One aspect that this sport must never forget as it strives to maintain its slipping foothold in public consciousness is that of spectacle. Punting and politics, championships and challenges are all firmly woven into the tapestry of interest but it is the look of the thing, in the form of the beauty of the Thoroughbred, that is the initial draw for many.
And on Saturday at Newmarket, many an eye will be gladdened by one of the oddities in the calendar, a race exclusively for grey horses. It is no real matter that the six-furlong contest is a fairly lowly affair in terms of class; last year the 17 silver darlings who took part made a stunning sight as they paraded beneath the trees on the July course, dappled light glinting on dappled hides, and then took part in a dashing white charge down the track.
It is easy to understand why Bellerophon wanted to tame Pegasus. White horses seem to have a magic in their snowy coats denied to their more basely-coloured brothers and sisters. White horses belong to good guys. Hi-ho Silver and all that. Perhaps it is the association with myth and legend, or more prosaically because they are easy to spot, that gives greys a head start in the hero worship stakes. Desert Orchid's exploits might have taken him beyond racing into the public domain anyway, but his striking colour certainly did him no harm.
Newmarket's specialist contest (and in the interests of political correctness, it should be pointed out that there is a similar contest for bays, browns and chestnuts on Friday evening) tends to attract regulars and the first three home last year, Compton's Eleven, Certain Justice and Grey Boy, are among the entries again. But for the first time in four runnings Middleton Grey – the winner in 2004 and 2005, fourth in 2006 and an honourable eighth last year at the age of nine – will be missing.
His trainer Tony Newcombe hopes he has, though, unearthed a successor, in the shape of Witchry, a winner at Chepstow in May and fourth at Haydock last time. "He wouldn't have old Middleton Grey's turn of foot," he said, "but as long as the race isn't over-competitive, he'll go there with a really good chance."
Greys comprise only a tiny proportion of the thoroughbred population and a century ago the colour was becoming increasingly rare until the emergence of the brilliant grey juvenile The Tetrarch, foaled in 1911, as a sire of note. His influential descendants to have propagated shades of grey in the past include Mahmoud, Grey Sovereign, Abernant, Zeddaan, Kalamoun and Caro, a job being carried on today by the likes of Linamix, Highest Honor, Dalakhani and Verglas.
Witchry, by Green Desert, gets his coat from his distinguished dam Indian Skimmer, a six-greats grand-daughter of The Tetrarch. A rather more talented descendant than Witchry is also set to appear on Saturday when the grey Gold Cup runner-up Geordieland, who has the horse known as "the spotted wonder" as one of his 1,024 eight-greats grand-parents, reappears in the Geoffrey Freer Stakes..
The seven-year-old drops back to Newbury's extended mile and five furlongs as a controlled experiment. "We had toyed with the King George," said trainer Jamie Osborne, "but in the end it came too soon. When you eyeball Yeats you know you've had a race, and he's needed until now to recover. Saturday will tell us whether he can compete at a decent level at a shorter distance and if he can it will open up options in the autumn."
* US jockey Russell Baze, banned for whip misuse on his first British mount in the Shergar Cup at Ascot on Saturday, succeeded yesterday in having his suspension deferred so that he can ride at Grade One meetings at Saratoga and Del Mar later this month.