Chris McGrath: Freshness of Mia's Boy can prove a blessing in Flat season curtain-raiser
Saturday 28 March 2009
If thoroughbreds were half as predictable as some of the people whose opinions they stimulate, then life would be a lot easier all round. Even the Lincoln winner would announce himself with bells and trumpets. As it is, however, the resumption of Flat racing on turf at Doncaster today renews a familiar divide. The creatures on four legs remain camouflaged by a skein of perplexing possibilities; those on two, meanwhile, are full of dark suspicions.
No doubt the two syndromes are related. But it is one thing to approach the horses themselves with a certain mistrust; quite another, to trace some endemic duplicity to their custodians. Year after year, you hear the same, trite complaint about Flat racing professionals. Where their jump racing counterparts are said to be good old boys, glad to take your call in the middle of any business or pleasure, Flat trainers are depicted as remote, secretive and arrogant. From this wholly inaccurate premise, various portentous inferences are reliably drawn, about the Levy apocalypse beckoning those who do not evince adequate respect for the dignity of gamblers.
Somehow the essentially bovine betting habits of most high-street punters seem only to guarantee them the status of sacred cow. This time, their high priests are jumping up and down because Aidan O'Brien did not issue a statement to the Stock Exchange about a winter hold-up for one of his best colts, Rip Van Winkle.
Now his status as one of the great trainers in history has not impaired O'Brien's innate humility. He remains a mild, considerate man, and it takes a good deal to provoke him. But he does seem irritated by some of the sanctimonious reproaches he has read since disclosing a perfectly manageable delay in the schedule of a colt who requires little work anyway. "I'll tell them every time a horse gets a rash under its tail," he suggested this week. "Or a pimple on its elbow."
With horses, you can easily have too much information. Indeed the true deception is to simplify the daily positives and negatives of their preparation. Everyone knows stories of big races being won by horses that have spent the previous 24 hours with a foot in a bucket of ice. It is seldom black and white. And when it is, you can rely on a man like John Quinn to let everyone know – as was his mournful duty yesterday – that Character Building is lame and will miss next Saturday's Grand National.
Quinn, of course, is one of the few trainers equally at home on the Flat or over jumps. But it is the punters – or their precious guardians, at any rate – who create other, unnecessary divisions, by increasingly assuming that the world owes them a living.
Whatever the merits of the respective cases, few would dispute that the two most uncomfortable sagas of last year concerned O'Brien's use of pacemakers, and the right of his mentor, Jim Bolger, to change his mind over plans for New Approach. Common to both, as to the storm in Rip Van Winkle's teacup, was an exaggerated sensitivity to trainers' priorities.
Of course punters always merit due consideration. But the key word is "due". Classics are not staged first and foremost as betting opportunities.
As it happens, over-simplification has also distorted the first big race of the new season, the William Hill Lincoln Handicap. Wildly amplified reports of a gallop by Expresso Star have made him one of the hottest favourites in years. Now John Gosden, his trainer, is warning that he might not even run, should the ground be too firm. And, if nothing else, that would certainly be another salutary lesson for those who suspect that the most significant information about races is always privileged.
His public career sustains the possibility that he could soon leave handicaps behind, but a drop back in distance on faster ground hardly underpins his very short odds. Swop is another aspiring to a higher level, but this kind of stampede sometimes calls for more yeoman qualities.
Admittedly, Chris Dwyer is himself professing anxiety about fast ground, but Mia's Boy (3.55) quickened smartly on pretty firm ground at York last May, and looks worth chancing at 22-1 (Coral). His overall progress can be measured by the fact that he could not even get into the consolation race last year, but he remains on a feasible mark, 2lb lower than when unlucky at the St Leger meeting. As that run came fresh after a summer break, and was his second fine effort from two visits here, he certainly looks eligible in principle.
Favourite for the consolation race is Fireside, making his first appearance since the 2,000 Guineas – and his first for Michael Jarvis. Having run so well in a big sales race on his debut, he may have the wit to deal with more experienced rivals. But the odds assume as much and Extraterrestrial (2.45) warrants perseverance after shaping well last year.
He had a nice pipe-opener on the all-weather, and likewise VITZNAU (nap 3.20). Midfield in the Lincoln last year, he has shown plenty of dash on the bridle, and can at last confirm sprinting to be his true métier. Channel 4 meanwhile begins its broadcast with the first juvenile race of the season, where Chicita Banana and Swilly Ferry are among those looking the part on paper. But with no public evidence to work with, here is one race where those flagitious curs, the Flat trainers, really do have the advantage.
Casino Drive best for Dubai gamble
Hailstones have been smashing windscreens in Dubai this week, but the real sense of apocalypse traces to the emirate's place as hub of a global economy in meltdown. They have none the less managed to scrape together $6m for today's World Cup, albeit the field may not match the prize.
Asiatic Boy was annihilated by Curlin last year but is disputing favouritism with Albertus Maximus, winner of the Dirt Mile at the Breeders' Cup last autumn and now in the hands of Kiaran McLaughlin, who saddled Invasor to win here two years ago. His stamina is unproven and it may instead be worth chancing Casino Drive.
Another fabulous prize for the Dubai Sheema Classic has again drawn the dual Arc runner-up, Youmzain, but he could not quite get involved here last year. The locally trained Eastern Anthem may surprise.
Marchand D'Or tries a new surface in the big sprint, best left to Indian Blessing, while Paco Boy needs to prove his stamina for the Dubai Duty Free, where Archipenko and especially Presvis promise tough opposition. Then there is Desert Party in the UAE Derby, though the Americans will not entertain a Kentucky Derby winner emerging from the desert until hell freezes over. Now about those hailstones ...
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