As St Nicholas Abbey soon discovered – remember him? – Sea The Stars is a pretty impossible act to follow. So while there's no getting away from the fact that the six horses gathering for the Coral Eclipse Stakes at Sandown today fall short of the vintage field beaten by the champion last year, it is churlish for people to start wringing their hands.
If anything, with committed sponsorship, the Eclipse has enjoyed something of a revival during the past five seasons, three times drawing the Derby winner. By definition, there are only ever a few top-class middle-distance horses in circulation. The fact that the latest Epsom winner, Workforce, is staying at a mile and a half for the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes stems a perceived decline in that race instead. Ascot has been studiously ignored by three-year-olds in recent years, whereas this time only one member of the Classic generation is prepared to take on his seniors at Sandown today.
Last year, in contrast, Sea The Stars and his contemporary, Rip Van Winkle, pulled each other four and a half lengths clear of the subsequent King George winner, Conduit. That surely qualifies as one of the very best podiums in the race's 125-year history. But it would be wrong, quite obviously, to read too much into the fact that Twice Over could finish only seventh that day, yet return this time as favourite.
Twice Over did not run his race last year, but his trainer, Henry Cecil, artfully restored him in body and soul and he ended up winning the Champion Stakes at Newmarket in October, before running best of the raiders behind Zenyatta in the Breeders' Cup Classic. A crack at another huge prize did not pay off in Dubai, but events conspired against him that day, much as they did when he resurfaced at Royal Ascot last month. Trapped behind a conservative pace, Twice Over did well to get through the traffic and close down all bar Byword in the straight. He looks the one to beat.
Mawatheeq was well behind at Ascot but did not have a hard race on his first since going under by just half a length in the Champion Stakes. That is clearly a more reliable guide to their relative merit, but even that day Mawatheeq looked more of a staying type, vulnerable in what could prove a sprint finish today.
Ostensibly, that is also the concern for Dar Re Mi after two years operating almost exclusively over a mile and a half. But there is a fair chance that William Buick will try to control the race from the front, and she produced a career best to win a huge prize in Dubai back in the spring. That was a masterly piece of training, but she has had a longer break since and her trainer, John Gosden, has intimated that this might put her right for the King George.
Zacinto ran a better race at Ascot last time but needs not only to get the new trip, but to improve for it, while the Classic generation will have to be better than it looks for a reserve-tier colt like Viscount Nelson to win. But don't be surprised if Sri Putra outruns his odds. He remains lightly raced beyond a mile, and had looked better than ever on his reappearance before proving clearly amiss at Sandown last time. While it would be credulous to take his defeat of Byword at Deauville last summer literally, his trainer, Michael Jarvis, never runs a horse out of its depth, and his jockey is famously alert to the nuances of a tactical race. Certainly, it can't be that bad a field, if you can back this one at 33-1.
Close courses and reinvent the Tote to get racing back on track
This week the British Horseracing Authority proposed a cull of 250 fixtures in 2011, an ongoing slump in Levy income having rendered a programme of 1,500 meetings "untenable".
In these austere times, the hopeless impracticality of the sport's funding apparatus has been stripped bare. This was seemingly devised by Heath Robinson to reconcile cultures of subsidy and entitlement with pile-'em-high capitalism.
The fixture list has only been bloated so recklessly through this infamous, Mephistophelian pact between racing and the bookmakers, whereby the more the punters lose, the better the return for racehorse owners. Needless to say, this has not prevented bitter, Groundhog Day stand-offs over Levy payments. Paradoxically, the more the sport extends its reach – the whole premise of the Racing For Change project – the more it diminishes the "mug" market cynically developed by (and shared with) the big betting chains. Sophisticated punters nowadays all use the exchanges instead.
Racing is naively dependent on candidly capitalist enterprises – whether bookmakers, or commercially owned racecourses – whose sole priority is to increase dividends for their shareholders. At some point, it has to come up with a more intimidating approach to both than panhandling. Perhaps this threatened cull, though perceived by some as sabre-rattling, will only prove a start.
"Premier" racing, far from being a marketing gesture, must introduce tiers of funding that would inevitably force some tracks to close, and owners and trainers of useless horses to accept that they are entitled to no more than a rosette. It's time to get the horse back in front of the cart.
The best chance of doing so remains the Tote, if only the new Government can be persuaded to abandon the larcenous notion that it is theirs to sell. The Chancellor, during his emergency Budget, did vow to "resolve the future of the Tote at last". At a time when he must sell the brass fittings at No 11, however, it would be remarkably far-sighted to recognise that the Tote could some day transform racing's contribution to the economy.
Slashing the current pool take-out would take the carpet from under the feet not only of the bookmakers, but possibly from the exchanges as well. Most tantalising of all, it would potentially make the Tote the place to bet on all sports – and so give racing a piece of the action that is squeezing out its present market share. If only the sport could get its hands on the Tote, all bets would be off.
Moheebb (8.25 Carlisle)
Back to a very fair mark for his in-form stable. Sure to relish this stiffer track.
Tinaar (2.50 Haydock)
Will be generous odds, raised to Group Two after being beaten in a handicap last time, but excuses that day and had previously confirmed herself on upgrade when always going well at Newmarket.
One to watch
Monsieur Pontaven (R Bastiman) earned a very low rating in maidens but looked capable of winning a modest handicap when tried over 7f at Musselburgh, set too much to do off a slow pace.
Where the money's going
Lope De Vega is 5-4 favourite with William Hill in the Prix Jean Prat at Chantilly tomorrow, with Dick Turpin 7-2.