There was a time when today's card at Sandown was one of the most cherished of the year, a celebration of everything that is best about the sport in these islands – its variety, its rhythms, its fellowship. Nowadays, however, all those themes are corroded by the avarice and myopia that pervade the racing calendar. Instead, the meeting stands like a rusting bulwark against a tide of relentless, shapeless mediocrity.
How else might you explain to a confused novice why one jumps season should end at Sandown this afternoon, and another start at Ludlow and Wetherby tomorrow? Or why exhausted stable staff and jockeys can no longer distinguish this meeting from all the others linking the daily blur of motorways, divided by brief nights at home, stolen while their children sleep?
The headlong expansion of the fixture list gave racecourses a new commercial opportunity in summer jumping, and you would do well to prise these meetings away now. With a bit of wit and flexibility, however, surely it must be possible to restore an interval of at least 10 or 14 days away from the manic treadmill?
None of this is Sandown's fault, of course, and many of the things that made the meeting are still in place – notably the fact that Frankie Dettori and Ruby Walsh can hang their jackets on adjacent pegs. But its identity has been eroded in other ways, too, most obviously by the rivalry of the Punchestown Festival. Indeed, Tony McCoy himself will not be present for his latest coronation, his services instead being required in Co Kildare.
The meeting's drift is perhaps reflected in fitful changes in sponsorship of its biggest prize, in contrast to all those years in which it was solidly known as the Whitbread Gold Cup. Still, it remains a valuable prize, thanks to Bet365, and nobody is going to quibble too much with the broader context if they can back the winner at 16-1.
That is the price available against KNOWHERE (nap 3.20), whose stable has for once managed to replicate its customary autumn success in the springtime. Indeed, Paddy Brennan included the 100th winner of his first season with Nigel Twiston-Davies (right) when they shared a four-timer at Perth during the week.
Knowhere was still in contention when unseating his rider at Valentine's Brook second time in the Grand National, and had previously been rushed into mistakes when biting off more than he could chew in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. But his defeat of Our Vic and Neptune Collonges at Prestbury Park in January has worked out extremely well, so confirming the impression that he might improve once sent three miles and beyond.
A rare anomaly identifies Iris De Balme as the formal pick of the weights, even though he is 23lb out of the handicap. He was in a similar pickle last Saturday when fairly sprinting home in the Scottish National, and Hot Weld managed the same double last year. As a rule, however, you would be wary of backing a horse so soon after such an energetic effort.
The more conservative policy would be to rough him off and bring him back next season. But then it is practically impossible to hire a paddock for one night only.
Centennial more than a whisper
This meeting so hesitates on the brink of fulfilment that by far its most interesting race takes place after Channel 4 ends its broadcast.
For the unequivocal word from Newmarket this spring is that Centennial (4.35) has blossomed into an authentic Derby colt. As he represents a stable that has already disclosed vintage depth among its three-year-olds, this may be more a matter of actions than words. And it is not as if his form at two leaves him short, anyway, including a good run against the emerging French star, Thewayyouare, in Paris on his final start.
Another interesting runner later on the card is Jamboretta (5.05). She has a top-class pedigree and will surely end the season rated more highly than she is now, having not quite lasted 10 furlongs here last autumn.
Her trainer, Sir Michael Stoute, meanwhile goes under the radar with a colt who has also been backed for the Derby. Tartan Bearer, a brother to Golan, was unlucky not win his sole start at two but at least that leaves him eligible for a gentle test in a maiden at Leicester.
New superstar for Lloyd Webber?
Centennial's trainer, John Gosden, came up with yet another impressive three-year-old yesterday when Da Re Mi won a fillies' maiden by seven lengths. Lord Lloyd Webber's filly made all the running and will now go on trial for the Juddmonte Oaks in the Tattersalls Musidora Stakes at York next month. She certainly has the right genes, being a daughter of Singspiel and Darara, who won the Prix Vermeille and was a half-sister to Darshaan. Coral cut her Epsom odds from 25-1 to 12-1.
The card also featured a game reappearance from Ask, who went so close in the Canadian International last autumn. It is probably only a matter of time before he does win a Group One prize, but his narrow success under Ryan Moore in the Bet365 Gordon Richards Stakes suggests that he may have to step back up in trip first.
Moore also won on Corrybrough, a young sprinter who certainly looked better than a handicapper and could prove an heir to his sire, Kyllachy, who was also trained by Henry Candy.
Leg Spinner to turn tide for the Irish
One of the curious themes of the jumps season has been a sudden slackening in Irish fortunes. A couple of years ago, the Celtic Tiger was routinely mauling the British at Cheltenham, and when Kicking King, Brave Inca and Newmill returned to the Punchestown Festival they reduced championship races to little more than a lap of honour.
It has all been very different this week. Yesterday Nicky Henderson and Punjabi emulated Twist Magic, Neptune Collonges and Blazing Bailey by taking the biggest prize of the day back to Britain. Admittedly he was ridden rather more alertly in the ACC Bank Irish Champion Hurdle than was Sublimity, the runner-up. Left with plenty of ground to make up as Punjabi kicked for home, Sublimity did well to reduce the margin to three lengths.
Either way, the suspicion persists that none of these horses are in the same league as Sizing Europe on his day. Unfortunately that horse continues to cause his trainer problems, being obliged to miss this race after all but being pulled up at Cheltenham. The crossroads facing his connections next season – hurdles or fences? – now looks a really tough call.
Perhaps these things are merely cyclical, for the Irish are not lacking young talent, judging from the superb performances of Jered and Cousin Vinny during the week. Tranquil Sea looks another with a future after winning the Land Rover Champion Novices' Hurdle yesterday, albeit the pursuit of Fiveforthree on the run-in may just have been blunted by his exertions behind Jered just three days previously. Regardless, the step up from two miles has been the making of Tranquil Sea, who is trained by Edward O'Grady and looks an ideal chasing type.
The plucky Franchoek tries to extend the depredations of British trainers in a Grade One hurdle for juveniles on today's card, but much the most valuable prize is offered for the Ballymore Anniversary Handicap Hurdle. It is surely now or never for Leg Spinner (4.55), whose class on the Flat is not remotely reflected by his rating over hurdles.
Arrival of Yeats asserts a new dawn
Yeats will have to look to his laurels this summer, with his own stable housing younger stayers on the upgrade in Septimus and Mahler. In general, of course, the Ballydoyle horses have been looking rusty this spring, but he will presumably have too much class for his rivals in a Listed race at Navan tomorrow. Otherwise it looks like a low-key weekend for Aidan O'Brien, who has the Guineas meeting rushing up to meet him in just seven days.
Also resuming tomorrow is Zambezi Sun, essentially disappointing last autumn after that brilliant Group One breakthrough in the Grand Prix de Paris. He returns to Longchamp for the Prix Ganay, over 10 furlongs, on what should be an interesting afternoon for his owner, Khaled Abdulla. Proviso, last seen finishing second in the Fillies' Mile at Ascot, reappears on the same card.
It might not be obvious from the racing calendar, but these horses will at least ensure that it feels as though the jumps season is over.