Newbury and Al Shaqab create best day of the Flat season so far

THUNDER STRUCK -- Night Of Thunder, ridden by James Doyle, wins the big race at Newbury last Saturday, the Group One Al Shaqab Lockinge Stakes (PHOTO BY: Julian Herbert/PA Wire).

THUNDER STRUCK -- Night Of Thunder, ridden by James Doyle, wins the big race at Newbury last Saturday, the Group One Al Shaqab Lockinge Stakes (PHOTO BY: Julian Herbert/PA Wire).

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Newbury staged the best day’s racing of the Flat season so far last Saturday -- and with continued growth, it could mature into one of the highlights of the entire calendar.

Lockinge Day has always been the jewel in the Flat crown for the Berkshire track. A long-established Group One contest at the centre of a fascinating afternoon’s racing.

Curiously, it has rarely galloped powerfully over the racing landscape, squeezed as it is between the Qipco Guineas Festival at Newmarket and the Investec Derby extravaganza at Epsom, and tagged on to the end of a week bossed by York’s enchanting May Meeting.

However, that is about to change, judging by its inaugural revamp last weekend when Newbury joined forces with the Qatar-based Al Shaqab Racing to give the day a spectacular facelift.

Backed by prize money of £750,000, which more than doubled the total on offer last year, a cleverly constructed card was rich in variety and quality.

The Lockinge itself, which attracted a record field of 18, highlighted a package that included the re-location of the best two races from the meeting’s previous day, Listed trials for the Oaks and Royal Ascot’s new sprint race for three-year-olds, the Commonwealth Cup The card retained the Aston Park Stakes for middle-distance horses and the ever-intriguing London Gold Cup handicap for three-year-olds. And it was topped off by the creation of a new conditions event for juveniles and a cracking 1m handicap.

It was a perfectly-executed exercise in partnership between racecourse and marquee sponsor and resulted in a feelgood feast that can surely develop into the most important prep day in the run-up to the UK’s biggest and best Flat meeting -- Royal Ascot -- almost exactly a month later.

Of course, such an exercise is always enhanced by individual splendour on the track -- and Newbury got it in spades last Saturday.

Leading the way was Ryan Moore, whose five-timer underlined why the much-maligned Great British Racing have been so keen to promote riders this year, chiefly through the creation of a new format for the jockeys’ championship.

Over jumps, Tony McCoy was the classic example of how the racegoing public can engage with and take to their hearts a jockey, thus increasing their appreciation of the sport. Crystallising the quest for the champion on the Flat, and highlighting the sheer brilliance of someone like Moore, can only boost the summer code.

Aside from Moore, the equine contributions to Newbury’s big day weren’t bad either. With the exception of the two-year-old contest, every race yielded terrific performances, spearheaded by Sir Michael Stoute’s filly CRYSTAL ZVEDZA, who burst into contention for the Investec Oaks at Epsom with a stunning last-to-first exhibition in the Haras De Bouquetot Fillies’ Trial.

In behind her, MONTALCINO and PAMONA also showed enough to suggest they will be winning races. And it was a similar story in the Carnarvon Stakes, where the placed horses, JUNGLE CAT, SALT ISLAND and WAADY, emerged with almost as much credit as William Haggas’s progressive winner, ADAAY.

The Lockinge itself finally buried the myth that, somehow, NIGHT OF THUNDER had been an inappropriate winner of last season’s Qipco 2,000 Guineas. Richard Hannon’s colt, now owned by Godolphin, is a seriously talented racehorse whose clash with overseas raiders SOLOW and ABLE FRIEND in the Queen Anne at Royal Ascot could be the race of the year.

Ascot is also the destination for TELESCOPE, who was deeply dismissive of albeit ordinary opposition in the Aston Park. Not just for the royal shindig but also for the King George, which he went so close to landing last term.

Roger Charlton’s fast-improving colt, TIME TEST, advertised the skills of Moore more than most in the London Gold Cup. He is ready for a rise in grade after victory over two smart rivals in DISSOLUTION and DUTCH UNCLE, who should also be followed as they rise up the handicap.

Handicaps might be out from now on, however, for SPARK PLUG and GM HOPKINS, both of whom unleashed searing changes of gear in the day’s concluding race. Both are Pattern performers in the making.

One final word on the new Al Shaqab Lockinge Day. It was annoying that it received so little fanfare and so little praise in the racing press. Here is a course taking genuinely refreshing steps to place the emphasis on high-class Flat racing, bucking the trend for turning venues into boozy bearpits or giant jukeboxes through the summer months. On last Saturday’s evidence, Newbury deserves our thanks and respect.