5 APRIL 2003, Page 51

Back on track

Robin Oakley

Well, hello again. The House of Lords, it seems, is not the only proof of life after death. This column, having ceased to be on 22 February, is now, thanks to the kind intervention of readers who missed The turf and to The Spectator's sage and magnanimous editor, restored to life, although in future it will appear on a fortnightly basis. Thanks to all those who wrote so kindly about my temporary departure: it has been a little like seeing a sneak preview of your own obituary.

Back in business heading for Ascot on Saturday I was at least certain that I could call the odds better than Tony Blair and Donald Rumsfeld. Getting there in time for a bet was harder with 'works on the line' which seemingly necessitated en route not one but two stops at Virginia Water. Willie Carson chided me for my lack of fitness as I arrived panting just in time for the second after dashing up from the station, It is all very well for him. Less body weight. And he usually had a horse under him when he had to cope with uphill finishes.

I was at least in time to join the celebrations around a twinkling David Elsworth after the Whitsbury trainer had won the TotebetXpress at tote.co.uk Conditions Stakes with the six-year-old Pawn Broker. Turf writers were not kind to Pawn Broker in 2002 and his trainer declared, 'I'm not sure I should be talking to you after the things you lot have said about this horse.' But then he was in benevolent mood, the connections having, as he put it, had our bollocks on this one'. Sadly, poor Pawn Broker could not have done the same. He had his removed in the winter to help him concentrate on the job in hand. David insists he was 'nearly a good horse' and maintains he could have beaten Sakhee in the Dante as a three-year-old if he had not been smacked across the face in running. The Ascot race, against lesser opposition than he has usually faced, was a nice sweetener and Pawn Broker might in due course have a crack at a good class hurdle race.

Ed Dunlop's multi-horsepower Newmarket yard had a nightmare season in 2002. The more horses you have the harder it must be to cope with virus problems as there is always another one to pick it up and spread it just when you think you are clear. But things seem to have come right this year. Anani won his one-mile maiden like a short-priced favourite should. Dunlop was away at Nad El Sheba so assistant trainer William Knight, up for the day from the sidekicks' circuit, eventually found his way to the winner's enclosure to register stable pleasure. 'Give me Nottingham and Leicester, I'm lost here,' he grinned, before agreeing with the head lad that, They look different this year and they are finishing their races.' The Ascot ground was good to firm and Knight declared of the Miswaki colt, `Seb Sanders said he needed every yard, and it was plenty quick enough for him.'

Mark Polglase is at the other end of the scale, training a string of 25 by Southwell racecourse, but he had his biggest success yet and his first Ascot winner in the Tote Showcase Handicap. One of the key requirements at this time of year is finding which of last year's two-year-olds have trained on. Mark seems to have a promising sprinter in No Time, who was smartly handled by stable apprentice Luke Fletcher. A Saturday winner on TV will have done the young rider's career no harm. 'He's so cool.' said the trainer. Cool Hand Luke?

Perhaps the key performance on our TV screens last Saturday, though, was that of Sulamani, running in the Dubai Sficema Classic, the top turf race at the Dubai World Cup meeting in Nad El Sheba. Frankie Dettori had him fully 12 lengths behind the leaders two furlongs out and the Ascot Press Room had written off his chances. But once unleashed by Frankie, Sulamani cut them down like a hawk through a flock of sparrows. It was an astonishing demonstration of class. You leave him out of your calculations for this year's top prizes at your peril.

Here, while the flat season stutters along after its usual messy start, we have the Grand National to savour. You always need plenty of luck in the National, but I am still having twice my usual bet on Lavinia Taylor's Gingembre. Very few horses win the National carrying more than 11 stone but Gingembre is good enough for the Taylors to have planned at one stage to run him in this year's Gold Cup. They had had problems getting his blood right and he was not ready for Cheltenham, but has reportedly been going well at home since. He has twice been second in the Hennessy and won the Scottish Grand National at Ayr two years ago. He has the long-legged Andy Thornton, an ideal Aintree jockey, in the saddle and should get the kind of ground he needs. For the places, I am

going for Paul Nicholls's Shotgun Willy, chosen as his mount by Ruby Walsh ahead of the same yard's Ad Hoc, who has been specially trained for the race, and for the Irish-trained Monty's Pass. He will be ridden by Barry Geraghty who carried all before him at this year's Cheltenham Festival and who is riding with supreme confidence. Monty's Pass has been placed over the Aintree fences. For an each-way long shot take a look at Nicky Henderson's Katarino. Nicky had a lean Cheltenham by his standards and is too good a trainer never to win a National.