Make hay with English Summer in the Northumberland Plate
Saturday 25 June 2011
With this sport's financial shortcomings currently under debate and scrutiny, it is not entirely inappropriate that the Northumberland Plate was founded in a year significant in Britain's fiscal development.
The Newcastle marathon, which offers today's most valuable domestic first prize, was first run in 1833, when the Treasury first became a ministerial department as part of a shift towards prudent accountability. The rest is undoubtedly history, which can be viewed with sighs and cynicism as appropriate.
In racing's own little world the latest suggestion for reform seems quite a sensible one; that the better stuff should be underpinned from the (ever-decreasing) statutory pot and the rubbish made to take its chance with market forces. But it is only a suggestion and if the Coalition thinks it has problems with argumentative factions, then welcome to the sods of the Turf.
More immediately, though, the weekend's fare appeals from nearly all points of view, even ones that are neglected in apparent defiance of logic. There are opportunities to take the bookmakers on in big-field handicaps; there is class to be savoured, principally in the form of the last of the mainstream Derbys in Europe; there is future talent to be spotted, delightful settings to be savoured and history to be absorbed. Even the geographical spread of entertainment has a modicum of balance.
One of the moot anomalies in the programme is that absolute merit is not always the quality that is best rewarded. The Plate, which, as a handicap, can be won by one of the least talented in the field, has a prize fund of £150,000, which is not only considerably more than the Group Three and Listed contests at Newmarket today which have attracted intrinsically more gifted athletes, but more than any of the Group Two events at Royal Ascot last week.
Yet, the elite pinnacle being as narrow in this as in any other sport, perhaps the rank and file who keep the game afloat should have their chances for a decent payday and the Northumberland Plate is a challenge long held in affection and enthusiasm by both public and professionals.
Time was when its running provided a rare enough day out for local mining families and, though its consequent sobriquet "the Pitmen's Derby" is no longer appropriate it can remain a respectful nod to a heroic heritage. And a two-mile gallop round Gosforth Park does, after all, demand a stolid work ethic.
Of course, if the Northumberland Plate was antipodal, this day would be the one that stops a nation. The venerable contest bows in value among two-mile handicaps worldwide only to the Melbourne Cup. As an acknowledgement, a degree of twinning has occurred; the horses placed today will qualify automatically for the first ballot for the £4m Australian race. Whether they would be good enough to proceed further only time will reveal but English Summer (3.05), who is handily drawn and who may be still open to improvement, can take a step in the right direction.
From one "Derby" to a real one, with infinitely more riches at stake, and not just today. Tomorrow's Irish Derby offers a purse of €1.25m (£1.1m) but the real dividend may come later, for a well-bred colt at stud. The favourite for Ireland's premier contest, Carlton House, runs in the colours of the Queen and would be a fitting winner as a first royal runner in the race in the year of the monarch's first visit to the country.
The regal, gold-braided, purple and red silks have a chameleon quality, though. The Sir Michael Stoute-trained colt, who defied assorted pitfalls to finish a close third in the Derby at Epsom, was a gift to his present owner from Sheikh Mohammed and it seems inconceivable that, should the son of Street Cry take his place among the season's middle-distance elite, he will start his career as a stallion under any other banner but the sheikh's.
Ranged against him is the formidable armoury of the Maktoums' arch-rivals, the Coolmore Stud partners, in the form of four of the other seven runners. They include Treasure Beach and Memphis Tennessee, whom Carlton House split three weeks ago, with Seville and Roderic O'Connor as back-up.
Their trainer, Aidan O'Brien, has sent out the last five winners and eight in all and, though Seville, unsuited by Epsom's gradients, can emerge as best of his squad, his hegemony may be about to end. Carlton House (3.50), to judge by his homework, has progressed since Epsom and can throw down the gauntlet to the French-trained, Coolmore-owned Derby winner Pour Moi, currently on a summer break. There would, too, be a certain symmetry in victory for him; the last British-trained Irish Derby winner, Balanchine 17 years ago, carried a royal hue, the blue of the sheikh's Godolphin.
Chris McGrath's Nap
Regal Parade (2.00 Newcastle)
As the winner of two top-level contests he is the class act in this field and can get his head in front again on his favoured easy ground and over a stiff six furlongs.
Loving Thought (6.50 Lingfield)
Ran better than her finishing position suggested last time – the pace was messy and she was keen – and may be on a lenient mark for her handicap debut.
One To Watch
Once a horse with innate ability starts to thrive, a sequence can follow. Ted's Brother (Richard Guest), off the mark at Newcastle on Thursday, may be an example.
Where The Money's Going
Midday is 8-11 favourite to see off Snow Fairy in today's mouthwatering meeting of the superfillies, the Pretty Polly Stakes at the Curragh.
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