a very hairy horse at the moment," he said, "but he was hairier last year when hewas second."
It was a first Lincoln, too, for Hamilton, in fact a career-best victory. Close to the pace from the start, the rider sent Brae Hill to the front fully three furlongs out and his inch-perfect judgement was rewarded by a gutsy head-down effort from his mount and praise from his boss, whose long-time stable jockey, Paul Hanagan, is now with Sheikh Hamdan's team. "Tony is as good a rider as you'll get," added Fahey, "so I've got no worries at all about jockeys this season."