I think if my opening gambit was full of enthusiasm about the imminent return of the Flat and how good it is to have Cheltenham behind us, most of you would see it for what it is: a bare-faced lie. I am, like many of you I'm sure, in the grips of post-Cheltenham blues, but Saturday's Winter Derby at Lingfield heralds the start of what will be a momentous month for all-weather racing in this country, and there are a number of interesting contenders to give us cause for optimism and jolt us out of our dejected stupor.
The logical place to start in our assessment of Saturday's race is Grandeur. He rocketed to the head of the ante-post market following a cosy success in the principal trial over C&D in February, although on the pick of his turf form he didn't need to be at his best to win. Always well-positioned under Ryan Moore, he travelled strongly and forged clear to lead in the final furlong, beating a fast-closing Modernstone by three-quarters of a length.
Whilst it's worth noting Grandeur was conceding weight all round and the trio who finished behind him all gave their running, it's safe to say he won't have been at the peak of his powers for his all-weather debut. If he comes on from the run and lines up on Saturday at the top of his game, he'll be extremely tough to beat.
However, punters seem to be acutely aware of Grandeur's claims and he's been the subject of sustained market support in recent days. As a result his current price of around 2.47/5 is too short for our purposes and it's better to look lower down in the market for a more attractive ante-post proposition. There is a bit of a gap to second-favourite and 2012 winner Farraaj at odds of 7.06/1 but he was last seen finishing down the field behind Game On Dude at Del Mar last August, and whilst he has won off the back of a long layoff in the past, it looks a tall order given the competitive field that looks set to line up on Saturday.
Windhoek is an interesting contender if he takes his chance, and there was a lot to like about his first run for new trainer Saeed bin Suroor at Meydan in January, holding on gamely to take a narrow victory in a 10-furlong handicap. Although he'll be facing far less-exposed horses on Saturday, the likeable attitude he showed in the closing stages is sure to stand him in good stead and at odds of 8.415/2 you'd be sure to get your money's worth if things did turn into a bit of a battle in the closing stages.
However, given it's probably about time for me to nail my colours to the mast, the horse who looks the best proposition at this stage is George Margarson's Rebellious Guest. The five-year-old son of Cockney Rebel was talked of in no uncertain terms as a Guineas prospect at one stage in his career, and although things haven't quite gone to plan since, he looked better than ever so far this season. Although he shaped as if he required sprint trips as a youngster, stepping him up in trip since the start of 2014 has been the making of him.
He ran respectably on his fibresand debut at Southwell in January, shaping as if he needed the run after three months off before winning two on the bounce over a mile at Lingfield. He stayed on strongly on both of those occasions suggesting a further step-up in trip might see him improve further, and he duly obliged at Kempton on his latest start, bolting up off a mark of 92 on his first try over 10 furlongs and showing that handler George Margarson has him in the form of his life at present.
That performance comfortably produced a career-best effort on Timeform figures, and although sitting on a weight-adjusted rating of 122 he has the best part of a stone to find to trouble the market leaders, he remains capable of significant further improvement over this trip and on the polytrack and may well surprise a few of the more-fancied runners.
There had been noises he might target the Lincoln over two furlongs shorter at Doncaster a week on Saturday instead, but now this has been confirmed by handler George Margason as his intended target. He has the services of Tom Queally who has ridden him for his last three starts and is no stranger to these big race occasions, and given he's currently available at odds of around 34.033/1 he looks one capable of comfortably outrunning those odds.
William Haggas' Graphic is another interesting contender if he's capable of reproducing his turf form from the end of last season, but he disappointed on his return to polytrack last time and odds of around 11.521/2 look a tad too short to take a chance on him to bounce back. Parish Hall will find this contest a much easier task than when was last seen finishing down the field in the Champion Stakes at Ascot; his last win came in a Group 3 over this trip at Dundalk in October and a repeat of that level of form would see him competitive here.
The worry is whether he will actually take his chance, and when we have a definite intended runner in Rebellious Guest who has the potential to improve past many of this field available at around three times the odds, he looks by far the most attractive prospect at this stage. It would be no surprise to see him lower the colours of some highly-touted contenders on Saturday, and start what could be a momentous year for George Margarson with a bang.
Back Rebellious Guest @ 34.033/1 in the Winter Derby