Tony McFadden tackles the Lincoln Handicap, set to be run on testing ground at Doncaster on Saturday...
It is also worth noting that, though winning last year’s Lincoln on a sound surface, Brae Hill handles testing ground extremely well, two of his better efforts last season coming on heavy ground, and, unlike many of his rivals, he will not be inconvenienced by a further deterioration of ground conditions...
Punters have been dealt a plethora of fiendishly-difficult handicaps to conquer in recent weeks, and Saturday sees another two take place at Doncaster in the shape of the Spring Mile and the Lincoln Handicap. Flat aficionados have been eagerly awaiting the Lincoln, the Heritage Handicap that takes top-billing on the first weekend of the 2013 British turf Flat season, and an ante-post market has long been formed.
Unsurprisingly, considering their generation's record in the race, a host of unexposed four-year-olds head the market, traditional bookmakers installing the William Haggas-trained Nine Realms as favourite, though his current Betfair price, which has been fluctuating wildly of late, would indicate his participation is in some doubt. This is probably down to Haggas' fears about how his contender will handle the testing ground and, though he could easily make a mockery of a mark of 93, it looks increasingly unlikely that he will run.
Perhaps I am still in Cheltenham Festival mode, where course-and-distance form is considered king, but it is hard to escape the attraction of Brae Hill, now a gnarled seven-year-old veteran, who has repeatedly performed with distinction under the conditions he will face on Saturday, finishing runner-up in this contest two years ago before winning last year. The Doncaster straight mile, of course, provides a fair test and doesn't lend itself to specialist performers in the same way as Cheltenham's undulations do, but it is the fact that Brae Hill has been specifically targeted at the race for the last two years, producing such good first-time-out performances, which makes him very interesting.
True, his form did tail off later in the season, but that means that Richard Fahey's charge has slipped back down the weights and is able to compete from the same mark he won off last year, leaving him holding exceptional claims. It is also worth noting that, though winning last year's Lincoln on a sound surface, Brae Hill handles testing ground extremely well, two of his better efforts last season coming on heavy ground, and, unlike many of his rivals, he will not be inconvenienced by a further deterioration of ground conditions.
It is conceivable that something will be further ahead of the assessor than Brae Hill, but at 25.024/1 he represents a spot of ante-post value as he won off this mark before, his chance isn't massively reliant on the weather forecast and his trainer, Richard Fahey, has his string in decent enough nick.
One such unexposed, potential improver could be the John Gosden-trained Lahaag. Gosden has another interesting entry in the shape of the lightly-raced Eshtibaak, a horse with form over further, but the market suggests that Lahaag could be the first string. Lahaag has not appeared to be the most straightforward of individuals, but he certainly possesses a fair amount of ability, progressing with every run last year, notching up two wins and two seconds from four starts. As an added plus, he is proven on a testing surface, hails from one of the leading yards in the country and is open to further progress, both mentally and physically. Whether his bare form entitles him to be trading at 8.4 for a race of this nature, however, is a matter of debate.
Failure in Wolverhampton's Lincoln Trial hasn't always been a barrier to success on the big day; in fact, a colleague of mine assures me that Very Wise, William Haggas' 2007 Lincoln winner, was the last horse to graduate from the Trial and prevail in the Lincoln. Where did he finish at Wolverhampton? Well, he didn't. He was pulled-up. I'm not convinced that a statistical sample on that scale will be enough to persuade connections of this year's winner, Strictly Silver, that a non-completion would have increased their chances, although, through the receipt of a 5 lb penalty, it could be argued that victory has made the grey's job even tougher.
Strictly Silver is a steadily-progressive type, and will once again have the services of Robert Tart- one of the finds of the all-weather season and exceptional value for his claim- but he may find his new mark slightly beyond him in a competitive event such as this.
In second place at Wolverhampton was the Marco Botti-trained Guest of Honour, a progressive performer who looks attractively treated on turf compared to his all-weather mark. He does, however, look extremely likely to miss the cut and it could be left to Solar Deity to represent one of the most in-form trainers in the country.
The issue with Solar Deity, though, is the concern that he could be a much better performer on polytrack than on turf. His form really took off last year when switched to the artificial surface and though that could be coincidental, with a break also perhaps a significant factor, there has to be a worry that he will be unable to continue his upwardly-mobile profile on turf, particularly on the forecast testing ground.
In summary, it looks like a typically-competitive renewal of the Lincoln, comprising a healthy mix of young hopefuls and old warriors. The inclement weather will be a concern for plenty, but not for last year's winner Brae Hill and, while he will face some progressive horses, he looks primed to make a bold bid off the same mark as last year.