McCain happy to uphold tradition with Overturn

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The Independent Online

The Northumberland Plate, one of the calendar's longest-established marathons, was first run in 1833, a year which was, topically enough, also a significant one for the nation's finances. It was then that the Treasury first became a ministerial department; the inaugural Chancellor of the Exchequer to deliver a budget under the new regime, Viscount Althorp, was a Whig, an early sort of Liberal.

One of the anomalies of the racing programme is indeed a fiscal one; absolute merit is not always the quality that is best rewarded. Saturday's venerable contest at Newcastle, a handicap that is often won by one of the lightweights, the least performers in the field, has a prize fund of £175,000, which is more than any of the Group Two races run at Royal Ascot last week and not that far adrift of the £250,000 for the Gold Cup, the premier stayers' prize, itself.

But then, the elite pinnacle being as narrow in this as any sport, it is the rank and file who keep the game afloat. And this particular race is one 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 soubriquet, "the Pitmen's Derby", is now anachronistic, perhaps a two-mile gallop round Gosforth Park demands a stolid enough work ethic.

A hurdler won the Gold Cup last week, jumps trainers have done well in the Northumberland Plate in recent seasons and three towards the top of the market for the latest renewal hail from yards most readily associated with the hard graft of obstacles. Overturn, for instance, is in the care of Donald McCain, and his victories this year have included the Scottish Champion Hurdle.

The six-year-old, runner-up in last month's Swinton Hurdle on his latest outing, won on the Flat before joining McCain last autumn. "It's a bit of a shot in the dark," said the trainer yesterday, "but it has been the plan for a while, and we swerved Ascot for a go at this. He's got the profile of a horse who could run well and I think the race will suit him; he races prominently and a strong-galloping two miles will be right up his street."

One who would dearly love to take the prize is Howard Johnson, whose Billy Row yard is just 20 miles from the track and whose principal patron, Graham Wylie, is from Newcastle. His representative Moon Indigo had a hurdles career planned when acquired as an Aidan O'Brien throw-out in October but has not raced since.

"He needed a bit of time off after we got him," said Johnson, "and then because of the bad weather we ran out of time to send him jumping. He's ready to run now, though, and stays well – that's all he does, he just keeps going and going – and we'd like to give him a couple of runs on the Flat. He wouldn't want the ground too fast but, all being well, he'll be there on Saturday."

Though steeped in tradition, neither the Northumberland Plate nor the Irish Derby at the Curragh on Sunday can hold a candle to today's Carlisle Bell, which has its roots in the 16th century and its eponymous original silver trophy in a local museum.

The Irish Derby, first run in 1866, attracted 11 declarations at the penultimate stage yesterday. Five are trained by O'Brien, going for his eighth victory and fifth in a row in a Classic that has become something of a Ballydoyle benefit.

The last four runnings have provided consolations for Dylan Thomas (third at Epsom), Soldier Of Fortune (fifth), Frozen Fire (11th) and Fame And Glory (second). This time the squad, seeking a first Classic of the year for the Co Tipperary operation, will be headed by the Epsom fourth and fifth Jan Vermeer, the early favourite for this weekend, and Midas Touch.

The last winner from these shores was the Godolphin filly Balanchine 16 years ago; Sheikh Mohammed's interests will be represented chiefly this time by the Mark Johnston-trained Monterosso, supplemented yesterday at a cost of €150,000 (£124,000) in the wake of his impressive King Edward VII Stakes win at Royal Ascot last Friday.

Turf account

* Sue Montgomery's Nap

Humidor (7.40 Bath) Came up against a sharply progressive type last time out after winning over six furlongs. Uphill finish here should suit.

* Next best

Huzzah (3.15 Salisbury) Has not won for more than two years but has come down in the weights and his last few performances have been solid enough.

* One to watch

Swinging Hawk (I Williams) Looks a worthwhile staying recruit from France, judging by his unlucky neck second in the Pontefract Cup on Sunday.

* Where the money's going

Sariska was installed 7-2 favourite for Saturday week's Eclipse Stakes by sponsors Coral after a trip to Ireland this weekend was ruled out yesterday.

* Chris Mcgrath's nap

Mataaleb (3.50 Salisbury)