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TODAY’S BIG TALKING POINT
JON LEES “ON A DAY now dominated by Europe’s richest Flat Handicap. Weekend Ebor takes centre stage with thriller in prospect.
"THE celebrities gathering at Sandown today may not be used to second billing, but their annual Variety Club charity fundraiser is relegated to a supporting role on a new-look Saturday designed to benefit other causes.
“ York stages its 168-year-old Betfred Ebor Handicap on a weekend for the first time, justifying the change by pointing out there is no major Saturday betting contest between the Stewards’ Cup and the St Leger. York believes a Saturday Ebor will bring Europe’s richest Flat handicap to the widest possible betting, racing and television audience.
“Whether it brings you riches is another matter, for all 20 runners in the 1m6f contest will have their backers, none more so perhaps than the second, third and fifth from the John Smith’s Cup at the track last month. MODUN, LOST IN THE MOMENT and SAPTAPADI, the horses in question, have all run once since then and all ran terrific trials for today’s main event.
“The form of the John Smith’s Cup, over nearly half a mile shorter than the Ebor admittedly, was also given another boost yesterday when winner GREEN DESTINY stormed home in a Group 3 at York.
“MODUN was a doubt for today’s race even after his latest start at Goodwood, where he was finishing strongly in a 1m2f handicap.
“I wouldn’t think he’ll run –I don’t think that’s his distance,” trainer Sir Michael Stoute was quoted as saying. But Stoute has obviously had a change of heart and is prepared to let MODUN venture into the unknown in today’s 20-runner contest. MODUN ‘S half- brother SAPTAPADI also ran promisingly over 1m2f in a race won by TWICE OVER but, importantly, already has form over trips further than the Ebor distance. They will start on either side of the field, with MODUN in two and SAPTAPADI wisest of all in 22 (all declared runners, including two reserves, were allotted a stall on Thursday) for a race in which the draw can prove decisive.
“DIRAR won from 22 a year ago and only once since 2000 has the winner broken from a stall lower than 14. It’s a trend that could benefit Joseph O’Brien in a defining season that has already incorporated a Classic triumph. He has the privilege of riding for the Queen, having been selected to partner royal challenger TACTICIAN, who is drawn 20.
“TODAY is the only afternoon of the four-day Ebor meeting that does not feature a Group 1, but the Weatherbys Insurance Lonsdale Cup is one Group 2 event the track would like to raise in status. It’s prospects are not helped by the absence of FAME AND GLORY, who runs at the Curragh, but the appearance of Gold Cup runner- up and last year’s winner OPINION POLL guaranties the appearance of Frankie Dettori at York-arguably the best known celebrity at any meeting this weekend.
“But while Sandown may be overshadowed for the first time, one extra story will emerge should ROCK THE STARS win the Variety Club Handicap, which opens their card.
“The John Hills-trained bottom weight is chasing a £100,000 bonus for the connections of any horse who wins any two races at Sandown from April 23 on and goes on to win today’s first race. Should he do that, the overall prize will be just three grand less than the winner of the Ebor receives.”
JON LEES “Hills to spend last day as trainer at Chester.
“BARRY HILLS heads to Chester today hoping an appearance at the venue where he has enjoyed years of prolific success will give him the winning send-off his illustrious training
career so richly deserves. Rather than oversee his four runners at York he will spend his last day on the racetrack before son Charles takes over the licence at Chester, where he will supervise Group 1 entry NA ZDOROVIE, who has finished second on both starts to date, in the Toteswinger Maiden Stakes.
“Hills, 74 has six runners, including PRIME DEFENDER at Bath, as he retires after six decades as a licensed trainer, during which time he has trained nearly 3,200 winners.
“They have all got some sort of a chance, but I can’t say any of them are banker material ,” he said .
“Yesterday at York Hills planted a copper beech tree in the pre-parade ring, which will stand as a tribute to the trainer at a track where his big race wins included two Internationals with HAWAIIAN SOUND and CORMORANT WOOD, two Nunthorpe Stakes with HANDSOME SAILOR and LA CUCARACHA and the Yorkshire Oaks with DIBIDALE, while FURTHER FLIGHT won the Ebor and two Lonsdale Cup’s.
“I made up my mind to retire along time ago, so it won’t be that emotional ,” said Hills, who will continue to go racing. “Charles has got to get on with it. The owners will continue to support him and I will be keeping an eye on him.”