Not a moment too soon, for many who follow the Turf, Newmarket offers everyone a fresh start today. Since the heartbreak of Aintree, the sport has spent four days examining its conscience, while doing its best not to manifest undue irritation with some highly emotive criticism. At the best of times, the Craven meeting introduces a wholesome change of tempo. This year, for all that the show goes on at Cheltenham over the next two days, all passion for jumping will just about be spent.
Admittedly, the new Flat season will only reach top gear with the reappearance of Frankel at Newbury on Saturday. This colt so bestrides the Qipco 2,000 Guineas, now just 17 days away, that the Classic trials staged at his home racecourse will in the meantime seem mere skirmishes. The Craven Stakes itself will tomorrow be contested by just half a dozen runners; likewise, the Blue Square EBF Free Handicap on today's card. The Lanwades Stud Nell Gwyn Stakes, in turn, faithfully reflects the baffling collective aspect of those fillies preparing for the 1,000 Guineas, and perhaps the most instructive race of the day will instead be the Feilden Stakes, which seems likely to volunteer some new colour for the Investec Derby picture.
There are some, true, who will tell you that the most feasible Epsom colt on show today will instead be found in the maiden that follows. Midsummer Sun, a half-brother to Midday and stablemate of Frankel, has been drawing plenty of attention to himself on the gallops and was recently supplemented to the Derby.
It looks highly significant, incidentally, that Mahmood Al Zarooni's runners on the card, including Ocean War in this race, are ridden by the rising star Mickaël Barzalona. Since last season, the French teenager has announced himself on the big stage with a series of wins in the Godolphin silks in Dubai. Al Zarooni's principal jockey last season, Ahmed Ajtebi, is banished to Kempton for two rides this evening, unmistakably suggesting Barzalona is being fast-tracked by Sheikh Mohammed.
Barzalona rides Neebras in the latest leg of a lucrative series confined to graduates of Tattersalls Sales, and his chance at the weights is such that his performance will be read as a barometer to the acclimatisation of those Godolphin horses recently flown back from the desert. Neebras impressed with his turn of foot when a close second to Libranno in the July Stakes, but has not been seen since.
It was quite some way back to Elzaam in third that day, but he was perhaps not at his best after a very generous effort at Royal Ascot. He returned a fresh horse in the autumn, running very well on unsuitable ground, and looks the value in the Free Handicap. Pausanias, admittedly, might still be unbeaten but for having been set plenty to do on his final start at Ascot, but he drops back in trip on faster ground.
Pausanias is part-owned by Sir Alex Ferguson, whose hopes for What A Friend at Aintree were disappointed when he was pulled up. Still, he will acknowledge that others had a far worse day. For the sport, perhaps the best corrective to some of the less informed debate, prompted by the death of two horses in the Grand National, has been to lament relative indifference about the head injuries suffered earlier by young Peter Toole. The jockey, woken from a medically induced coma on Monday night, remains in a critical but stable condition.
You can rest assured that the sport's governing body will be even better equipped to deal robustly with ignorance, inside or outside its boundaries, following confirmation that Mark Johnston has become a director of the British Horseracing Authority. The Middleham trainer has never been diffident in offering his opinion, and it will be interesting to see whether he has any patience with the corporate priority of presenting a united front. Regardless, the sport can hardly fail to benefit from the acuity of a man so familiar with the grass-roots consequences of its financial and political dystopia. Nicholas Jones, seasoned in both the racing and betting industries, is another welcome appointment.
Chris McGrath's Nap
Fulgur (4.45 Newmarket) Significant that Luca Cumani is pitching Fulgur in so deep when he has a feasible rating for valuable handicaps.
Sing Softly (4.10 Newmarket) Top stable is not hanging around with this one, a winner twice this spring, and her American pedigree suggests she can make fitness count on this faster ground.
One to watch
Mandurah (David Nicholls) Has returned to his old stable with a very tempting mark and shaped well at Thirsk on Saturday, hitting the front before fading over the sixth furlong. Will soon be winning over five.
Where the money's going
Elzaam has been backed from 11-2 to 4-1 with William Hill for the Blue Square Free Handicap at Newmarket today.
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