SOBER EXPRESS set the standard as the Coral Essex Vase kicked off with six heats at Romford on Friday.

Trained by Mark Wallis, a four-time Essex Vase-winning handler, the August 18 son of Droopys Jet bulleted from the boxes on his way to posting a 13.39sec split and a five-and-a-quarter-length success over Seaglass Sabrina in 34.71sec (+30).

Wallis was delighted with the performance, commenting: “It was a great run and, at last, Sober Express has found some consistency, which was lacking before. He showed last night what he’s capable of – and what we thought he could do.

“He’s much improved since he had the five-box in the Champion Stakes semis, which didn’t suit.

“He’s a railer, although middle draws don’t seem to worry him. That said he faces a very tough semi-final. However, if he can trap like he has in the last two weeks he’ll have a great chance of making the final, which would be great.”

Next quickest was Sharon Thompson’s Sparta Master, who was always handy in heat six before drawing away to beat Swift Cope by six and a half lengths in 34.83sec  (+30).

Last year’s finalist, who missed the decider after his owner and trainer suffered an horrendous journey to the London Road track, delighted Thompson who feels his performance silenced her runner’s detractors.

“For some reason he’s a dog who gets his fair share of criticism and I’ll never know why,” said the Towcester handler. “I thought he ran a cracking race and has come out of the race really well, especially given he hadn’t raced since Derby final night.

“He loves that short run to the bend at Romford, although I’m not sure trap five in the semis is what he really wants. But we have to deal with it and then, again, should he qualify it might be about the draw again – he ideally needs three or four.

“No doubt he’ll still have people knocking him, the poor old boy, but we’ll deal with that, too. Fingers crossed he does qualify – and then I’ll just have to make sure I get there this time!”

Patrick Janssens was at the double in the heats courtesy of 2019 Coronation Cup winner Desperado Dan (35.06sec +30) and kennelmate Doolin Princess (35.05sec +30).

In scoring a 39th career success in heat two, Desperado Dan was continuing the form which saw the January 17 whelp recently land the Ladbrokes Gold Collar at Crayford, while Doolin Princess was notching a third victory in just seven starts.

The other heats were won by locally trained runners.

First up was the David Mullins-trained Kilmessan Puma (35.37sec +30), who edged out Tiffield Maximus (Mark Wallis) in heat four, while Yvonne Gaskin’s Knockglass Magic was always handy in heat five before winning in 35.59sec (+30).

Mark Arkell, Romford racing manager, said: “It was certainly an eventful first round. We had a few fancied runners beaten and a few surprise eliminations such as Look Like Power and Black Olive, who were both unfortunate, but there were also some very impressive efforts too.

“Sober Express and Sparta Master both caught the eye with fast wins – and Desperado Dan is just fantastic and has a great will-to-win.

“You’d say we’ve still got most of the top end in the ante-post betting still pitching for victory in the Essex Vase and we’re looking forward to the semis now.

“Indeed that should be another cracking card given we also have heats of the Mitch Millward Marathon over 750m – so open-race staying races fans should be in for a treat.”

Arkell also confirmed that next year’s Coronation Cup will not be run, with the Essex Vase moving to a January slot. The Coral Champion Stakes remains in September.

Trap draw for Friday’s semi-finals: