There have been plenty of shocks throughout the history of the Lincoln Handicap – and 25 years ago Kevin Darley caused another when steering Roving Minstrel to glory in the traditional curtain raiser to the Flat season.
Finding the winner of the mile handicap can be a tricky puzzle to solve – and while plenty of favourites have emerged victorious on the first day of the turf season at Doncaster, equally as many outsiders have left punters bewildered.
This year’s renewal, which was scheduled for Saturday, is one of many races cancelled because of the coronavirus outbreak.
That does not stop now-retired former champion jockey Darley, who rode many bigger winners than Roving Minstrel, remembering his success in the prestigious handicap as significant in its own right.
“Back then we didn’t have the volume and quality of all-weather racing like we have now, so that first meeting at Doncaster was a real focus point,” said Darley.
“For me as a young lad growing up, that’s why the Lincoln was set out in my mind as one of the big races of the year – it kicked the whole season off.
“We all used to think back then ‘it’s Doncaster coming up – and will I get a ride in the Lincoln?’.”
Roving Minstrel was not, as the phrase goes, a handicapper masquerading as a Group horse.
Nonetheless, despite starting at odds of 33-1, Darley was given plenty of encouragement by trainer Bryan McMahon that he was not on the no-hoper bookmakers had priced up.
Darley, who went on to be crowned champion jockey in 2000, was happy to take the canny McMahon at his word.
“Bryan was a good trainer – and he knew how to get one ready,” he said.
“Even though he was 33-1, I knew that he fancied the horse quite strongly. He was a proper shrewdy and was a real good old-fashioned trainer.
“I was struggling for my weight, because I had to ride 8st 3lb – which was about my minimum – and it was the first time I sat on the horse, and I didn’t know what colour he was until I saw him.
“(But) if someone says that a horse is doing everything right at home it was encouraging enough to think he would run well.”
With a win ratio of just two victories from his previous 16 outings and stamina to prove on his first start over the trip, Roving Minstrel needed a lot to go his way – but thankfully everything came together for what would turn out to be the then four-year-old’s final career success.
Darley added: “He wasn’t the most genuine of horses and he was one of those types of horses where everything had to drop right. I can’t complain, though, because he gave me my only Lincoln winner
“I just thought he was maybe floating around in front, but thankfully when the second came to me he stuck with him and kept going. Bryan was fairly optimistic he would stay.
“We ended up towards the middle of the track, but I can’t say it was a massive part of a strategic plan to find better ground – because in these races you often get that, with horses coming from both angles.”
Darley believes action needs to be taken to restore the Lincoln’s prestige – with the quality of all-weather racing and an increasing number of lucrative meetings abroad combining to reduce its limelight.
“These big handicaps are very difficult to win, and this is one of the biggest races early in the season,” he said.
“I think something needs to be done to bring it back to its glory days, because I feel the impetus has been lost a little bit. It is a great meeting, and one all jockeys look forward to.
“It is a great way to start the season off – and it puts you in a great frame of mind for the first few weeks if you are lucky enough to win it.”