William Haggas’s Addeybb heralded the opening of the Flat season by winning the Lincoln Handicap on 24 March but I find it hard to engage with racing that isn’t over obstacles until the excitement of this weekend’s Grand National is over. That said, recent devastation of the jumping programme by Britain’s monsoon season and the improved quality of all-weather racing, particularly Lingfield’s Good Friday championships, has lately given me a new interest in the contests taking place on fibresand, Tapeta and Polytrack surfaces at Lingfield, Newcastle, Chelmsford, Wolverhampton, Southwell and Kempton Park.
Kempton’s card on Saturday provided frantic finishes aplenty and you couldn’t help but feel that sap-stirring sense of renewal as ten wide-eyed two-year-olds, only four of whom had seen a racecourse before, tiptoed and skittered their way inquiringly around the parade ring before the EBF Novice Stakes. One handler whistled softly to his charge to calm him on this first day of school and jockeys vaulting into the saddle were mostly quick to give the youngsters a reassuring pat or two.
It began well for me too: prior experience is often the key to these contests and nobody produces sharper, fitter two-year-olds than David Evans, the Sid James lookalike who trains in glorious countryside beneath the Black Mountains near Abergavenny. Noting that his Lihou had finished fourth first time out in the Brocklesby on the first day of the Flat I looked no further and was nicely rewarded at 5-1 when Lihou, under Fran Berry, surged past Mick Channon’s Kinks in the final furlong to win by a comfortable head. ‘He’s a nice sort of horse,’ said the winning trainer, who has another 30 two-year-olds readying at Ty-Derlwyn Farm. His operation doesn’t have massive spending money and he declared, ‘It’s nice to get an early two-year-old. I have to get in before the big battalions come out, though mind you it takes some of them six months to do so.’ Warming to his theme as he took a swig from a bottle of non-alcoholic Cobra in an inside pocket, Dave Evans added, ‘We should have two-year-old races in February. There are just not enough of them. People criticise the likes of Mick Channon for running horses too often but you have to run two or three sometimes just to give them the experience.’ In that context Evans’s other two-year-old in that novice race, Disruptor, finished an eye- catching fifth under his old ally John Egan after being slowly away. Don’t miss him next time out.
Lingfield’s all-weather championships were dominated this year by French raiders, three of whom carted first prize money back across La Manche. Hunaina, the sole French entry at Kempton, was therefore not surprisingly backed down to 7-2 co-favourite in the Snowdrop Stakes. Trained by Henri-François Devin and ridden by Alexis Badel, Hunaina could be called the winner two furlongs out and stayed on strongly to win comfortably. When I asked Alexis if this was his first ride in Britain he revealed that he had enjoyed four or five, including a previous victory at Haydock for Mick Channon. They are courteous these French jockeys: ‘Would you be good enough to excuse me,’ he declared before breaking away from our conversation to accept his prize.
This stage of the Flat season is all about expectation and so I looked back over the records of the six two-year-olds who had contested the Kempton novice event the previous April. The 6-4 winner then, Paul Cole’s Plunger, has had just two runs since, coming second and third. The runner-up Dragon’s Teeth, then trained by Jo Hughes, has endured no fewer than 17 appearances, most of them for subsequent French trainer Romain le Gal at places like Saint Malo and Deauville and including victories at Compiegne Saint-Cloud and Chantilly. The third, Quick Skips Lad, then trained in Lambourn by Stan Moore, also headed later for France and won once at Le Croise Laroche for David Windif, with his old rival Dragon’s Teeth second.
The fourth last year was Kodiac Express, trained by Mike Murphy. He won a race at Nottingham at 3-1 and in 12 more runs has six times been second. The fifth Afterthisone, who debuted at 50-1 a year ago for Robin Dickin, has mostly started since at 66-1 or 100-1, never finishing higher than ninth. One time he even refused to race — perhaps demoralised by his daunting odds.
Heavenly Pulse, sixth and last on his Kempton debut for Ann Duffield, was unruly at the start and badly outpaced round the turn. His trainer was told he couldn’t race again until passing a stalls test and retribution swiftly followed: he was gelded four days later although fifth of eight is the best he has managed since. That’s 53 runs between them for just five victories. At this time of year owners and trainers see only potential swans. Some alas achieve only a row of duck eggs.