23 March 2008

A lot more than the Lincoln Handicap came back to Doncaster yesterday. For Flat racing, the return to the turf offered the chance for nothing less than the renewal of hope.

It had started at the same track where last season bowed out 4½ months ago with that unforgettable climax of Jamie Spencer winning the last race of all to tie the jockeys’ championship with Seb Sanders on 190 winners apiece. “I believe” said Kevin Darley, who was using the same afternoon to close 30 distinguished years in the saddle, “that today shows how great this game can be.”

Darley did not add it, but the background to his assertion were the continuing events at the Old Bailey which were dragging both his profession and the racing authorities through the mire. History now knows how they ended in early December with the £10 million case against Kieren Fallon and other jockeys collapsing when the judge intervened to save the prosecution from further punishment, only for Fallon to then be revealed as failing a drugs test in France and receiving an 18-month suspension. At a stroke the administrators of the game and one of its most talented protagonists were being held up for ridicule if not disgrace.

Prophets of doom for not just the popularity but the financial prospects of this Flat racing season will also point out that the credit crunch should have serious investment implications for a game which depends on the rich and discretionary dollar. But there are grounds for seeing sunshine beyond yesterday’s snow showers and not least among them the recruitment of Darley as a senior player in the newly titled PJA (Professional Jockeys Association).

However much trainers may wince and owners grumble, the fact is: you need lucid and upstanding human tops to the racing centaur to make the game accessible to the public. If jockeys are either too tight-lipped or top-shelf, the caricature can continue of crafty little dodge-pots who do not know how to sit straight in bed and don’t want to talk to you. Spencer and Sanders put that to the sword as they embraced and paid tribute to each other last November and Darley’s role in the PJA, under the leadership of former Betfair executive Josh Apiafi, can help those who ride and those who watch and bet on them.

First on their list should be the championship favourite Ryan Moore, who earlier this week was quoted as saying that he didn’t feel he had to say much to anybody. At 25, Moore has a talent to match his family work ethic but if Lester Piggott could enhance his own charisma at that age by being a professional misery-guts, Moore should remember that by then Lester already had half-a-dozen Classic winners amongst his laurels.

As ever there is a lot more than the jockeys’ championship to look forward to. Once again Sheikh Mohammed’s Godolphin contingent will return like blue-silked swallows from their winter in Dubai. Once again Aidan O’Brien will be solicitously studious as he offers long but never quite revealing opinions about the latest Classic raider from Ballydoyle.

For romantics is the presence in the Derby betting lists of a Khalid Abdulla-owned colt called Twice Over, who is trained by a resurgent Henry Cecil. If the twice-raced, twice-victorious, Twice Over follows at Epsom where Cecil’s Slip Anchor, Reference Point, Commander In Chief and Oath have gone before, there won’t be a dry eye in the house.

Yesterday belonged to Mark Tompkins, a Newmarket-based Yorkshireman who sent out the winner, Smokey Oakey, and third-placed Babodana in the William Hill Lincoln in his home county. But it’s a long road until the curtain comes down at Doncaster on Saturday, Nov 8.

By then we will know a lot more about the effects of the credit crunch, the sale of the Tote, the future of the Levy Board, the bookmakers relations with the Levy Board and the feuds over betting-shop pictures. But we will also have had the chance to be through the highs and lows, the Goodwoods and Yorks, the Epsoms and Ascots, the Newburys and Haydocks, and all the other variation which go into the unique make-up of a British Flat-racing season.

And if we have any sense, we will be thankful for it.

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