Sham conflict a reminder of rift

RACING: The Flat's new season on turf takes off at Doncaster today but the build-up to Classic action remains on hold
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In hype at least it may not quite match Tyson-Bruno, but the scheduled confrontation between two of racing's heavyweights at Newmarket on 5 May promises to be just as intriguing and, you hope, rather less one-sided.

In the maroon corner, Sheikh Mohammed, owner of the ante-post 1,000 Guineas second-favourite, Blue Duster. Facing him, in the true blue corner, Henry Cecil, whose long and successful association with the world's leading owner came to an abrupt halt last autumn. The Sheikh, you will recall, decided that Mrs Cecil's role in the operation had risen beyond the accepted level of paddock accessory, and dispatched a fleet of horseboxes to Warren Place without further ado.

If the latest betting is to be believed, Cecil's Bosra Sham, the 5-2 favourite for the race with Ladbrokes, has only Blue Duster as a significant danger in the fillies' Classic. If both the contenders make it to post, the issue will be settled in about 90 seconds (and even Frank lasted longer than that), but the crowds on the Rowley Mile will certainly get value for money.

There will be those who will say that last year's disagreement between two of the sport's most important figures should now be laid to rest. The same people will also tell you to cut down on your fat intake, and in both cases they are probably right. The problem is that the 1996 Flat season offers little else to quicken the pulse, least of all the opening card at Doncaster this afternoon. There is no three-year-old of the magnitude of Celtic Swing this year -last season's wonder horse/flop is scheduled to delay his reappearance until the autumn -and no Lammtarra either -although his half-brother, Kammtarra, has just been added to the Derby entries.

Alhaarth was the uninspiring leader of last year's juveniles, and while no one would begrudge Dick Hern another Classic winner, the colt's domination of the markets for both the 2,000 Guineas and Derby does nothing to stimulate interest in either. Nor should it be forgotten that a bronzed consignment of horses from the Godolphin operation in Dubai should soon make its presence felt.

In a sport in which opinions are all-important, we need an apparent champion to either follow or oppose, and the best the early weeks of the season can offer is Cigar, the Breeders' Cup Classic winner, in the Dubai Cup next Wednesday. This new event, the world's richest, is a commendable attempt to bring together the planet's best thoroughbreds, although in Grand National week it cannot be anything more than a minor diversion.

The National was one of just two races recently listed for protection from satellite television, and in little more than two months we will discover if the other, the Derby, still merits such special treatment.

The alarming decline in the popularity and prestige of the Epsom Classic remains a problem without clear-cut causes or remedies. Last year's move to Saturday afternoon did not halt the decline in either betting turnover or attendance, and while the alternative attractions were significant 12 months ago, this year will see a clash between the Derby and the England football team's first match in Euro 96. The Classic has been brought forward to earlier in the afternoon to avoid direct competition, but even so we will get a good idea of where racing now stands in the priorities of the sporting public.

One or two outstanding three-year-olds would coax the punters from their armchairs, but do not bother looking for them at Doncaster this afternoon, or indeed at any meeting before the Craven at Newmarket next month. When the serious action begins, Astor Place (Peter Chapple-Hyam) and Helicon (Godolphin), both 33-1 for the Derby, are two to watch for. The latter, owned by Sheikh Mohammed, was prepared last season by Henry Cecil, and on the irony factor alone must be worth a small interest for Epsom.