Chris McGrath: The season ends but all the old problems persist

Inside Track
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The Independent Online

This is a big week for the people at Racing For Change. You can get in free at nine meetings between Monday and Saturday and one of them, Ascot on Wednesday, features the trial of decimal odds in the betting ring. So far as the final day of the jumps season is concerned, however, they must beware of ending up as plus ça change.

To an extent, today's card at Sandown condenses the variety of the British Turf with centre stage formally ceded to the Flat after the Bet365 Gold Cup. Jump and Flat jockeys not only share the changing room, they ride against each other in a larky opening race. All the familiar anomalies persist, however. Never mind that some day a rider or trainer will clinch his championship by winning the bumper at Market Rasen. The real travesty is that the "new" jumps campaign starts tomorrow at Ludlow and Wetherby.

There is no point reprising the old sarcasms about this preposterous state of affairs. But if Racing For Change is to justify its billing, racecourses will have to dismantle the barriers they have avariciously installed against progress, ostensibly in the name of the free market. Surely it should be possible to bang enough heads together for the congenial rescheduling of those jumps meetings programmed, say, over the next 12 days.

Instead the project has so far confined its proposed surgery to the fixture list – and this wants to be an open-heart job – to the cosmetic designation of the core months, on the Flat and over jumps, as the "premier" season. You can call it the Premier Season, or you can call it Engelbert Humperdinck, but it won't make any difference to the way any long-term audience will view the professional calendar. And it is a complete irrelevance compared to the necessary, ruthless introduction of tiers – Premier to Conference as it were – in funding for tracks and fixtures.

As things stand, the notion that the jumps season has a more coherent shape than the Flat is again shown to be tripe today. The big prize at Sandown is largely contested by slow, exposed, chasers. The obvious exceptions, in terms of being exposed, are the novices Just Amazing and Fairoak Lad. The former has been operating mainly in small fields since going over fences and made little impact the one time he sampled this kind of company. Fairoak Lad is more obviously progressive and his stable is in terrific form, but 50-1 looks better value about another, less obvious novice in Marty's Mission. He has a stout pedigree and arrives after a light campaign completely unexposed over staying trips.

The tenor of the season's "climax" is summed up by the arrival of Twist Magic, who refused to race at Punchestown during the week. He has always gone well round here but clearly cannot be relied upon even against the rabble he meets in the Celebration Chase.

The reality is that much the most interesting races at this meeting are on the Flat – not least those staged yesterday. In view of the drowsy start made by the stable in recent seasons it was interesting to see such a purposeful resumption from both Godolphin runners on the card. Chabal, second in a Group One eight days after his debut last term was then disappointing in the Dewhurst but made a striking start for his new trainer in the Classic Trial; and the fierce finish of Sowaylm, one of many "in-house" juveniles to contribute to Godolphin's prolific 2009, was foiled only in a photo later in the day.

Chabal, 20-1 for the Investec Derby, is likely to proceed to York's Totesport Dante Stakes next month. That will provide a tougher test, with Waseet clearly not himself here, albeit Azmeel gave the form a solid look in pulling clear of the third. While Chabal looks likely to stay a mile and a half, his long reach may not be ideal for Epsom. Whatever happens, it looks as though the stable's three-year-olds can again be taken seriously on their return from the desert.

Perhaps the best prospect on show yesterday was Fallen Idol, who brought his handicap career to an end in the opener, while Fatanah consolidated Marcus Tregoning's excellent start to the campaign in the fillies' maiden.

Assuming his trainer, Richard Hannon, is satisfied with the watered ground, today's star turn is likely to be Paco Boy, a Group One winner who should outclass his Group Two rivals just as he did last year. But hindsight may yet identify Glass Harmonium, in the Gordon Richards Stakes, as the horse who laid down deepest foundations of all over the two days.

Of course, there are deeds to celebrate at the end of a season that gave us Kauto Star's fourth King George, and Tony McCoy's first Grand National. Let us honour such epoch-making men and horses. But let us also remember that we are now only a week away from St Nicholas Abbey's quest for a first Classic, in the 2,000 Guineas. And it doesn't matter whether he starts 6-4, or 2.5, or how much you have to pay to see him. In the end, if St Nicholas Abbey can't get through to people – or Kauto Star, or McCoy – then really we can't give the stuff away. Not even the stuff of legend.

Hurricane Fly storms home for Champion glory

No less than on the Flat, a properly integrated international sport, the true end-of-season party for jumpers takes place overseas – and the Punchestown Festival came up with a fitting climax with an exhilarating comeback from Hurricane Fly yesterday.

Though he defeated Solwhit only narrowly in the Rabobank Champion Hurdle, the way he cruised through the race confirmed the impression he made as a novice last season. Willie Mullins, saddling his ninth winner of another amazing week, had been concerned that an interrupted campaign would leave Hurricane Fly short, but the gelding, confined to just one start in November, made a virtue of his freshness and responded to a brief drive from Paul Townend to run down Solwhit by a neck. Thousand Stars confirmed his own improvement for Mullins by following them home, clear of the pack, among which Dunguib faded after racing too freely.

Dunguib will doubtless prove a force at this level next season, having been on the go since Oct-ober and perhaps uncomfortable on quick ground here. But this race consummated the promise of Hurricane Fly and his young rider who has seized his opportunities this week as deputy to the injured Ruby Walsh.

"Paul rode him very confidently," Mullins said. "They didn't go a particularly fast pace and that probably helped us. The horse hasn't missed a beat for the last four weeks, but I was worried that he might have needed to get away for a second piece of work."

The world seemed at Hurricane Fly's feet a year ago but injury has cost him a run at Cheltenham twice already. He has beaten a solid yardstick in Solwhit, however, and is now no better than 6-1 for the Champion Hurdle next March.

Turf Account: Chris McGrath


Glass Harmonium (4.15 Sandown)

Missed the rest of the summer after coming of age at Royal Ascot last year, two starts in the autumn promising plenty more to come with distance and maturity. The way he has been working this spring apparently corroborates that impression.

Next best

King Of Wands (5.45 Ripon)

Rapid progress in handicaps came to an abrupt halt in Listed company at Goodwood last summer, but looks most eligible for further improvement in this field and has since joined a stable making a brisk start to the new campaign.

One to watch

Bonfire Knight (JJ Quinn)

Bumped into a well treated animal in Hacienda at Beverley on Thursday, but finished best of all for third after being taken off his feet and can plainly win handicaps off this sort of mark, granted a more searching test.

Where the money's going

Canford Cliffs

Is 10-1 from 12-1 with Paddy Power for the Stan James 2,000 Guineas next Saturday, despite his reappearance defeat by stablemate Dick Turpin. Collection and Presvis, meanwhile, share 11-4 favouritism with William Hill for the QEII Cup at Sha Tin tomorrow.