When summer jumping was born the outcry from both the public and owners and trainers was that great injury to horses would be incurred due to the firm ground prevalent in the months of June and July. Of course since those heady days when the British weather could be depended upon June and July have trialled the prospect of becoming monsoon months, rendering moot both the directive to come and the concern about ground conditions. To counter the outcry the B.H.A., (or was it still the Jockey Club?) decreed that racecourses must ensure ground no worse than good-to-firm during the period of summer jumping. I immediately recognised the shortcoming in this proposal and wrote the following letter to the Racing Post.
If it is judicious, nay compulsory, for jump courses to produce ground no worse than good to firm during the months of June and July, could someone please explain why it is considered reasonable for jump courses to produce ground as hard as the road during the other 10 months of the year?
If we are talking horse welfare here (which I hope we are) wouldn’t it be more consistent if similar guidelines were laid down for all racecourses all of the time?
When Flat racing’s premier event produces more casualties than the Grand National (why no outcry at the death of Daffaq?) isn’t it time for the racing industry to take a long, hard look at the type of ground horses are subjected to racing on?
Very soon after publication of the letter a rule was brought in that clerks of the courses should abandon a race-meeting at any time of the year if the ground description was to be hard. Nowadays, of course, with all courses having access to watering systems of one sort or another the going is rarely even firm let alone hard.
So I take credit for this horse welfare directive. I have to award myself the credit as no one ever said ‘well done, Keith. Glad you pointed that out the deficiency in our great innovation.’
It is the great underachievement of my life, failing to win influence on a sport that is the greatest love of my life. It goes a long way to proving my hypothesis that no matter how dedicated someone is during their life if you were born under the wrong constellation you will never succeed in matters of great importance to you. I have never believed some people are born ‘lucky’, too many have made their own luck in life, but some are certainly born ‘luckless’.
So when I come up with an idea that in concept is both ground-breaking and loaded with great marketing and publicity potential it will either go unnoticed or someone will learn about the idea, tweak it, put it into practise and get all the credit. But here goes anyway!
In America recently and in Australia in the near future nonsense races designed for billionaire owners have been invented that do nothing for racing but fracture the competitiveness of traditional top races. In fact the incessant invention of new races worth millions of pounds to the winner and the resultant hiking up of prize money for traditional big races does nothing but diminish the quality and competitiveness of the sport, especially in Europe. But that is a gripe for another time.
My innovation is similar, I grant you. But with a difference. I propose a one-million pound selling race. Yes, a seller worth a million pounds. The idea is a weight for age selling race, distance to be determined, where the winner cannot be bought in by connections and claims on the beaten runners must start at a million pounds, with the selling price of the winner, less the usual fees, going to a racing charity. I would suggest one of the racehorse retraining charities or divided between them all, though the Injured Jockeys Fund or Racing Welfare could also benefit.
So in summary: the owner of the winning horse would receive one-million pounds but would lose the horse to the highest bidder. Claims could also be placed on the beaten horses but must start at one-million pounds. The winning horse could, of course, be sold for less than a million. The idea being that owners who lose their horse through the auction or to a claim would receive one-million pounds. I propose calling the race ‘The One-Million Pound Selling Race’, prize money to be funded through entry fees, the racecourse hosting the race and no doubt a sponsor.
All that is needed now is someone with influence to read this article and to set the wheels in motion.
.My days do not work to a set pattern. Today I am sat behind my desk at 5.30 in the morning. At 8.30 or 8.45 depending on my mood I will leave the house for a few hours of paid labour. On other occasions I will leave the house at 4.00 am and not return until mid-day or later. This sacrifice I undertake willingly.
My adherence to the ethic of paid labour though naturally in-born is also vigorously enforced by my other, some would say better, half who is not slow in her condemnation of my lack of ambition for the comfort great or even moderately sized wealth can bring.
Though my mornings vary from one day to the next, the constant is that the Racing Post accompanies my breakfast, brunch or lunch. Indeed, especially through October to April, my expectations of the day are diminished if for any reason I am denied my Racing Post.
The Racing Post, a newspaper I haven’t truly been able to afford for the past ten years, is my one luxury/necessity of life. Alastair Down, Tom Kerr, Steve Dennis, Lee Mottershead, and others, are the pin-up superstars of the craft of journalism who I worship and admire. If they were not all men I would have their photographs on the wall. Though not so visitors or burglars might see them. The working-class, if not the middle-class, should always adhere to standards.
So you can imagine my disappointment when I stumbled upon the website Glassdoor to discover not everyone who works for the Racing Post are happy. Indeed some are extremely disgruntled. Some have left their employment at Canary Wharf to enter holy retreats in an effort to get over the trauma of having wasted so much of their working lives under the thumb of an incompetent and verging on cruel management. The C.E.O. and editor was even singled out for his marionette tendencies. One ex-employee advised people thinking of working at the Racing Post to move to another country so as not to be tempted to work there. The I.E. department, apparently, is the equivalent of a Morris Minor, whereas other papers have computer people with the verve and drive of a Maserati.
To report such ‘heresies’ gives me no pleasure. Nor does the fact that the paper is millions of pounds in debt and when last reported was about to be sold to a corporation that might asset-strip and force up the cover price to where I cannot hope to follow. It is nearly mid-March, the time of coincidence when the price of newsprint forces the Post to put up its price. At this time of year my fingers are permanently crossed.
To think that Down, Kerr, Dennis and co must compose their works of art amongst the fall-out of rising corporate debt, disenchanted co-workers, an editor with the management skills of Donald trump, a H.R. department that suckers up to higher management but denies the workers at the coal face toilet-breaks or a standard time to go home to their loved-ones. It just makes their brilliant achievements even more remarkable. I just hope they don’t all go mad like Paul Haigh who left in a huff after 23 years’ service. Where is he now? Still at a holy retreat, perhaps?
At least I now have an explanation why the editor never answers my e-mails or letters. I always thought it was because he was overworked or was denied a secretary. My innate optimism and naïve wish for unwanted news to be untrue determines that I disbelieve the comments on Glassdoor and that the Racing Post is heaven on Earth for its employees and that the editor is a sweetie and the methods of the Human Resources department are simply misunderstood.
The Racing Post is too important to my daily welfare to have hanging over me the thought of its demise. That is too awful to contemplate. And that those employed there, who I have always considered ‘the lucky ones’, are well-paid and treated with a big dollop of T.L.C. and not whipped to contrition by Victorian overlords drunk with power. Even if annually I call them all a load of greedy bastards when the copy price goes up by ten pence every Cheltenham Festival!
Long live the Racing Post!
A tradition I cannot grasp the sense of is when a racecourse has a two-day fixture, as with Newbury’s what-was-the-Hennessey-meeting, it runs the main race of the two days on the second day. Surely you would want the best ground for the best race. Why open the ground up on the Friday? And why not improve Sunday racing by having what is now the Friday card on a Sunday, making it a Saturday/Sunday fixture, thereby 1) providing the best ground possible for the best horses 2) improving the quality of Sunday racing 3) bumping up attendances as more people would attend on a Sunday than a Friday 4) if weather should cause the abandonment of the Saturday fixture the big race could be held over to the Sunday. Simples, methinks.
Indeed with the contrariness of the British weather in mind I cannot see why, for all or some of the reasons stated above, Saturday only fixtures that feature a major race should not be expanded to a two-day Saturday/Sunday meeting.
I really would like a Clerk of the Course to explain to me why I might be wrong.
A topic that has bugged me for a very long time is why no one questions the absence of proper titles for so many of our high profile National Hunt races. And even our flat races. Ladbrokes, for instance, are not taking over sponsorship of the Hennessey but instigating a completely new race. If Alastair Down, Brough Scott or some other distinguished journalist was commissioned to write the definitive history of the Hennessey the book would end with Native River’s win in 2016. In effect, from this day forth, the race we fondly remember as the Hennessey is dead. It was simply that 3mile 2 furlong handicap chase run at Newbury in November. The Hennessey is now as defunct as Wye, Stockton and Hurst Park.
It was the same when Massey-Ferguson sponsored whatever that first big 2-mile 4-furlong handicap chase at Cheltenham is now called. When Betfair tire of sponsoring the chase that bears their name at Haydock it too will die.
I was outraged, and remain outraged, when Boyle Sports, or Spoil Sports as I can only think of them, removed the name Bula from the Bula Hurdle, Boyle Sports no doubt believing themselves more important than a mere champion racehorse. No, I still haven’t forgiven them and if we had one of their shops where I live I wouldn’t go in there. I may have my faults but I know how to carry a grudge.
This ‘little’ issue will only be taken seriously when Royal Ascot drops its standards and allows sponsorship, when names like Norfolk, Chesham, Sandringham and perhaps Royal Hunt will one by one disappear to be replaced by names such as Betfair, Bet 666, Fred Joblots Mint Imperials and perhaps even Paddy Power. A soul-destroying thought but as sure as eggs are eggs we will one day fall over that cliff. Sponsorship maybe the life-blood of the sport, sadly, but the ventricles and arteries of the beating heart are the races they take hostage.
I believe it was George Ward of Vistaprint fame who started the rot, believing himself a saviour rather than the instigator of the slaughter of racing heritage and history. George Ward used racing to promote his business and then buggered off when he had no more use for the sport. Which, of course, is what all sponsors eventually do. I wouldn’t mind if they had respect for the races they are sponsoring. Fill your boots, I say, but allow our races to have dignified titles rather than business names.
It’s not like a group of musicians starting off as Fred Joblot and the Sparklers only to be renamed The Rolling Stones when signed by a record company and remaining the Rolling Stones for ever more. Perhaps it was naïve to expect Hennessey to sponsor the 3-mile 2-furlong handicap chase run in November at Newbury for ever more, even if for ever more it will be called ‘the Hennessey’, as that 3-mile 5-furlong chase at Sandown in April is always recalled as ‘the Whitbread’.
The Rendlesham Hurdle was run recently at Haydock, not that it was called that. Betfair or someone removed Rendlesham from the title, though in the conditions of the race it probably stated ‘registered as Rendlesham Hurdle’. Why couldn’t it be called the Betfair sponsored Rendlesham Hurdle? Why?
I would like to see Newbury, for instance, put up a Cup for the 3-mile 2-furlong handicap chase run in November, as would have been done when the sport was in its infancy, and apply it to the Ladbroke sponsored Newbury Steeplechase or whatever they might like to call it. It’s not like the above mentioned race is not Newbury’s most important race of the year!
A proper race title affords a race dignity, a sporting entity in its own right, separating it from the commercial reality of hard business. I am all for racecourses brown-nosing sponsors, allowing them as much exposure as possible, but good relationships tend to last longer and with greater admiration on both sides when it is decided early on who is the master and who the respected servant.
By the way, it is the race that should be the master. Betfair, after all, got more out of Kauto Star than the great horse got out of Betfair!
Last week, writing in the Racing Post, the excellent, award-winning Tom Kerr wrote a wonderful article on the jeopardy of relying on perception to draw a clear picture of events when facts are available to define the situation more honestly and with greater clarity.
He cited front page stories in The Times and Daily Telegraph suggesting the reason for Cheltenham closing its bars earlier and limiting the number of drinks to customers was because racing has an inherent problem with drunken race-goers. Untrue, of course, as the facts suggest. Only 7 people arrested over 4 days of the Cheltenham Festival whereas hundreds were arrested at the Glastonbury Festival and the Notting Hill Carnival. Certain sections of the press have never allowed the facts to spoil a good story and unfortunately there does seem an agenda to paint racing in a poor light whenever opportunity occurs.
I am not here to heap praise on Tom Kerr or to steal his ‘copy’. But he was right in what he said and it was brought home to me last week when watching videos of sixties and early seventies Grand Nationals. I have an appalling memory. These days I do not so much remember facts and recognise them, and though I knew who would win each National I watched the fence-by-fence story-line as if the race was being run before my very eyes.
In the sixties the Grand National fences were still quite black and upright, with jockeys deliberately slipping the reins and leaning backwards to mitigate the angle of descent. But it was not riding styles that took my attention but the comparative lack of fallers, especially on the first circuit and I was reminded of comments by Ruby Walsh after the furore of the tragic and accidental deaths of According To Pete and Synchronised in Neptune Collonge’s National. He said, and I am paraphrasing, if you want to slow the race down to make it safer the fences should be made bigger, not smaller.
You see, I perceived that the tinkering with the fences in the seventies onwards was a direct result of the amount of fallers in the sixties. But in 61 when Nicolaus Silver won 14 finished out of 35 starters, of which 13 fell. In 62, Kilmore’s year, 17 finished out of 32 starters. In 63 when Ayala won, 22 finished out of 47 starters. In 63 15 finished out of 33 starters. In 64 14 finished out of 47 starters. In deed in Foinavon’s year 18 finished from 44 starters and until the riderless Popham Down, who had parted company with his jockey at the first and proceeded to jump every fence thereafter with gay aplomb, popped so many down most of the field were still running going to the fence after Becher’s second time round.
The fences had altered by 73, of course, though they were nothing like they are today, yet Red Rum, Crisp, L’Escargot and Spanish Steps still all managed to break Golden Miller’s course record, suggesting that the fences were not as fearsome as perception insists upon.
I am not suggesting we turn back time to the sixties and remodel the National fences on Hadrian’s Wall. But we should remind ourselves, especially if further tinkering is mooted, that it is speed that kills and if we want the National to be safer we should first consult the wisebeards of the weighing room, not those whose equine experience is acquired from theory. We rejoice, or at least the television presenters rejoice, when 17, 18 or 19 or more complete the course. But it’s not unusual and not justification for the re-modelling of the fences and the levelling of the course at Becher’s and elsewhere. Perhaps for the survival of the race the latest alterations were necessary but if the Grand National stops being a test of horse and jockey the sport of horse racing will lose its brightest jewel on the altar of political correctness.
Initially I was opposed to the changes to the fences believing that in making them ‘softer’ it would encourage speed and disadvantage the good jumper and after watching all those videos last week I am minded to think Ruby Walsh was right and to pat myself on the back for once also being on the right side of the argument.
I do not understand the ruses and wiles of the marketing industry. Perhaps I was put off the touting of commerce by an over-loud town crier who never took a stern look as the censure it was meant to be. And big corporate events held at swanky high prestige sites, such as the V & A, as was the case for the announcing of the weights for the Grand National recently, which though good, perhaps vital, for the new sponsor, Randox Health, equally requires censure.
A new product, such as gentleman’s underwear impregnated with a cooling gel or a trek to the North Pole by scantily-clad missionaries in want of highlighting the need for scratching posts for polar bears would need to be announced to an unknowing public. But the Grand National is an annual event and everyone with an ounce of racing knowledge already knew, within a pound or two, the weights to be allotted to the majority of horses. Randox Health, God preserve them, possibly needed the grandiose environment of the V & A. to gain the attention of the public. The Grand National did not.
Surely the place to herald the beginning of the build-up to the Grand National would be somewhere synonymous with horse racing. Aintree comes to mind. Or a top racing yard. But not a museum. And not late in the evening. Did no one tell the organisers that racehorse trainers like to be in bed early as their day begins before dawn? A time of day, I suspect, London marketing people have little concept of.
Given that I.T.V. are to broadcast the race for the next five years to an audience, we hope, of ten-million or more, wouldn’t the sensible place to announce the weights be an extended ‘Morning Show’? Start the build-up where it will end. Perhaps on the morning of the Grand National Trial at Haydock. If they only have an hour to get the job done it might concentrate the mind, and with coffee and tea on offer and not alcohol those attending might listen and not converse with one another. I am confident Ed Chamberlain and Ollie Bell can be trusted to do justice to the event.
So there we have it. Problem solved. Next year the Grand National weights to be announced live on television at Haydock where in the afternoon there will be a Grand National trial. If Randox Health sponsored the race the circle will be completed.
Francois Doumen – how I regret his going over to racing’s flatter side – when asked if he thought French steeplechasers were more proficient jumpers than their English or Irish counterparts, replied. ‘With a big hesitation, yes. Particularly, I think, our steeplechasers learn a better way of schooling because of the fact that we have proper hurdles. Our hurdles are good-sized, they need to be respected. Your hurdles, I think, only teach horses to neglect them.”
Collectively we were in awe of the way Doumen’s horses jumped, with barely a mistake let alone a fall. His observation was in no way criticism of British and Irish trainers and as by the considered manner in which he replied to the question it is obvious he has great respect and admiration for racing this side of La Manche Tunnel. The problem, if there is a problem, is with the traditional hurdle. To answer my own question. I think there is a problem and it is being ignored simply because it is in plain sight. Swinging hurdles are inherently dangerous.
The brush hurdle races at Haydock are always well supported, with sizeable prize-money and large fields, yet the initiative is not being repeated elsewhere on British racecourses. Why? Is the brush hurdle to be unique to Haydock?
Swinging hurdles are a menace and must account for a significant number of injuries and fatalities. A horse cannot be schooled to learn how to jump a swinging hurdle and if horse welfare is a prime concern surely it is time for a radical rethink on the type of hurdle used on racecourses. Brush hurdles are static, mini versions of the steeplechase fence.
People do not breed horses to jump hurdles. Breeders set out to either breed horses to run on the flat or to jump fences. Hurdle races are a staging post on the road to novice chasing. So why and how has hurdle races become so ingrained in the racing psyche that any talk of changing them to brush hurdles is met with silence? Surely the education of horses born and bred to jump fences would be simplified if they were schooled and raced as novices over obstacles that resembled the sort of fence that is to be their future? It is not rocket science. Show jumpers are trained from young to jump poles. Why would you train a horse with the stature of a steeplechaser to jump an obstacle that requires a completely different style of jumping to the fence that is its future? To the layman it makes no sense.
There is a term I have heard athletes use that might also be attributed to the schooling of young horses – muscle-memory. Surely to train a young horse to jump in a certain way must imprint on the memory a procedure for getting from one side of an obstacle to the other, but to then expect them to learn a new way over a larger obstacle requires the horse to forget the learned procedure that went before. Horses are sentient beings and in their own environment and in their own company can be described as intelligent but their natural-born life-skills are that of smell, sight, instinct and memory. When horse and rider is aware that the stride is not there to jump a fence cleanly, no matter what instruction the jockey issues through the reins, heels or mouth, the horse is going to resort to memory and instinct and in the frenzy of decision making the horse may more often than not resort to what it learned at an early stage of its life and just launch itself, as it would do a hurdle.
I often wonder why when a young point-to-pointer joins a National Hunt yard he or she is invariably started off running in novice hurdles when it must already be proficient over steeplechase fences. To me it seems a case of going backwards in an attempt to go forward. There may well be method but I suspect there might be a tinge of madness, too.
Now, I am not advocating the abolition of hurdle races but I am suggesting a greater use of the brush hurdle for those horses whose future is steeplechasing. All courses should invest in brush hurdles. This will, of course, create a third discipline of the sport, and added expense for racecourses. But on horse welfare grounds it is an unarguable case for reform, for a radical rethink. Hurdle racing is unperceived by the sporting and general public. National Hunt’s image is the Grand National and the Cheltenham Gold Cup – steeplechasing. The dangers of hurdle racing, the mortality rate and the danger caused by the swinging hurdle, are unseen and unconsidered by those with agendas to fulfil. Racing was, if only eventually, proactive when it came to making changes to the Grand National course. Now the same radical approach should be applied to the hurdle race.
When teaching the young, be it human or animal, it is always good policy to make things easy to begin with, to encourage enjoyment to be part of the learning process. It is certainly unwise to place danger before the young, traps to unnerve and to serve as bad memories for the future. Yet young horses are sent out to race over an obstacle that encourages flippancy and if unlucky can cause a fall from a swinging hurdle that is no fault of horse or rider.
All of us, I suspect, feel more comfortable with what we know, what we were brought up with, and if traditional hurdles were to be universally replaced by brush hurdles I suspect trainers will issue monumental cries of despair. But in the short term there should be a debate and a far more extended trial than has been so far observed at Haydock. We owe the horse the duty of seeking to ensure its welfare at every level of the sport. We live in enlightened times, with many outlets for the prejudices of organisations such as Animal Aid. When the roustabout Lord Barrymore won a bet that he could find a man who could eat a cat alive, circa 1790, no one, I suggest, was appalled. Nowadays he would be stripped, quite rightly, of his peerage and sent to prison, loathed by all.
The lives and well-being of horses should not be risked when an alternative to the traditional hurdle is readily available, one that is far more beneficial to the education of the horse and less likely to cause injury. Perhaps traditional hurdle racing might remain, catering for horses off the flat that have too much natural speed for steeplechasing. After all, we have the Champion Hurdle to consider, don’t we?
Lord Oaksey, John Lawrence in the annals of British racing, is rightly regarded as a legend of racing journalism. I dare say every young man or woman starting out in the profession dreams of one day acquiring a similar reputation. Being a Lord of the Realm there was little room to honour him further for his dedication to the sport or for the sparkle of his craft. And of course his name will always be associated with the inception of the Injured Jockeys Fund and the rehabilitation centre at Lambourn that bears his name. He is, and will always be, Lord Oaksey, legend.
Magnificent as he was with the equestrian written word, I suggest there is amongst the truly wonderful columnists presently assembled by the Racing Post a giant of the craft who may either rival the great man or might even have already surpassed him. I speak of course of Alastair Down.
I have spoken to the great man, at length if I remember correctly, though I doubt if he will recall the evening he phoned me out of the blue. The suspicion lingers that alcohol may have been consumed. By him, not me. I am a teetotaller, a state of being that Alastair might list in the 'three things I thank God for'. One should neither condemn Alastair for his devotion to drink nor sympathise with him. His dedication to the art of bending the elbow whilst holding a glass of alcoholic beverage allowed him a very commendable time when he attempted the drinkers marathon of 26 pints in 26 hostelries in a single day. He has thus far balked at doing the double - 26 orange juices at 26 temperance establishments.
Something we do have in common is a loathing for the names of great horses given to lesser beasts. The telephone call was a response to a letter of mine published in that day's Racing Post (or was it Sporting Life? It was so long ago) He will foam at the mouth if the name Rondetto appears on a race-card during his lifetime, as I foam at the sight of Spanish Steps - but I have written of that pain in a previous blog. (I'll never get used to the use of blog instead of article or piece) I can't imagine Alastair blogging. But then again great men and women don't need to blog. That is the preserve of lesser mortals.
Despite his devotion to booze and cigarettes, or perhaps because of these addictive substances, he is the supreme master of his craft, as 'Cheltenham et Al', the compilation of his 'pieces' for the Sporting Life, Weekender and Racing Post, that won him the Horse Racing Book of the Year Award, testifies. I'm not mentioned, of course, an omission that is clear evidence his phone call to me so long ago made no impact on his consciousness.
But the Horse Racing Book of the Year Award nor any of the other awards he has earned is award enough. He deserves, indeed the craft of racing journalism deserves, greater recognition for the passion and excellence racing columnists unfailingly deliver. I have no idea how to kickstart a hush-hush campaign to get Alastair elevated to the station in life when us lesser mortals must tug at our forelock upon meeting him and address him as Sir Alastair but within our sport there must be someone who might put in a word to the Prime Minister. This campaign, if there is to be a campaign, should be prioritised as his liver may not out-survive his thirst.
I suspect it was his dedication to booze that had something to do with Channel 4 evicting him from our television screens during the time of the great purge, though why I.T.V. did not invite him to contribute his passion and love of the sport, if only an ad hoc basis, only they can say. We all make mistakes and that is their mistake.
It will also be a mistake if Alastair goes to his grave as a man of lower rank. 'Your Majesty, Sir Alastair Down,' has a lovely ring about it, doesn't it? Perhaps even more so that the mantle of Lord that was placed on the head of John Lawrence.
I believe, and have done for many years, that the best marketing flat racing could achieve is if a female jockey either become champion jockey or won a classic. Not that it will happen in my lifetime, though in Josephine Gordon that aspiration may become a reality if she continues to improve and trainers and owners get behind her. Or indeed Hollie Doyle, who is also making a name for herself. In being associated with a major stable, the pressure is on for Josephine Gordon to succeed, especially with all the praise she is acquiring from the journalists at the Racing Post. Gaye Kelleway went as far as to say she thought Gordon could become champion jockey in France if she relocated to take advantage of the 4Ib allowance female jockeys can soon claim over there.
For many years, of course, Hayley Turner ploughed a lone furrow yet even when she won Group 1's and a top race in the U.S. the great and the good of the sport never truly gave her the support that her ability and popularity deserved. I always thought luck never played fair with her.
The French, it seems, have recognised the benefit of promoting female jockeys and the 4Ib riding allowance is evidence that they believe the mademoiselles are not getting a fair crack of the whip. Richard Hughes, amongst others, has suggested female jockeys forget about the affront, the lack of respect for their strength in the saddle, and if something similar were to happen this side of the Channel to take the 4Ib with both hands and use it to their advantage. I would imagine Pat Cosgrave, who I believe is to have first choice of Hugo Palmer's horses this season, will not get a look in this summer when Palmer has runners in France, not with Josephine Gordon able to take 4Ib off the backs of his runners. In fact I would imagine she'll not be spending many Sundays in this country from April onwards.
The French have their hearts in the right place but the strategy is flawed. It is not sympathy females require but opportunity on a daily basis. To encourage trainers and owners to use professional female riders to a greater extent than at present the way forward is to have a programme of races restricted to professional female riders over varying distances throughout the season. The cream will rise to the top once they are riding regularly, especially when getting on horses with chances to feature at the photo-finish end of a race.
There should also be a signature race for female riders, with a hefty prize fund, perhaps at Royal Ascot or Goodwood, with the top females from around the world invited to ride. This would be an opportunity to attract a cosmetics company or High Street fashion store as a sponsor.
It is plain wrong when people who should know better claim there is no sexism in racing. Look how long it took for the Jockey Club to allow women to hold trainers' licences. Or how recently it was that females were allowed jockeys licences. To attract a broader following, the flat especially must appeal to all sectors of society. It does already of course, with everyone from the likes of me to the aristocracy able to stand shoulder to shoulder and discuss as equals the form of this year's Cheltenham contenders or last year's two-year-olds. In an unequal world horses make equals of all men, of all women. But female jockeys are not the equal to their male counterparts and a Josie Gordon or Hollie Doyle competing on equal terms at Royal Ascot or Epsom would put racing in a spotlight it has missed for all these years - the female magazines, the female oriented world. This sport of ours is thought by the unknowing public as being either dodgy or without care for the horse and a male domain, no doubt engendered by every trashy racing thriller novel ever written.
Jump racing doesn't really need the same initiative as the girls have made greater inroads within the sport and it is only a matter of time before Carberry, Walsh, Blackmore, Alexander, Kelly or one of the Andrews girls wins one of the big races. In fact the name of any of those girls on a horse does not distract from its chances in the eyes of punters. The year Neptune Collonge won the Grand National Katie Walsh rode the favourite and gave it a blindingly good ride.
Let us hope that in ten or fifteen years this subject matter is on its way to becoming as redundant as the days when races were run in heats and the sight of a feminine ankle was looked on as something shocking.
As it is almost compulsory at this time of year to suggest winners for the Festival, I will attempt the almost impossible by giving my tips for the Gold Cup, Champion Hurdle and Stayers Hurdle.
Cue Card was my tip before the King George and I've seen nothing since to make me switch to Thistlecrack or Native River. Unlike Coneygree who is a brilliant, natural jumper of fences, I fear Thistlecrack will always make both silly mistakes and occasionally the more serious mistake. If Coneygree does get supplemented I'll swap to him but in his absence Cue Card will put right the error and bad luck of last year when he was clearly travelling like the winner when Paddy Brennan, no doubt remembering Nico de Boinville's similar move on Sprinter Sacre, got a wee bit over-excited. It is possible, of course, that Colin Tizzard will have the 1, 2 , 3. And I hope he does.
I hope David Pipe takes a leaf out of Colin Tizzard's camp, and the Bradstock camp, and runs Moon Racer in the less competitive Champion Hurdle, rather than the very hot Supreme. The form of his races thus far is working out extremely well and like Coneygree and Thistlecrack he's not a spring chicken. As I hope Jessica Harrington swerves the Champion and runs Jezki in the Stayers Hurdle, though as the former is dissolving before our very eyes the temptation to try and regain the 2-mile crown might be impossible to ignore.
So my big 3 for Cheltenham are: Cue Card, Moon Racer and Jezki.
Whatever you do, don't lump on. I may have been strong on Coneygree two years ago but as a rule I'm a lousy tipster.
Keith Knight is a workaday writer of fiction, worker in the real world but foremost a horse racing fanatic. The joy of the sport is the horse - all horses.