Not long to go now. The date of the 14th has been ringed on racing fans’ calendars since those calendars came out, for it is the date of the start of what is now an eagerly-awaited annual equine event.
Both the start and the finish, that is. For it is All-Weather Finals Day at Lingfield Park on 14 April to which I refer, not that other happening, somewhere in the Cotswolds, which commences exactly a month before.
Both occasions exert a powerful pull on other racing within their orbits, but it can be demonstrated that the All-Weather Championships has improved the standard of racing on artificial surfaces more widely, rather than detracted from it, since it was instituted in 2013/2014.
This coming Saturday’s Betway Winter Derby at Lingfield Park could easily see the classiest winner of the race since it became a Group 3 in 2006, with Mutakayyef installed as a short-priced favourite.
But more of that anon, let us first look back over events in the last week or so, especially from a sectional-timing point of view, for the ability to analyse many of the races in such detail is a further feature of the All-Weather Championships.
The first Fast-Track Qualifier in the period under review came on 18 February at Cagnes-sur-Mer and was won by the Francois Rohaut-trained Qurbaan, who gave weight all round and confirmed his pre-race rating of 112 according to Timeform. That is slightly below the median required over the years to win the Sunbets-sponsored Mile on All-Weather Finals Day.
The 32Red Conditions Stakes at Kempton on 22 February ended up a tactical five-runner affair (the race finishing speed comes out at 109%), and Winterlude capitalised on the substandard showing of the market leaders. He still looks some way behind both Antiquarium and Winning Story among Fast Track Qualifier winners in the Betway Marathon division.
The two races previewed here last week did not produce the results that were hoped for, and there were no excuses on sectionals for the horse Fast Track at Lingfield Park. An even-slow-even-fast scenario helped the pace-forcing winner Zac Brown to a degree, but others produced faster finishes than did Fast Track.
Manual sectionals, as well as a good timefigure for the grade, point to the Kempton race won from the front by Jacquotte Delahaye as having been a notably fair test, with a finishing speed of 100.3% when 101% is par. Third-placed Summer Icon is the only one of the principals to deserve even a small upgrade.
There were much more welcome results recently from Spirit Of Wedza and What Usain - both put up as sectional “to follow” horses here recently - who won at 7-1 and 10-1 respectively.
If you want to see a performance in which optimum sectionals were delivered then the former provides it with an effort worthy of an “A+” for efficiency on the ATR scale. It is no coincidence that Spirit Of Wedza’s overall time was notably good.
Those looking for a couple of likely types with which to replace Spirit of Wedza and What Usain on the list could do worse than focus on CAPPANANTY CON – who was responsible for a 22.1s last 2f in a race run in a decent overall time – and AURIC GOLDFINGER , both of whom ran with significant promise at Lingfield on 16 February.
The former is entered at Chelmsford City today (Thursday), while the latter has been declared at Lingfield Park on Friday, and both should go well.
FLECKERL , a strong-finishing third to the aforementioned Spirit of Wedza, has proved difficult to win with of late but is now on his lowest BHA mark since the middle of 2015 and should be entering calculations, especially in races which look likely to be well-run and offset his tendency to start slowly.
There is no question who is the class act in Saturday’s Betway Winter Derby at Lingfield Park, a Group 3 and also a FTQ for Finals Day itself. The William Haggas-trained Mutakayyef was last seen finishing third at the highest international level behind Postponed at York then behind Tepin in Canada.
That York run resulted in one of the best timefigures of the entire year for the winner and proved that Mutakayyef gets an extended mile and a quarter well enough, for all that he is probably as good at a mile.
The negatives against Mutakayyef are that this is his first run on all-weather and that he has not been seen since September: there were several suitable races for him later in 2016 – including on Champions Day at Ascot in October – for which he did not show.
He also has some all-weather stalwarts of only a slightly lesser calibre up against him, including Grendisar (winner of this 12 months ago, and now in blinkers) and Pinzolo. The last-named is one who should ensure that Saturday’s race is a well-run affair, as can be seen from his honest front-running sectionals when winning on this course last time out.
That should assist BATTALION, who has a very different run style, and who has sometimes been left with just too much to do in falsely-run races as a result. Battalion can make the first three again, and, if Mutakayyef is not on his “A” game, he could even win it. An each-way bet is advised.