‘I don’t know what it is anymore. I don’t understand when it starts or when it finishes. People say it’s the start of the flat now, but it isn’t really, and when does it end?’ (Taken from an interview with Peter Thomas in the Racing Post)
When a jockey of the calibre of Ryan Moore (the best flat jockey of my long life) says that about the jockeys’ championship you know the whole concept is a mess and in desperate need of reform. Or if we want to keep things simple we could just go back to the tried and tested formula used to determine the title for centuries. In his ‘quiet man’ and diplomatic way Ryan Moore is telling us he disapproves of the current method of determining who is to be champion flat jockey. And for someone who doesn’t care a hoot for being champion that is a big, bold statement.
Most people, I suspect, would agree with him.
At the time of writing Luke Morris leads the jockeys’ championship – the all-weather jockeys’ championship – with 71 winners. These winners, hard fought for and achieved at a time of year when the British weather is at its worst and while those who vie for Ryan Moore’s position as the ‘best there is around’ are away in foreign parts soaking up the sun and earning far more money than Morris for a lot less effort, will not be recorded as part of the title race. He will be crowned all-weather champion, of course, but his total for the winter/spring season will not be added to his score for the part of the flat season that comprises the championship, and any winners accrued between Doncaster’s opening meeting and the Guineas meeting at Newmarket will also not count.
What is bonkers/anomalous (take your pick) is that winners on the all-weather from the Guineas meeting onwards do count towards the title. Try explaining to non-racing men or women how our champion jockey is determined and you will find yourself discussing the topic for a considerable amount of time.
The season begins with the Lincoln meeting at Doncaster and ends with the November Handicap meeting also at Doncaster. A neat, bookending, arrangement that is at total odds with a racing programme that is as topsy-turvy as if the race meetings are drawn out of a hat. Yet the champion jockey is already known weeks before the last meeting, the last race. It’s a mad, bad and somewhat sad way of handing out the silverware. It is bewildering that the jockey who rides the most winners in a calendar year is rarely nowadays declared ‘champion’. Fred Archer would turn in his grave if he knew.
Horse Racing is often compared with Formula 1, yet in motorsport they wait until the final race of the championship to determine its champions. Even if a driver is too far ahead going into the final races to be caught points won in those last few races are still added to a driver’s overall score.
The introduction of all-weather racing and the vast inroads it has made into the racing programme has, it must be admitted, muddied the waters when determining flat racing’s champions. Of course winners gained at these meeting should count towards the championship and to highlight and give greater gravitas to winter flat racing some would argue the championship should be year-long, with every winner won from January 1st to December 31st counting towards the title. This would make more sense than a method that was only introduced as a convenience to a day’s racing grandly titled ‘Champions Day’ even though no horse is crowned a champion on the day.
One idea I would like to put forward, an idea that does not take the ceremony away from ‘Champions Day’, is for the jockeys’ title to start the day after ‘Champions Day’ and finish on ‘Champions Day’, taking in every flat race, turf and all-weather, over the intervening twelve months. A fairer method, I contest, than the present one.
Luke Morris, of course, would lose his title as all-weather king but if my idea were adopted he would stand a greater chance of becoming champion jockey, a title his effort day-to-day would justify. There certainly would not be a worthier title-holder.
As the majority of you will be aware the Racing Post, as I predicted in February, has increased its cover price, though not by 10p but to £2.90 Monday to Sunday. I would like to say I was not surprised by the increase. No I was not surprised I was shocked and for a moment or three I wondered how I could ever justify paying so large a wad of money for a daily newspaper and I hoped the increase would only endure for the length of the Cheltenham Festival. But alas no, this was not to be. £2.90 it was to be until at least the next Cheltenham Festival when I predict and fear the price will have to increase again.
I realise that if you are on an editor’s salary an increase of £3.20p a week is nothing but a trifling amount. Even the Racing Post’s columnists will hardly notice the rise in price. Though thinking about it I doubt if they actually have to pay for their Posts as it doubtless comes as a freebie as part of their contracts. So they’ll not even notice the hike in price. I dare say the Post’s columnists still think the cover price is £1, as it was when Sheikh Mohammad inspired the setting up of a competitor to the dear old and sadly missed Sporting Life.
This is the pitfall for the reader when a newspaper does not have a competitor, a rival. The reader tends to get fleeced.
I am neither on the salary of a newspaper C.E.O., nor a newspaper columnist. I am working class. An ordinary worker coming close to the end of a long working life, having made so many poor employment choices along the way, and to buy the Racing Post at £2.90 a copy on a daily basis presents me with a moral dilemma. To fork out over £20 a week on a daily newspaper is barely defendable. To compensate I will have to buy less chocolate. If my other half discovers what percentage of my disposable income is being ‘squandered’, as she would have it, on a newspaper that is read, lies around the living room making the place untidy, only to be recycled at the end of the week, I will require the expertise of a Lincoln Inns barrister to defeat the logic of her argument. The joy I find in horse racing is an element of our relationship she never has been able to comprehend.
Let’s not beat about the bush: the Racing Post is a great read, especially through the winter months and into early spring. I can justify, to myself, shelling out £2.90 every day while National Hunt is centre stage. But can I through the summer? My interest in the flat is not driven as jumping is by my heart and soul. Flat racing to me is, well, a flattened interest. I suspect I shall continue to buy the Racing Post till after Punchestown and then through the summer read it sporadically, perhaps on a Sunday and during the big meetings like Royal Ascot and Galway. And to those of you on salaries rather than pay packets this will sound quaint and no doubt a little sad, I may even put aside money through the summer to draw on through the winter so I can still get my daily fix of Racing Posts.
On a serious note, all of us who read the Racing Post regularly should be aware that the huge increase in cover price is not because Bruce Millington wants to give himself and his columnists a pay rise but because the Post is in a seriously unstable financial position and I fear this humungous price increase may be their last shot at staying in business.
The Racing Post is important to me. It is the life-blood that keeps me truly connected to a sport that has fascinated me since the age of seven when a television came into our house for the first time and there was a programme called Grandstand that showed racing from Ascot. Racing Post columnists are my heroes of the printed word; they inform and entertain and they provide me with debate and subjects I can air on this website. Without the Post and its writers my life would be diminished. It is for this reason, because a world without a racing industry daily newspaper would diminish the sport, I shall continue to support it until truly the pennies run dry. I urge everyone else to make the same sacrifice, if sacrifice it might be.
Not so long ago the good people at Doncaster proffered the idea (they have plans, apparently) that there was a need to increase the profile of the Lincoln Handicap and ‘Lincoln Day’ in general, believing the opening of the flat season lives in the shadows of the Dubai World Cup and the Grand National. I agree, as I have written about previously.
What the Lincoln needs is to be distinctive and unfortunately the world has moved on from the days when the Lincoln was incontrovertibly linked to the Grand National through the now almost defunct ‘Spring Double’. Since the introduction of ‘all-weather racing’ through the winter flat racing no longer goes into hibernation and flat enthusiasts no longer hunger for their sport as was the case thirty or forty years ago. Also, though it has a noble heritage, the Lincoln is only one of many top 1-mile handicaps throughout the season, and if such races were to be rated it would rank near the bottom of top 1-mile handicaps. Certainly it does not have the kudos of the Royal Hunt Cup or the Cambridgeshire, the latter being a furlong further.
After a quick perusal of Lincolns run in the late forties and early fifties and eighties and nineties, it is glaringly clear that the race is a shadow of its former glory. One of the problems, I believe, is the use of starting stalls as no matter the state of the ground they seem to encourage jockeys to go either one side of the course or the other, producing two incoherent races, with the winner invariably coming from the side where the ground is either fastest or the least soft.
The other obvious difference is in the number of runners, a statistic that I suspect is a direct result of the use of starting stalls. When the race was run at Lincoln, on the Carholme as people used to describe Lincoln racecourse, much as Chester is referred to as the Roodeye, 35-40 runners was quite routine, with 57 lining up on one occasion. And there was no splitting into two packs. It was quite a spectacle, a veritable charge of the light brigade. A helter-skelter with jockeys seemingly riding for dear life from start to finish.
So what I put forward for debate, as radical and two-fingers in the face of health and safety as it might be, is for the Lincoln Handicap to revert to what it used to be, with the race starting from a barrier and the maximum field set not at 22 but shall we say 42.
I know this proposal will induce howls of protest from perhaps nearly everyone, but think about it for a moment. It is a straight mile, with no obstacles. What could go wrong? And the flat would have a race as distinctive as the Grand National is to National Hunt. In fact it would be the most distinctive flat race in the world, except perhaps for the Mongolian Derby. There would, of course, be a handful of hard luck stories every year and occasionally there would be a 100/1 winner. It would also provide the modern flat jockey with the jeopardy of a barrier start and an idea of what it was like for their predecessors when, at least for the modern generation, huge fields were quite usual.
This one-day/one race journey back in time would make the Lincoln noticeable again and if combined with a day of big handicaps linked to a super I.T.V. 7 type of bet, as I propose in my previous thoughts on the Lincoln, there might even be coverage on the news channels and on the front page of the broadsheets. A press photographer’s dream, I would think, 57, or should we say 42 horses charging down the Doncaster straight.
If you want to engage the public imagination with our sport what is required is not a 1-mile handicap that in essence is no different to any other 1-mile handicap but a spectacle blessed with the prospect of jeopardy. What is required is radical thought, optimism and a leap of faith.
Of course modern-day Doncaster may be physically unable to accommodate a race comprising 40 or more runners. If so, move the race to a racecourse that has the space to accommodate such a number. Newmarket, for example. Where better to open the flat season than the ‘headquarters’ of the sport?
At the end of every Cheltenham Festival I vow to stop allowing my hopes to fly too high. It is a vow impossible to abide by. A horse will come to Prestbury Park that gladdens the heart and makes one exclaim that it is a gift from the gods who might, just might, be the new Arkle we have waited so long to proclaim. From long experience we should know that horses can disappoint, aided, of course, by the fates of life that allow hammer blows to rein down on both the mighty and the seemingly invincible.
Cheltenham is always a joy, a carousel ride through the emotions. Life, though, real gritty, heartless life, has at its core disappointment and grief and can add blacks and greys to those whose life is generally one of supreme colour and good fortune, while it can smear an extra texture of the dark side to those born to struggle against life’s travails. The punter versus the bookmaker versus the ground conditions versus the fates. The battlefield of dream and nightmare.
Of course for the battered English the meeting began so well with Tom George winning the Supreme with the underrated Summerville Boy, with Amy Murphy’s good horse a close and honourable second. Kalashnikov will be interesting over fences next season. I sincerely hope his owner is not persuaded to sell to one of the big battalions as the sport needs the likes of Amy Murphy to keep training the good horses they work so hard to produce.
Of course after Summerville Boy the meeting kicked into gear for the Irish, starting with Footpad and then Benie Des Dieux, Rathvindon and so on and so on. Of course they failed to win any of the big three championship races and that they should remember when crowing about how they whipped the arses of the British.
Buveur d’Air is a good horse in need of a two or three challengers. Where they will come from is anyone’s guess as I didn’t see a horse at the entire meeting who you would expect to extend Buveur d’Air next season. Both of the impressive Mullins mares look chasing material, Samcro too. If Melon could not beat the champion on desperate ground he isn’t going to beat him on any other sort of ground. The hurdle division at the moment is as poor as I have ever known it. An opportunity, wouldn’t you think, for a top-class flat horse to be campaigned over hurdles next season? Another Alderbrook or Kribensis is required.
For someone who has ‘campaigned’ for female jockeys to be given an even break for far longer than it has been fashionable to do so it was a joy to see four women achieve success at the festival, especially the ever splendid Lizzy Kelly and the under-rated Bridget Andrews. I doubt if any winning jockey has ever brought so much joy to another jockey as achieved by Ms Andrews. Harry Skelton’s love and appreciation of her triumph was the most uplifting moment of the meeting.
It is never a surprise to see Katie Walsh winning big races, it did though take the gilt off the gingerbread to see her suspended for whip abuse. Harriet Tucker produced one of the rides of the week – if you considered it was only her second ride on a racecourse - on Pasha Du Polder, a horse who loves the ladies. If Victoria Pendleton had been given more positive riding instructions or if she had ridden more positively this no doubt would have been Pasha Du Polder’s third Festival win.
Samcro is good but we’ve known that all season and his win really did nothing to boost his reputation. He will be seven next season and if they do not send him novice chasing his boundless potential will be wasted. Those people who want him to stay hurdling fail to understand what ‘potential’ means or what Giggingstown stand for.
Samcro is good but he’ll not win a Gold Cup while there is a spring in the step of Presenting Percy. Not even bottomless ground will stop him winning the Gold Cup next season. Monalee, too, is potentially top-class and those people who have enjoyed the Black Corton fairy story this season should not lose the faith as the ground and a long season caught him out. Neither Native River nor Presenting Percy look King George horses to me and I would not be at all surprised to see the fairy story turn into a Hollywood blockbuster come next Christmas. I just wish Bryony would get more rides. As with Lizzy and Bridget she is a talent underused.
As much as I would like to see Altior tested over 3-miles I also cannot wait for the next instalment of the Altior-Douvan clash. I was on Douvan’s side in the 2-mile Champion Chase and have no doubt he would have won if he had stood up. If Willie Mullins could get Penhill to win without a race beforehand why wouldn’t he have Douvan equally fit?
The Gold Cup was a duel to live long in the memory and I can only approve the praise heaped on Richard Johnson and Nico de Boinville, the most underrated jockey riding at the moment. Nico is both a horseman and a great thinking jockey, though neither of those attributes were ever going to be enough to get Might Bite up the hill in front. He reminds me of Pendil, a great horse on the park courses like Kempton but at a disadvantage at Cheltenham over the Gold Cup distance. It is reasonable to think that Native River will only be seen to an advantage on soft ground and it is the lap of the weather gods if he is to win a second Blue Riband.
The major disappointment, apart from the equine fatalities that always take a chunk of the joy out of Cheltenham, were the six whip bans. Winning at all costs should not be endorsed by fines and suspensions that are small beer in comparison to the kudos of winning. On Rathvindon the excellent Patrick Mullins received six days and yet on the Thursday he got only 4-days for his ride on Mall Dini. Surely after flouting the rules twice in three days the second violation deserved double the suspension of the first? Ruby got two days for his ride on Benie Des Dieux, his sister got 6-days for her never-say-die ride on Relegate in the Bumper and Noel McParlan received 9-days for his ride on Missed Approach. Richard Johnson got seven days and a humungous fine for his ‘brilliant’ ride on Native River. Do you think any one of them feel imposed upon by the length of their suspensions? If they had all received three weeks they would not let out a single collective tear. An imposed ‘holiday’ is a small price to pay for a career-defining moment in the Festival sun.
If a jockey, owner and trainer can lose a race if their horse impedes a rival in the closing stages or breaks any other of the rules of racing, why are they not disqualified if the jockey flouts the whip rules? It is time this anomaly is sorted out. It is, if you forgive the pun, a whip for our detractors to beat us with.
Only five British trainers have won a race at this year’s Cheltenham Festival by the end of day three, a statistic that is perhaps not very surprising. What is surprising is that only four Irish trainers have won a race so far at the Cheltenham Festival. Even if it were Mullins and Elliot versus the rest of the world the score would still be 13-8 in their favour. One day to go and virtually nothing to play for. Once again, as once was the day in the time of Arkle, the Irish rule the National Hunt waves.
The good news to come from the Irish camp was that Ruby Walsh is not as badly hurt as we all feared and that talk of his retirement is premature. It was even suggested he might be a spectator in the crowd for the final day. Some cheer he’ll get if he is spotted.
It seems that Sam Twiston-Davies might have to sell his Porsche to pay the ridiculous fine the Cheltenham stewards imposed on him for putting more emphasis on health and safety than the parade for the 2-mile Champion Chase. If he doesn’t win his appeal then adherence to rules will have savaged commonsense once more. Politilogue had already sent one of the Nicholls team to the Infirmary; it seems the stewards didn’t think one was enough and would have preferred several more, with perhaps Altior or Douvan disabled as well. It is the stewards who should be going to London to answer for their actions, not Sam.
I will not labour the point but my fear they would go too fast for Cue Card over the shorter trip proved correct. He might have run as poorly if they had run him in the Gold Cup; we’ll never know. But his best form is over 3-miles and as horses get older they certainly do not get faster. The horses in the Gold Cup are going to have a hard race, if I had my way Cue Card would go to Aintree for the 3-mile chase on what surely will be better ground.
Though it was splendid for Michael O’Leary to win his sponsorship money for the first time, the Ryanair proved a tame affair. Balko Des Flos looks a fair prospect and was a worthy winner but with Un de Sceaux underperforming and Cue Card running his worst race ever it is hardly an event that will be remembered long into the future.
What with Fairyhouse, Aintree, Punchestown and the final day of the season at Sandown still to come there remains plenty of big races for Mullins and Elliot to farm with the large number of classy horses they have at their disposal. If there were less big races to come we might get these good horses taking each other on.
I am now of the opinion that though the improved programme of races for mares was initially good for the sport now they are not so good as at the top end the races are becoming uncompetitive. In graded races is it fair that mares still receive the 7lb allowance? If Shattered Love, Laurina or Benie Des Dieux turned up in the King George next Christmas they would be 7lb better off than male horses who on form would be rated not as good. The situation needs to be rethought. Also, many people object to the novice mare’s race; I think it would make for a better spectacle if mares had to qualify for the race throughout the season, if only to put a stop to Willie Mullins pulling a mare out of the hat that none of us has ever seen before. He’s a genius, he doesn’t need handouts.
Only someone as foolish as a paid-up member of the Flat Earth Society could not be anything but impressed by Samcro. I suspect, though, he is not the second coming in equine form as Matt Chapman has labelled him for marketing purposes. It is doubtful if he is Arkle come back to the living. He is though the horse with the greatest potential so far seen at this year’s Cheltenham Festival.
As impressive as he was, I thought him more of a Danoli type of Cheltenham winner than a Golden Sygnet. He won and won well but what are the merits of those he beat. Time might inform us that he beat out and out stayers or horses only good enough for handicaps. We will discover how good his opposition was over the course of the next twelve months. Too many times Irish bankers have come to the Festival with lofty reputations to win tidily only to disappoint when push came to shove later in their careers. Dunguib, for instance.
Samcro did not win with his head in his chest or with his ears pricked. Win, though, he did, and the way he glided through the race suggests to me that he will be a whole lot more impressive on good ground. As might some of the vanquished. The world, though, is his oyster; I just hope lucks doesn’t desert him and he gets the opportunities to prove how good he really is.
I was pleased to see Presenting Percy win as he was my banker of the meeting. He has potential Gold Cup winner written all over him. What a horse! What a trainer? What a jockey! The owner is in good hands there.
If I had a wish for the rest of the season it is that Nicky Henderson could be persuaded to try Altior over 3-miles at Aintree. I understand the sense of sticking with the same old, some old, of picking up easy money in 2-mile races. But what does that tell us about Altior. He is the champion 2-mile chaser but if Sprinter Sacre were around one or the other might be upped in trip to keep the two apart and as exhilarating as it would be to have Douvan take on Altior again I would imagine that is more likely to happen at Punchestown than Aintree. So why not experiment on flat course with Altior over 3-miles? I am fairly certain he would stay, though I am not suggesting for a moment that he is a Gold-Cup horse. But if he proved 3-miles was easily in his compass it would open up a good few more races next year for the horse.
You only discover the true merit of a horse when he, and the trainer, are taken out of their comfort zone which is what you do when you expose them to the limits of their ability. 3-miles might not be the limit of his ability and the possibility exists that Altior may not be as good over 3-miles as he is over 2 but we should only know if he is given the opportunity. What is there to lose but a race?
I have no doubt that Ruby Walsh is the best steeplechase jockey of my lifetime. It is the greatest sadness of the week that the Cheltenham Festival has had its star act removed from the action and we are poorer for the loss. Ruby is as stubborn as he is mighty; he’ll decide his own future. I for one, though, half hopes he decides to retire. He has a young family and a devoted wife. As A.P. came to decide, eventually they have to be given first priority. If he does retire by God we’ll miss him!
Only someone more foolish than I would say anything other than Buveur d’Air is the best hurdler around, and by more than the distance he beat Melon by. He is not, though, and perhaps never will be no matter how many Champion Hurdles he wins, which might be any number between three and eight given the talent around, ever going to be one of the great hurdlers. To be elevated into the league of Istabraq, Night Nurse, Sea Pigeon, Monksfield, Persian War and others, a horse worthy of being described as a genuine Champion hurdle contender needs to come along to challenge him and that seems as likely as Cheltenham Town football club winning the Champions League any day soon. Perhaps the Triumph Hurdle will make me eat my words, though it hasn’t it in recent years and I doubt if the novice races at the Festival are going to provide anything other than novice chasers.
I suspect the reason for the sharp decline in high-class hurdlers, both here and in Ireland, is due to two, possibly three factors. 1) The least likely is that there is greater kudos and prize money attributed to steeplechasing. The fact that Buveur d’Air initially went novice chasing rather than be campaigned over hurdles suggests this may be the case. 2) In Ireland the sport is dominated by Gordon Elliot and Willie Mullins, whilst over here it is only Nicky Henderson, seemingly, who targets the Champion Hurdle. It is perhaps not healthy for the sport, and hurdling in particular, when the wealthiest owners buy any good young horse that comes on the market, allowing that owner if he already has a good hurdler to keep one for hurdling whilst the other goes novice chasing. If the cream were to be spread amongst many trainers, and more critically many different owners, as was the case once upon a time, perhaps we would have five or six horses in the Champion Hurdle with a real chance of winning. Watch videos of Brave Inca or Hardy Eustace winning Champion Hurdles and you will see how competitive the race was in their day. 3) At the horses-in-training sales the 3 and 4-year-olds jump trainers would have bought in the past are now being exported to Hong Kong, Dubai and other exotic destinations and are lost to National Hunt. This is most likely to be the main factor in the decline.
I feel sorry for the horse that is sent abroad to be simply a number on a race-card when it could, with luck and talent, be a star of National Hunt.
How to right this sinking ship is a question and a half, though? Now I have ideas for all of racing’s ills, perceived or otherwise, and for this knotty problem my thoughts are radical, game-changing and I suspect out-of-the question. Nicky Henderson look away now for fear of a seizure.
Do away with hurdles altogether.
I have had a problem with hurdles for a long time. In all other forms of equestrian sport horses are not expected to jump a moving obstacle and yet in jump racing when a hurdle is rapped by the legs of a horse it sways forward only to return to its original position so that the following horse must jump an obstacle that is different heights during its passage forward and back. A better trap for a horse could not be better designed. To my mind this is a horse welfare issue comparable to the old upright Aintree fences which were altered for the same welfare reasons. I thought the sport was being proactive when brush hurdles were being trialled and I am perplexed as to why they are not by now widespread.
Someone correct me if I am wrong but surely brush hurdles would make the transition from hurdler to steeplechaser so much easier for both horse and rider. Yes, the world as we know it would be altered for all time if we ditched the traditional hurdle in favour of brush but with so many horses now imported from France where our type of hurdles are not used and with far fewer horses coming to jump racing from the flat is this not the ideal time to have brush hurdles on every track in the country?
The title of this piece is probably not the most vital question to be asked this week, I grant you, but within any debate on the subject there lies a weakness, at least in my estimation, in our sport that the powers-that-be are either in ignorance of or are content to ignore. Of course many of you, young people who cannot comprehend a present that has anything to do with the past and those with no knowledge of racing’s glorious history, will have no idea who Baulking Green was or his relevance to this week of all weeks. I will enlighten the unenlightened.
Baulking Green ran 38 times, winning 24. He would have won more but he had the annoying habit of taking a fence by the roots on occasion. He would argue, if he thought it necessary, that he jumped 680 fences during his racing career and only 4 of out of the 680 caused him to fall, though he unseated once and was brought down on another occasion. The only time he was unplaced was when he broke down, as a sixteen-year-old, in his final race. He won the United Hunts Challenge Cup at the Cheltenham Festival 4 times, the Horse and Hound Cup 3 times and the Usher Vaux Champion Hunters Chase at Ayr 3 times, a big deal back then as it was worth more to the winner than the United Hunts at Cheltenham. He did not see a racecourse until he was eight.
Now the point I am arguing here is severely weakened by the fact that Baulking Green was trained for hunter chases, though he was hunted and qualified from a livery yard and was owned by a working farmer of limited means, by Grand National winning trainer Captain Tim Forster. In fact when Baulking Green first won at the Cheltenham Festival he was the first winner trained by Forster.
My gripe is that the hunter chase programme is becoming more and more a preserve of the professional trainer, highlighted by the ten or more entries for this week’s Cheltenham Foxhunters trained by professional trainers, with Paul Nicholls having four, any one of which could win. He also trained the winner last year.
Until recently I looked upon badly handicapped or aging horses going hunter chasing in a favourable light as it can preserve their careers and can rekindle enthusiasm. But recent changes to race programming has caused me to rethink the topic. These horses are in no way true hunter chasers. Their owners and trainers are taking advantage of easier options, especially when it comes to the Festival. A Hunter Chase is a sterner version of a point-to-point, though it can be argued, of course, that cross-country chases are more representative of the hunting field. I would argue that the more prestigious hunter chases should be confined to horses that regularly compete in point-to-points, with the horses hunted and qualified from professional racing yards differentiated from the genuine point-to-pointer or true hunter. The popular and successful veteran chase programme is now available to connections of horses such as Foxrock, Grand Vision, Pacha Du Polder, Unioniste and Wonderful Charm. If these horses are in need of ‘freshening up’ they can still be hunted, after-all, apart from being ridden by professional jockeys, a veterans chase is very much the same as a hunter chase, with the cross-country chases at Cheltenham as added variety. It is swings and roundabouts: if Wonderful Charm ran in a veterans chase he would have top weight but on the other hand he would not have younger legs against him as he might in the sort of hunter chases he would run in.
Hunter chases no longer throw up the Baulking Greens or the Freddies and Grittars of the past. Indeed I would suggest that the harvesting of hunter chases by professional trainers is stealing the romance from what should be a clearly defined amateur aspect of the sport, much in the way the revised conditions for the Grand National has removed the romance of the underdog winning against the odds. Grittar won the Cheltenham Foxhunters before going on to conquer the Grand National, ridden by a Corinthian amateur old enough to be a grandfather. True romance, literally speaking. I doubt if the winner of this year’s renewal will go on to triumph at Aintree, not in the Grand National anyway.
Here we have another example of the ‘little man’ being squeezed out or away from the sport. The Cheltenham Foxhunters should be the Holy Grail for point-to-point enthusiasts, instead it has become a consolation race for the big training yards and the Irish amateur jockey who in ability is as close to, and in some instances as good as, the professionals.
To my mind horses trained from professional yards should be directed at the Festival toward the cross-country race, bolstering, I would suggest, the quality of horses running in the race, leaving the Foxhunters to the true amateur connections and giving them an incentive to continue to have horses for point-to-points and allowing them to dream, knowing they will only be opposed by like-minded individuals. This sport must be inclusive to all strata of society. There must always be room for the one-horse owner who hunts and enjoys to attend local point-to-points and although that aspect of the sport continues to thrive I am not so sure there are as many of those enthusiasts wanting to upgrade to hunter chases, no doubt because they will have to compete against good quality horses trained by a professional trainer, sometimes a former champion trainer.
Happy Cheltenham Festival week to anyone with the time to spare to read my outpouring of love and affection for this wonderful sport of ours.
The Cheltenham Festival; medicine for the soul.
I will begin with the hoary old chestnut of should the Festival be shortened to three days, extended to five or left as it is. On the basis of ‘if a little of what you like does you good’ then more must be better, I continue to propose a fifth day. Not a fifth Festival day but a fifth day on the lines of the ‘Heath day’ that used to follow on from Royal Ascot, the main race being, if I remember correctly, the Churchill Stakes.
My support for a non-festival day on the Saturday is based on the safety net principle. Let us say we lose a day of this year’s Festival, a scenario we have suffered in recent memory when high winds caused the abandonment of the second day. This entailed, as brilliantly executed as it was, squeezing the affected races into the remaining two days, which if a similar scenario were to occur this year would mean holding three days racing over two days on very soft ground. If Wednesday were to be lost to the weather this year, and we had my proposed fifth day, the Wednesday card could be staged on the Saturday or the remaining three days moved back a day, with the Gold Cup run on the Saturday, with the Heath day’s card abandoned or transferred to another day or another racecourse.
This proposed fifth day would also allow Cheltenham to try out new races that could be incorporated into the Festival in the following years. The proposed Mares Chase or Bumper for example or the 2-mile 4-furlong championship hurdle. Or my greatest wish of a 4-mile Championship Chase. And any race demoted from the Festival would not then be lost but would become a feature of the fifth day.
The fifth day would also allow Cheltenham to stage the races currently run at Kempton for horses eliminated from the big handicaps. I personally would like the United Hunts Hunter Chase to return to Festival week, with the fifth day the best option for this old classic 4-mile steeplechase.
Whether the old or new course would be used for this ‘hoped-for’ fifth day is not for me to decide but having the two courses makes the fifth day a more viable option. Of course a fifth day would require sponsors, though I would imagine the big bookmaking and spread betting firms would be falling over themselves to be involved as a fifth Cheltenham day on a Saturday is sure to increase betting turnover. And the Heath day would have a more relaxed atmosphere, allowing racegoers, racing channels and I.T.V. (who I hope will be covering racing for well beyond their present contract) to reflect on the previous four days, with the big races perhaps replayed through the afternoon on the big screen.
Cheltenham is the focus of the whole National Hunt season. Because it is an open air event held in March it can be held hostage by rain, frost, snow or high winds. The fifth day would give Cheltenham a bit of wriggle room, wriggle room that it currently does not have at its disposal.
Let us hope this week for ground that is not gluey and that every horse and every jockey makes it home at the end of each day. I doubt if this year’s Festival will be a classic; I suspect it will be remembered as much for the ground conditions as the races themselves. And I hope the Irish allow us to win a few more races than they did last year. And I hope Douvan reminds us how brilliant he is and that Altior is there to test him to the limit. And I hope Cue Card covers himself in glory and does not succumb to the third last fence again or for time immemorial the fence will be called the ‘Cue Card’ fence. I hope Bryony Frost defeats my ‘certainty’ for the meeting, Presenting Percy and that Ruby gets through the week unscathed and that the whole four days goes off without incident or controversy. But this is Cheltenham, and it is very rarely anything less than we hope for.
If I do not always sing from the same hymn-sheet on racing matters as the majority of professionals, when it comes to prize money I am very much one of the choir. We pride ourselves on having the best racing in the world yet the powers-that-be seem perfectly content for prize money to have slipped to a standard that belittles the hard graft that trainers, jockeys and stable staff undertake for our sport to take place seven days a week.
In 1942 the Goole Plate at Pontefract was worth £299 to the winner. In 1963 the Foxhill Cup Hunter’s Chase at Newbury was worth £1,000. To have kept pace with inflation the Goole Plate, if it were run last season, should have boasted a first prize of £13,250 and the Foxhill Cup Hunters Chase £19,696.
Too much consideration is given to the high echelon of the sport and too little consideration given to those who not only operate at the lower end of the racing market but actually keep the show on the road. It goes without saying that the status and world renown of the Cheltenham Festival, Royal Ascot, the Grand National meeting and Glorious Goodwood should be reflected in the size of the prize money on offer. Though pouring a £1-million into the Grand National or Epsom Derby does not attract a better quality of horse than if it were worth half that amount. Shovelling more and more money into the premier races is a futile exercise. Enough is always enough.
There is a good deal of focus on attracting new blood to the racecourse – it is the excuse for City Street Racing and Julian Wray’s unsavoury pie-in-the-sky Team Championship Racing with its ill-informed concept of the jockey being of greater significance than the horse – yet a more cost-effective way of achieving this noble quest would be to give away free tickets in the daily newspapers (as other attractions do) or make racecourse entry free and help market the information with free coach rides for those local to the individual racecourses. If the Cheltenham Festival, the Grand National, Royal Ascot or Glorious Goodwood fails to attract new custom then I cannot see how concepts that even divide diehard racing people can succeed.
Horse racing is seen by the public as a sport for nobs and the obscenely rich and shovelling bank vaults of prize money in their direction only confirms this deeply embedded, if ignorant, opinion.
What we should be doing is making it widely known that horse racing for the majority is a sport for the working and middle classes and that no one in racing nowadays tugs their forelock when in close proximity to their employer or ‘master’.
What this sport is desperate for – as everyone who works in racing is aware of – is for the very foundations of the sport to be made strong and sustainable. It is falsifying both the image and the facts to gloat about the benben at the top of the pyramid being as bright and as shiny as a golden future when the mighty stones that support the whole structure are slowly crumbling into the dirt of the present.
What bothers me is that there is no clearly stated aim by the powers-that-be to achieve the standard of prize money the sport and its devoted participants deserve. Races of the calibre of the Goole Plate today should be worth £13,250 to the winner, with the better class of races worth considerably more. If Julian Wray and his supporters truly cared about the long-term survival of the sport it is here that they should focus their attention. Horse Racing was not created in front of huge grandstands and conducted within white running rails but across country as entertainment first for the few and then for the locals to enjoy a day of frolic and fun. Without the solid foundations provided by those who own, train, ride and care-for the standard of horse that compete in the lowliest of races the whole structure of our sport will be undermined.
The powers-that-be, maybe because they are nobs themselves, are viewing horse racing from the wrong end of the telescope, which is why they are open to stupid concepts that will only reinforce the public’s perception of racing as being a sport for the aristocracy, mega-rich and whip wielding jockeys. They may suggest sympathy for those who must compete for derisory prize money and who subsidise the sport with bank loans, overdrafts and the sweat of honest toil, but in reality their main aim, as Gaye Kelleway recently suggested, is to ensure that the top twenty or so at the wealthy end of the sport continue to become ever richer.
Of course the obvious solution to poor prize money is to follow the lead of countries with organised racing and generate prize money out of the profits from betting revenue. But that would never do, would it?
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