Chris McGrath: Return of Flat racing can refresh the palate even after a vintage feast at Cheltenham

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The Independent Online

Call this a rite of spring? Judging from the worst of the forecast, the starting stalls for the first race of the new Flat season may have to be dragged across Town Moor by a team of huskies.

Yet these first, shivering skirmishes will extend seamlessly into the defining engagements of distant, hazy summer days. With due deference to Aintree and Punchestown, it is almost as though a vintage Cheltenham Festival has exhausted the possibilities of jump racing. After such a banquet, it is time to refresh the palate.

Somehow, the most familiar dish on the Flat racing menu never grows stale. In principle, the duopoly of the Maktoums and Coolmore – and specifically their elite stables, Godolphin and Ballydoyle – should depress interest, not stimulate it. But the balance of power is in such flux that it constantly tests the moral or intellectual reflexes of every bystander. It is never simple, always fascinating.

Who, for instance, can fail to admire the spirited way Sheikh Mohammed is redressing stagnation in his bloodstock and racing empires? Yet who, equally, can be impressed by his scattergun solutions? Over the past year, he has bought every plausible racing or breeding prospect on the market. They all have potential. But nobody is making any serious judgement on that potential. As a priceless friend to the British Turf, you have to wish him well when Godolphin's European team returns from the desert next month. But the candid policy has been that if you sign enough cheques, you should get lucky somewhere on the line.

Coolmore do not have that luxury. Their bottom line, of course, must be just that: the bottom line. But commercial imperatives do not always coincide with the overall interests of the breed. Grotesque overproduction of foals continues to corrode the gene pool. There is hope, however, in that the best young stallions at Coolmore, Galileo and Montjeu, could slowly shepherd the market back towards stamina.

In the absence of Kieren Fallon, Ballydoyle has a new stable jockey in Johnny Murtagh. His appointment surprised some within Coolmore, who felt no need to retain a rider when Aidan O'Brien could summon any of his regular men by snapping his fingers. But this was evidently considered an unworthy way of doing business. If they wanted a proper commitment from Murtagh, they had an honourable sense that they should earn one.

Perhaps the stability Murtagh has achieved in his career should help Fallon himself, as he perseveres in the hope of a ninth life. In the meantime, his input will doubtless help Sir Michael Stoute keep both superpowers on their mettle. (Messrs Bolger and Chapple-Hyam will be among the others again hoping to do the same.)

Fallon's new role in the stable may also assist Ryan Moore as he tries to retrieve the championship he lost, partly though injury, in 2007. The last time we all gathered at Doncaster, of course, was for the final day of the season, when Seb Sanders and Jamie Spencer heroically sustained their immaculate duel for the title. Spencer has long made it plain that he will never again go to such extremes; not so, Sanders. As it happens, he is suspended for the first four days of the season. But floodlit racing has irrevocably altered the landscape, and Sanders is surely too big at 9-2 to win it outright when he returns here in November.

Brawny Yeaman's ready to muscle in

Nothing is better calculated to temper innocent enthusiasm for the Flat than debating the draw advantage in the William Hill Lincoln. Recent history is of limited value, of course, this venerable handicap having resumed its peregrinations over the past two years while Doncaster was closed for redevelopment. Originally a refugee from Lincoln, the race visited Redcar in 2006 and Newcastle last year. The resumption of racing here last autumn yielded little evidence about the draw, and anyone adamant about an advantage today will no doubt claim to know how the track will respond to snow as well.

The one certainty is that a rest did wonders for the racing surface itself. Nor, seemingly, will conditions be anything like as testing as has sometimes been the case at this time of year. With the prize nowadays demanding the attention of much better horses, punters should be looking beyond the traditional, hard-knocking handicapper with lots of experience. Maybe something in the same mould as Stream Of Gold – who won the last Lincoln here on his fifth start, and ended up winning a Grade Two race in Florida only last weekend.

One horse that fits the bill is Prince Forever, confined to one start last season after starting third favourite in the Champagne Stakes as a juvenile. His connections command automatic respect, but the limited evidence suggests that he pulls too hard to guarantee stamina for an eighth furlong.

Yeaman's Hall (4.0) is also very lightly raced, having been injured after a creditable handicap debut last summer. He had previously acquitted himself well in exalted company and, as a brawny type, remains capable of considerable improvement in maturity. Gelded in his absence, he has been well backed for this and the claim of his rider, William Buick, is clearly going to be a temporary asset this season.

Challenging role for McCririck's heir

One unexpected change for the new campaign is the reduced profile of John McCririck, who is being discarded from Channel 4's team on 18 Saturdays.

Some will perhaps see similarities in the bold decision to drop Matthew Hoggard, as well as Steve Harmison, from England's bowling attack in Wellington last week. Given new responsibility, Messrs Sidebottom and Anderson flourished unmistakably. But that is not going to happen here. McCririck is more like that other hirsute icon, WG Grace, immoderate in both style and substance. While he is capable of goading anyone, he will provoke none more consistently than the opposition.

He mounts the odd hobby horse, admittedly, and sometimes they are quite high ones. But beyond all the distracting flourishes is a base of professionalism, without which he would be exposed as a flimsy sideshow. His notoriety extends far beyond the racing parish, and has its roots in brains as much as bravado.

The stakes are correspondingly high for racing. Channel 4 reiterated its commitment to the sport during Cheltenham, typically putting together an entertaining live broadcast on the afternoon when racing was lost to high winds. Of course, they may yet blood a deserving heir to McCririck. But if they simply seek an inoffensive style, they will end up with a bland one.

Hills primed for a bright opening

This year, by opening with Lincoln day itself, at last the Flat season starts with something nearer a bang than a whimper. That may make it harder for Barry Hills to have his usual Doncaster winners, but he has a strong candidate for both the listed sprint, in Prime Defender, and the William Hill Spring Mile, a consolation prize for those that missed the cut in the Lincoln.

Zaahid would have been favourite in the main event, but this could be the limit of his stamina and, taking a neutral view of the draw, a chance is taken with Benandonner (2.50). He rather lost his way after promising better to come for his new stable last spring, but could turn over a new leaf back over this trip.

His trainer, Richard Fahey, also has a very interesting type in Utmost Respect, still very lightly raced and guaranteed to be one of the leading sprinters in the north by the end of the season. But Hills reportedly has Prime Defender (3.25) primed to run for his life.

Hills has also got one ready for the first juvenile race of the season, in Mr Melodious. But Doncaster Rover (2.15), as a January foal representing an ambitious local stable, might prove as good a guess as any.

Aintree comeback would test Kauto

There is life in the jumpers yet, of course, and Paul Nicholls has still not ruled out another outing for Kauto Star after his gruelling defeat at Cheltenham eight days ago. Nicholls yesterday indicated that the horse would run over two and a half miles, in the John Smith's Melling Chase, rather than the Totesport Bowl over three, if he does go to Aintree. It will be a late decision, regardless. Ruby Walsh is among those who suspected that Kauto Star was below his best at Cheltenham. But it would be amazing if his mount could retrieve peak form, so soon after soaking up that brutal flurry of punches from Denman.

Bookies' Good chance to profit

A coarse, jagged new cut was made in the nation's cultural fabric yesterday when high street bookmakers opened their shops on Good Friday for the first time. They were, needless to say, only giving their customers the service they wanted. Apparently people so determined to lose their dignity, along with their money, that they wanted the chance to find all the pretty Pferde at Bremen. Nothing, then, to do with the fact that these bloodthirsty conglomerates are always looking to squeeze a few extra fractions of a penny into their shareholder dividends.

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