For Flat racing fans, that business at Aintree that has to be consigned to the formbook before full attention focuses on the purest form of the sport is frustratingly delayed this year; because of the religious calendar, no Grand National will ever have been run on a later date than this year's, on 14 April.
But there was a frisson of the nascent season at Lingfield yesterday, a pleasurable shiver to be felt even more at the Curragh today. The year's first day on turf in Ireland will not only include the return to competitive action of an unexposed but entirely credible Ballydoyle candidate for Classic honours in the Galileo filly Twirl, but also the appearance of the 2,000 Guineas and Derby favourite Camelot as part of the Aidan O'Brien post-racing working party.
The domestic turf campaign launches on Saturday at Doncaster,though most of the high-profile riders are likely to have a rather more glamorous engagement elsewhere, the $27 million Dubai World Cup meeting, at Meydan.
Two of them, though, popped into Lingfield yesterday for a taste of British sand and sunshine and duly secured their first wins of the year in these parts. William Buick pounced late for a comfortable enough half-length success on Dark Stranger in the 10-furlong maiden and Ryan Moore, who will partner Twirl in the Park Express Stakes today, made all to take the seven-furlong Listed contest on Gusto.
The last-named's trainer, Richard Hannon, recovering from precautionary vascular surgery, has used this contest as a springboard for Group One performers Paco Boy and Dubawi Gold in the past. It remains to be seen how far Gusto, a well-bred son of Oasis Dream, can climb but Royal Ascot is on his radar.
"He did that well," said Hannon's son, namesake and assistant. "I was wondering who was going to suggest the Jersey Stakes first and happily it was Ryan. We'll find something else in the meantime, but he's obviously improving big-time."
The Hannon yard had to settle for the runner-up spot in the afternoon's feature, the Group Three Blue Square Winter Derby, when Cai Shen failed to land a gamble and the £56,710 first prize by a diminishing half-length after being forced wide on the turn into the straight. There was a certain justice, though, as the winner was Premio Loco and exactly the same thing had happened to Chris Wall's charge when he was beaten a nose, also as a strong favourite, by the Hannon-trained Scintillo in this race three years ago.
As a multiple Group Two winner, Premio Loco was the class act in yesterday's field, but had to overcome top weight and disadvantageous high draw. The eight-year-old defied both, the first with his own innate talent and the second with the astute help of rider George Baker, who was able to save ground by switching smartly towards the running rail after a fast start. "I wasn't too fussed they were going slow," said Baker, who hit the front a furlong out, "as I knew I had the tactical speed to get out of any trouble. It all worked out ideally."
The 10-furlong contest is a Derby in name only, but there was an eyecatching display from a colt who holds an entry in the real thing. After breaking his maiden over a mile by six lengths, Forgotten Hero, trained by Charlie Hills for a partnership that includes Sir Alex Ferguson, will further test his Epsom credentials with a step up in both grade and distance in Newmarket's Fielden Stakes next month.