The contrast between Newmarket and Chester, the first two meetings on the spring circuit, could hardly be more pronounced. At the weekend horses were racing on the wide, distant expanses of Suffolk's free-draining heathland; today in Cheshire they face the riverside carousel of Britain's tightest track. Given that truckles of the county's speciality foodstuff are part of the prizes this afternoon, it could be said the move has been from chalk to cheese.
No course in England can trace its ancestry further back than Chester, for it was in 1511, two years into the reign of Henry VIII, that a fair on the Roodeye – the "island with a cross" in a loop of the Dee, hard by the city walls – was first enlivened by a horserace, with the reward of a painted ball. As times went by, prizes became rather more sophisticated; in 1609, the subjects of James I competed for a silver bell, in 1685, the year that James II confirmed his place as king by defeating his illegitimate nephew, the Duke of Monmouth, in a battle at Sedgemoor, the Mayor and Corporation of Chester put up an £8 silver trophy to be run for "five times round".
This afternoon's running of the Chester Cup is the 175th since the two-and-a- quarter mile contest attained its present form in 1824. Riders were instructed "to start at the Castle-pole, run twice round and end at the coming-in Chair", and the winner, Doge Of Venice, took home 100 guineas. Today's top prize, with James II's 10-greats grand-daughter on the throne, is worth rather more, £74,772.
Plus that truckle, of course. And 50lb of crumbly Cheshire takes some shifting, and some eating.
Michael Jarvis has had to deal with it twice, the beneficiaries when he won it for the second time with Anak Pekan three years ago being the residents of an old folk's home. Newmarket's pensioners can feast again on Welsh rarebit and macaroni, for today's race may concern the two locally trained progressive four-year-olds, Jarvis's own charge Black Rock and Highland Legacy, from Michael Bell's stable.
The historic handicap, once the biggest betting heat in the calendar, has been Highland Legacy's target since he showed his liking last autumn for marathon running. His last three starts have been over two miles and he has won them all by daylight. A well-plotted seasonal debut victory 11 days ago earned the upstanding son of Selkirk the penalty that ensured he made the cut today and the ground, forecast at no firmer than good, should suit. Black Rock, by Rock Of Gibraltar, is also upwardly mobile, but has yet to prove himself beyond 13 furlongs.
The perception that a low-numbered starting berth, close to the infield rail, is preferable at Chester – only a mile and 60 yards round – is borne out by statistics, but not as emphatically as might be expected. Twelve of the last 20 winners have come from single-figure stalls, as did 24 of the 40 placed horses. Black Rock is drawn 15, the same as Anak Pekan three years ago; Highland Legacy is drawn six, a starting point which has produced three winners and three runners-up in the past 20 runnings. As a point of statistical interest, the last four horses to finish third have emerged from the number 11 stall, occupied today by Bulwark.
Highland Legacy (2.45) has match-fitness, proven stamina, ability round a sharp track (he has won at Ripon and Windsor) and the draw (just) on his side. The one statistic he must overcome is his position in the market; the race, with luck being an essential element in such a wall-of-death scramble, is not a good one for favourites. Just 37 have been successful, and a mere five in the last three decades.
Six of the nine runners in the Cheshire Oaks hold an entry for the real thing and, with the betting open and the erstwhile market leader, Chinese White, announced as bound for her local version at the Curragh, a good performance today could impact the market, particularly as last year's winner, Light Shift, went on to glory at Epsom. It can come from the High Chaparral filly Sugar Mint (2.15), whose latest victim, Duntulm, won at Newmarket on Saturday and whose trainer has an outstanding record at the track.
The 10-furlong maiden contains a selection of lightly raced, well-related, well-entered colts. John Gosden has won three of the past five runnings and can take another with Moonquake (4.00), who can show the benefit of his introduction last month. A reality check has already kicked in for some similar types in the concluding handicap; it can go to Ballochroy (4.35), fifth in a better race last time.
Nap: President Elect
NB: Black Rock