Hunkered down through the wettest British winter since meteorological records have been kept, racing fans were desperate for action. The Martell Grand National offered some excitement despite being run on boggy ground with only four of 40 runners -- two of them remounted -- completing the course. The flat season had started at Doncaster's three-day meeting beginning March 22 but, as usual, nobody noticed. More than 160 meetings have been canceled due to foot-and-mouth disease -- the tally now is more than 1,400 cases -- or the desperate weather, but the first significant flat meeting of the season took place at Newmarket April 17-19, with the seven-furlong Shadwell Stud Nell Gwyn Stakes (Eng-III) for 3-year-old fillies, and the Macau Jockey Club Craven Stakes (Eng-III) over the straight Rowley Mile for sophomore colts and geldings. Newbury's spring meeting followed immediately with the Lane's End Greenham Stakes (Eng-III) for 3-year-old colts and geldings and the Fred Darling Stakes (Eng-III) for 3-year-old fillies, both over a straight seven furlongs. Finally some grist for the betting mill, punters were thinking, with their eyes on the Two Thousand Guineas (Eng-I, May 5) and the One Thousand (Eng-I) for fillies the following day. But those looking for clues were sadly disappointed when winter-book Two Thousand favorite Nayef ran a lackluster race in the Craven, and of the six placed horses in the Nell Gwyn and Fred Darling, only the Fred Darling third, Alshadiyah, was even entered in the first fillies' classic. Sheikh Hamdan's Nayef's biggest win from two unbeaten outings as a juvenile came in an Ascot listed race in early October which he won by six lengths over "heavy" ground. Impressive as that was, sensible judges still wondered why the half-brother to Guineas and Epsom Derby (Eng-I) winner Nashwan had the bookmakers salivating. Tobougg won the climactic Dewhurst Stakes (Eng-I) for trainer Mick Channon before being taken by Godolphin to Dubai, and the son of Barathea has now moved to the head of the colts' Guineas market despite the fact his only run this year, third to Rumpold in the Godolphin trials, was less than spectacular. The Craven went to Richard Hannon-trained King's Ironbridge, a 12-1 shot who battled bravely under Richard Hughes to win by a head over Red Carpet with Nayef three lengths back in third. Nayef was the pick of the paddock but was off the bit a long way from home and found nothing in the closing stages. Now to Newbury, where Hannon-trained Tamburlaine -- second to Nayef over the track last season -- was expected to walk his beat in the Greenham. In a winning position two furlongs from home, he too failed to run on and the race went to 8-1 Munir who returned a smile to the face of Sheikh Hamdan. Stable jockey Richard Hills, son of trainer Barry Hills, now has a tough decision between Nayef and Munir for the Guineas. Tobougg strengthened further in the market after the Greenham to a general 5-2 with Nayef now 5-1 and Rumpold and Irish-trained Minardi, top of the juvenile International Classification last year, at 7-1. Munir, out of Irish One Thousand Guineas (Ire-I) winner Al Bahathri, was cut from 50-1 to 10-1 by Ladbrokes although many felt the soggy ground and slow pace made the Greenham an illegitimate trial. "It turned into a two-furlong sprint," said Hannon. "The winner won't beat my horse again." Final time for the Greenham was .64 seconds slower than for the Fred Darling.
Former California trainer Jeremy Noseda took the Nell Gwyn with 20-1 Lil's Jessy -- "I came here hoping I could sneak a third with her and get her group-placed" -- and 6-1 Rolly Polly was almost as surprising winning the Fred Darling by a half-length from Fatwa and Alshadiyah. Trained in Italy last year, Rolly Polly is probably on her way to the French Guineas (Poule d'Essai des Pouliches, Fr-I) according to trainer Henry Cecil. One Thousand Guineas betting finds the Michael Stoute-trained Karasta, the May Hill Stakes (Eng-III) winner, at the top of the chart at 5-1 with Godolphin's Muwakleh, unraced at two but winner of both her starts in Dubai this winter the second choice at 11-2. Karasta, like stablemates Regal Rose and Enthused, will go to the Guineas without a prep race.