The Unscripted Delights of Anticipation Week

Haafhd was the last horse to complete the Craven-Guineas double 20 years ago | Racingfotos

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Newmarket's Craven meeting could just as well be called Anticipation Week.

Anticipation is climbing the steps of a venerated football stadium for a night game to find the floodlights blazing and the grass slick and lush.

It's the bounce of the England cricket team down the pavilion steps to start an Ashes series. It's checking your tickets the day before Wimbledon tennis starts or standing just after dawn beside the first tee at an Open Championship or Masters.

It's not about what you know. It's about all the things you don't know. Or don't know yet, because there is no script. A venue, a tradition, a hum of expectation, yes, but no script. Unlike cinema or the theatre, nobody wrote what you are about to see. You scan the horizon of pleasures still to come with a preferred outcome, certainly, but no guarantees.

In books and films the whodunnit is already decided. In sport the who-will win-it is a thing of intrigue. It's the unknowable.

What I'm describing here, in racing terms, is 'Craven week,' the Newmarket fixture that ends the strange hiatus between the Lincoln meeting at Doncaster and the 'real' start of a Flat racing campaign, on the Rowley Mile course. 

It's not about what you know. It's about all the things you don't know. Or don't know yet, because there is no script.

The Grand National meeting bisects the cutting of the start-line ribbon at Donny and the unleashing of the first wave of Classic contenders at Newmarket, in a week when everything feels possible, and dreams are unbruised by reality.

And in Flat racing, anticipation week is centuries old. The Craven was first run in 1771 and evolved over two hundred years into the pre-eminent 2,000 Guineas trial. In 1869 it was reduced from 10 furlongs to eight. Eight years later it was restricted to three-year-olds. 

Modern training is a scientific, data-driven trade, so colts often go straight to the Guineas without a prep run. City of Troy and Rosallion – the first two in the market – will arrive on May 4 without form in the book as three-year-olds.

Yet the Craven is still the race that tells you spring has sprung, the Classic race scramble has begun, and that 2024's contenders are about to be reclassified as champs, nearly-horses and also-rans.

In the history of the colts' Classics, the evidence trail still starts with the Craven. Six years ago Masar beat the odds-on Roaring Lion and went on to win the Derby. Roaring Lion proceeded to win four Group 1s. Curiously the last horse to compete the Craven-2,000 Guineas double was Haafhd in 2004, an anomaly that is due correction. Eminent (2017), Native Khan (2011) and Adagio (2007) are among those for whom winning the Craven was largely an end, rather than a beginning.

No modern Craven meeting has produced a more lasting declaration than that of Dancing Brave in 1986. His defeat of Henry Cecil's pair Faraway Dancer and Mashkour was emphatic enough but the ground was too soft to offer a promise of the beauty to come: victories in the 2,000 Guineas, Eclipse, King George and Arc to earn an official rating of 141, the highest ever awarded to a horse at that time.

The first big fillies' trial of the season, the Nell Gwyn Stakes, can also be revelatory. In a mini golden era from 1984 to 1986 it was won by Pebbles (1,000 Guineas, Eclipse, Champion Stakes, Breeders' Cup Turf), Oh So Sharp (1,000 Guineas, Oaks, St Leger) and Sonic Lady (Irish 1,000 Guineas, Coronation Stakes, Sussex Stakes, Prix du Moulin.)

The British crave spring and hints of summer delights particularly keenly. It feels as if it has been raining in the UK since November. Racing folk ask Craven week to lift the grey blanket off their heads. They want equine coats to gleam and the sun to glint off silks. Trainers, stable staff and jockeys will see hints from the gallops tested on the racecourse. Lazy types will be transformed and 'morning wonders' may flop when they step on the track.

With Craven week, there are clues and promise but no certainties. After Newmarket the auditions roll on to Newbury, to the Greenham and Fred Darling. The two Guineas races come less than three weeks after the Newmarket and Newbury trials – a timetable more compressed than you might imagine, considering that these are three-year-olds emerging from hibernation.

Everything is up for grabs, and everyone wants to grab it, especially after a gruelling, soggy winter. The not knowing is part of the thrill. There are champions on the scroll of Nell Gwyn and Craven winners but there are also winners you struggle to remember. It's not possible for a 'bad' horse to win either race, but eminently possible for the victory to lead nowhere. Twelve months ago Indestructible beat The Foxes in the Craven but has not won since.

In Anticipation Week stars will emerge, reality checks will abound, hopes will be dashed and question marks will be scattered. But the 2024 Flat season will be in full swing. It's not just the horses who burst from the stalls at Newmarket. We do too.

 

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