12 January 2003

Promising Irish jockey rides his eighth winner in as many days on the Surrey track’s much-improved Polytrack all-weather surface

This is winter racing’s future and it doesn’t really work. Not yet. At the moment it is American racing without full American razzmatazz. But Lingfield, at least as far as the actual racing is concerned, is beginning to run things pretty close.

Because of the Polytrack surface they have the runners – 100 of them declared for yesterday’s eight races – and a style of racing to which punters can get their heads around. “Coming here nowadays with the Polytrack,” said the experienced Gary Carter after riding yesterday, “is a delight. In the old days there was so much kickback that you had to rush to the front. Nothing ever won from the back. Now you can ride any race. There is so little kick back you only need one pair of goggles.”

North Londoner Carter has winning experience as far abroad as Singapore and Hong Kong but it was the young Irishman Eddie Ahern who continued to set the Lingfield pace.

Three more successes yesterday took his victory tally to eight in as many days and even the most disgruntled punter has now forgiven him the brain seizure which saw him throw away a race here before Christmas by riding a finish with a full circuit to go.

There was significance in each of the Ahern trio. The first, the debutante Pefect Love in the opener, was for Gerard Butler, the Blewbury trainer who brought Ahern over here just a year ago. And Zagala’s `unlucky’ run got jockey Pat McCabe a 12-day suspension, the filly 40 days and trainer Sean Keightley a £2,000 fine under the `non-tryers’ rule.

The second, Makulu, was a classic example of Ahern’s consistent ploy of gathering his horse’s momentum so as to attack “sling shot” style into and around the final turn.

The third, the Barry Hills-trained Royal Trigger, was maybe a milestone more for the sire than the jockey. This impressive looking three-year-old, probably the best equine athlete on display yesterday afternoon, was a first winner for his sire, the legendary stayer, Double Trigger.

Ahern has an almost 25 per cent strike-rate at Lingfield. “It’s a great track now,” he said, “one thing went wrong before Christmas but everything else has been fine. Horses are running well and everything is beginning to click. It’s a great way to start the year.”

This October it will be 14 years since Lingfield started us out on this all-weather road. It was begun as a bail-out for impossible conditions over jumps as well as on the Flat. The jumping experiment was abandoned after a series of fatalities which left such bad memories that it is unlikely to be re-introduced.

Winter Flat racing has paid gigantic dividends as an alternative attraction for an otherwise frosted-off betting dollar. But to really compete in the wider leisure world it has got to go further. At that first Lingfield meeting, one of racing’s senior figures looked on patronisingly and said “this is all right for bad weather, but we don’t want American racing.” Sorry sir, but that is exactly what you have got. Time to make it work.

For a start you have got to locate your track near a metropolis and you must design racecourse and grandstand as one – not, as at Lingfield, set far away from the stands inside the jump track. Only Wolverhampton begins to qualify on these counts. Lingfield had many things going for it yesterday but a crowd of little more than 2,000 hardly gives much of an atmosphere. If racing is to claim a place on the sports pages rather than mere returns in the specialist papers, it has to have a beat at its heart. If it was properly promoted close to the big cities you have to feel that the battle could yet be won.

For even on this coldest of days there were other pointers beyond Ahern for the year ahead. Andrew Balding saddled the first of what is likely to become a very long list of winners when “claimer” Neil Chalmers got the old thief Easter Ogil to at last put his best foot forward in something called the Bet Direct Football Cashbacks Classified Stakes. And the Maidstone stable of John Best, masterminded by journalist and punter Dave Nevison, won the biggest race of all when Desert Spirit came late to win the Showcase handicap under the young Welshman Richard Thomas.

At Southwell, there was a controversial finish to the Bet Direct On Sky Text Page 371 Handicap. Paul Hanagan brought Inch Perfect to challenge Mr Gisby in the straight, but as the former ranged alongside he seemed to falter and the camera patrol film appeared to show that he had been struck three times on the head by the whip of Mr Gisby’s rider Dean Mernagh.

However, stewards’ secretary, Paul Barton, explained: “Inch Perfect was hit over the nose three times, but the stewards were not convinced that it was deliberate (on Mernagh’s part) and decided it was accidental.”

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