Chris McGrath: Abbey to offer winter sanctuary

Inside Track
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The Independent Online

Always leave the punters wanting more. That's what they say. Of course, the easiest way of doing that is to give them nothing in the first place. But if you were to take the adage at all earnestly, you would end the British Flat season at around 3.32pm today.

All being well, that is when a clear favourite for the 2010 Investec Derby will pull up after the Racing Post Trophy at Doncaster. This is the race that recently produced three Epsom winners in six years – High Chaparral, Motivator and Authorized – and it may well be that none of them had to beat quite as good a field as the one assembling today. All in all, you could not end the turf season with a more exquisite tension between satisfaction and anticipation.

As it is, the domestic calendar will meander towards a nondescript conclusion back on Town Moor in a fortnight's time. This causes anguish among those bringing too parochial a perspective to proposed reform in the Flat programme. The reality is that the season will reach a true and fitting climax, that same day, in the Breeders' Cup. But you have to be able to see past the end of your nose to acknowledge that, which is evidently a furlong or two too far for some.

Clearly, there is no harm in trying to improve the focus undeniably lacking in aspects of our own autumn agenda. It would be a mistake, however, to believe that you can contrive some artificial crescendo. A couple of years ago the final day at Doncaster yielded indelible drama, when Jamie Spencer won the last race and so tied for the jockeys' championship with Seb Sanders. As we have been reminded by Sea The Stars, whose career ultimately transcended racing's parish boundaries, the most intriguing stories could never be scripted in advance. This year, Ryan Moore is runaway champion. Who knows? Next year he may find Kieren Fallon making things far more interesting. But it goes without saying that you predict Fallon at your peril.

Yet you could hardly devise a more engrossing plot than the one that brings four vaunted, unbeaten colts to Doncaster today. You have St Nicholas Abbey, apparently the standout Derby type at Ballydoyle – the one stable in all Europe where you are likely to find a Derby pedigree. You have Al Zir, who could yet end the serial Classic failures of Ballydoyle's great adversaries, Godolphin. You have Elusive Pimpernel, representing not just the old school but its headmaster, in John Dunlop; and Coordinated Cut, the latest candidate to disclose a precious core within the brittle virtuosity of Peter Chapple-Hyam.

It would be silly to insist that the plot will unfold one way or another. There simply isn't enough evidence. All four of these colts have been so saturated with hype that the best value probably now rests in Musaafer or Dancing David, who remain entitled to unpredictable improvement. But the same is true of those who top the bill, as well.

After making an impressive start at the Curragh in August, St Nicholas Abbey returned last month to win the same Group Two race that announced Sea The Stars last year. The bare form is not especially dazzling, but St Nicholas Abbey showed a flair you would not necessarily expect in a colt guaranteed to enjoy middle distances next year. Aidan O'Brien, his trainer, farmed this race four times in six years to 2002, but has struggled mysteriously since, despite sending over whole cavalry regiments by Galileo and Montjeu. It seems highly significant that he is prepared to leave all his eggs in one basket this time.

Godolphin have had an overdue season of success with their juveniles, but none has convincingly made the leap from quantity to Classic quality. Al Zir has looked very seductive in both starts, when placed with sensible restraint, but in the process gained little experience for a giddy step up in class today. The sky remains the limit, but bear in mind that he would have options should he happen to win. With his American pedigree, he might well find himself on the Kentucky Derby trail.

Elusive Pimpernel's form has a solid look, in contrast, but the company of good horses has so far made him look resolute without being terribly fast. The extra furlong should certainly help, mind. Coordinated Cut, meanwhile, contived to look short of gears even in a maiden that has not worked out at all. The only reason for taking him very seriously is the undiminished faith of his trainer and jockey, who both know their way around a good horse. The same is true of Michael Jarvis, whose decision to pitch Musaafer straight into the deep end after winning a Pontefract maiden shows why no one could be adamant about the outcome today. But St Nicholas Abbey is clearly the colt to beat, representing a stable that produced first, second and fourth in the Dewhurst Stakes last Saturday.

The Dewhurst has become something of a shopping mall for Sheikh Mohammed in recent years, but he won't get his hands on those three. Admittedly, the race yielded rather more questions than answers this time. Perhaps the same will happen today. Let's not jump to any conclusions. But at least we have a chance to reach a proper conclusion, before we all go jumping.

Auntie grants airtime to another minority interest – jump racing

No, don't worry. You're not stuck in some wagering time warp. Look closely at the cards. No Fred Winter. No Fulke Walwyn. No Steve Smith Eccles or Hywel Davies. But yes, it does feel eerie: a National Hunt double-header from the BBC. Has someone convinced them that there is going to be steeplechasing at the Olympics? Or are they just giving token airtime to another deranged minority?

The Tote sponsors all five races screened from both Aintree and Chepstow, where the big reputations of Aiteen Thirtythree (1.20) and Alfie Sherrin (1.55) will doubtless ensure they start at pretty short odds to keep up the champion trainer's purposeful start to the season proper.

The Old Roan Chase at Aintree is a puzzle, bringing together half a dozen previous course winners. Some are likely to need the run with other targets in mind, so it could be now or never for the established class act, Tidal Bay (2.15). After his wind operation he must turn over a new leaf off this kind of rating, or be forgotten for good. But arguably the most fascinating jumps race of the weekend is a modest maiden hurdle at Galway tomorrow, featuring the reappearance of Dunguib, the best bumper horse in a very long time. Just don't expect to see it on the BBC news.

Turf account Chris McGrath


Rabbit Fighter (6.40 Kempton)

Has tumbled down the handicap but hinted at a return to form when finding his way through midfield off a steady gallop at Wolverhampton last time.

*Next best

Swiss Cross (1.15 Doncaster)

Clicked when stepped up to 7f at Newmarket last time. The subsequent success of the third makes him look fairly treated for his handicap debut.

*One to watch

Invincible Lad (E J Alston) has already made good progress but could have still more to offer reverted to 5f.

*Where the money's going

Radiohead is 16-1 for the Breeders' Cup Juvenile with William Hill.