26 March 2006

We came to celebrate a brave new beginning but for a while were beset by all the nightmares of the past. A walk round Kempton’s much-vaunted Polytrack surface a couple of hours before racing started quickly turned from wonder to anger and concern. It was full of stones.

Well, “full” is quite an exaggeration of the numbers but not of the effect. For in one lap, three of us, senior racing journalist Graham Dench, myself and former top jockey John Lowe, turned up nine full-sized stones, the final one as big as my fist.

Any one of them kicked up would smash through a jockey’s goggles, the big one would down a horse. If there were that many that easy to discover in the narrow area we covered, the wider implications were obvious.

We showed our unhappy find to clerk of the course Barney Clifford. “I can’t understand it,” he said with horror in his eyes, “we had a complete check of the course at 11am. The base of the track is tarmac so these cannot have come up through it. Maybe someone has placed them there.”

Dark clouds of conspiracy swirled as Clifford, stewards, jockeys and maintenance teams set off around the track in both directions. The future of the £18 million re-vamp that aims to attract a new young evening crowd to floodlit Polytrack racing through the year hung in the balance. Several more stones were found but not in the numbers that could be feared. Senior jockeys Jimmy Fortune and Steven Drowne suggested the risks were worth taking.

At 2.55pm the scheduled 2.30 finally slammed out of the starting stalls and 1 minute 41 seconds later Fortune on Akona Matata showed that his winter’s “hibernation” had not blunted any of his trademark punching winning drive. “The track rode really beautifully,” he said. “It is a surface that should suit all horses. The bends ride wonderfully well but it will all take a bit of getting used to, especially the straight which is a good three furlongs and certainly rides as if it will take plenty of getting. As for those stones, I still can’t understand it.”

Nor can the authorities whose investigations continue and whose suspicions of some malign outside agency being involved are not over. “We are totally satisfied,” said Kempton’s managing director Julian Thick, “that the stones that were found on the racecourse were not actually part of the track construction make up. They will be analysed to see if it helps to find the source.”

The irony of this controversy is that, stones very much excepting, the actual racing surface is the best part of the Kempton re-vamp. Drowne wholeheartedly backed Fortune’s praise. “You can just flow round the turns,” he said. What remains to be seen is just how good a watching experience this will be for the crowd who will find the actual racing at some distance, the Polytrack having to be viewed across the jumping course from the stands.

Up at Redcar it was grass “au naturel” with no stones but plenty of soggy moisture within it and from the way Mezuzah’s rivals staggered in behind him at the end of the opening William Hill Spring Mile you knew that the Lincoln itself was likely to bring up surprises enough to delight its bookmaker sponsor. Sure enough the first three, Blythe Knight, Royal Island and Capable Guest, came home at 22-1, 25-1 and 25-1 respectively.

Blythe Knight was not that much of a surprise to John Quinn, his highly promising young trainer. The horse was sixth in the race last year when trained at Newmarket. Quinn’s team risked 90,000gns on him at the end of last season, removed the colt’s testicles and settled him in at the trainer’s historic new Highfield base at Malton from which Bill Elsey sent Babur to win consecutive Lincolns in 1957 and 1958. The new proprietor is very much an operator to watch.

The big money of the race came for the James Fanshawe- trained Cesare but he never showed much before finishing 12th in a race where the field came up the centre of the Redcar racetrack in one large pack rather than splitting into two separate contests as is usually the case at Doncaster itself.

So although the first three were drawn 9-7-14, three of the next four were drawn in the twenties and the acres of newsprint spent on pondering the effect of the draw mattered not a jot compared to actual strength on the ground on the day.

Ante post favourite King’s Majesty stuck on bravely to be seventh but from a long way out you could see that Robert Winston was going to struggle to repeat last year’s triumph on the horse’s stable-mate Stream of Gold.

Every year a number of us try to declare that the Lincoln has had its day. Every year we and hundreds of thousands of others succumbs to the hat-in-the-ring attraction of this early season cavalry charge. It may not make complete sense but if you wanted everything always to add up you wouldn’t begin. As Kempton had to remember yesterday.

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