The daffodils have sprung so it must be that confusing time of the year when the National Hunt season is preparing to give way to the start of the Flat season proper.
This has always been a time of the year when the racing media finds itself in half-hearted compromise. Whilst Cheltenham might be over, the biggest race of the entire National Hunt season – the Grand National – is yet to come, not to mention the Punchestown Festival in County Kildare, which serves to remind fans that there’s more to life than four days in the Cotswolds.
The Racing Post seems to be alternating its front pages between ramping up the excitement of this weekend’s Lincoln Handicap – the so-called traditional curtain-raiser to the Flat season, mixed in with a bit of Ballydoyle Classic news – and gearing up for an Aintree extravaganza that will revolve around that man, AP McCoy.
If we thought the McCoy machine was in full flow at Cheltenham, I suspect Aintree will knock it into a cocked hat.
Doncaster in late March is an acquired taste. I’ve had affection for the Town Moor racecourse for many years, largely thanks to its redevelopment and the genuine care and warmth of the Doncaster racing fraternity who are seen to best effect each September with the running of the world’s oldest Classic, the St Leger.
Racing at Donny is first-rate and the crowds there tend to know their stuff, although they remain unhelped by the local town councillors who continue to dig in their heels and refuse to remove the trees which hinder the viewing experience for racegoers. This Saturday we have the historic Lincoln Handicap at Doncaster, unsurprisingly sponsored yet again by another bookmaker, as it is factually the most impossible race to find the winner of outside of the County Hurdle.
Anyone who tells you they’ve backed the Lincoln winner should be treated with extreme caution. I’ve never stopped trying but am yet to get a horse that’s returned even some each-way shrapnel. The Newmarket elite will tell us that a Lincoln winner needs to have a bit in hand, be a Group performer in waiting and be unexposed. So that’s easy enough to work out then!!
Not that it matters to the Ryan Moores of this world, of course. Great British Racing has decided that the Lincoln doesn’t merit inclusion in the artificially designed window that is to constitute the Jockeys’ Championship. They’ve lopped a bit off the beginning and brought forward the end to exclude the Autumn trip to Doncaster for the November Handicap. For those who suffer from melancholy (Doncaster in Autumn for Flat racing really IS an acquired taste), this is good news. For traditionalists it is unpalatable; for commercial reasons it is logical, for copy-writers it is gold-dust.
Back over the sticks, the Grand National comes into focus. This year it will jockey for sporting supremacy with the Boat Race (and the first ever Women’s Boat Race on the BBC) and the Masters at Augusta. A feast for broad-minded racing fans but a headache for racing editors who still worry that their sport will lose out to more fashionable alternatives.
Just imagine how the organisers of the Boat Race feel! Aintree always clashes with something or other, although the FA Cup semi-finals are the following weekend and the unfathomable original moveable feast that is Easter is the weekend before. Perhaps we shouldn’t worry about a crowded, confusing calendar of sporting events? We need not stress ourselves that Rory McIlroy will trump AP McCoy as the most recognisable Northern Irishman in sport this April.
Truth be told, and let’s whisper it quietly lest the doubters lose their focus, the Grand National this year will be bigger and better than ever before and more than able to hold its own in the news and sporting agendas. Perhaps confusion and congestion aren’t that troublesome at all.