Cheltenham and Exeter on the same day. Musselburgh and Newcastle, too. Hereford and Wolverhampton. Southwell and Wolverhampton. Surely someone at the powers-that-be can recognise that the Midland racegoer cannot be in two places at once. Does he attend Hereford or does he attend Wolverhampton? The bookmaker, too, must make the same choice.
The British racing calendar is out-of-date and lacks imagination. Here we are in late April and the focus of attention this weekend is on Sandown and the final day of the National Hunt season. As a jumps fan this is okay by me but only last week the flat season, the flat turf season, which officially started in March, sort of officially re-launched itself with the Craven meeting at Newmarket. The flat aficionados polished their shoes in a fog of overexcitement, vented their belief that Churchill (as they did last year with Air Force Blue) will prove the greatest horse in Aidan O’Brien’s career and I.T.V. brought out of hibernation the prettier and more handsome members of their racing team. There was much talk of, the Guineas, Royal Ascot and Epsom ….
The flat season begins with a whimper, that goes without saying, goes into hiding when the Grand National takes centre stage, peaks around the curtains through Easter, becomes overwhelmed with despair knowing it cannot compete with the greatest race on planet Earth or even the Irish equivalent, emerges briefly for the Craven meeting and the Greenham at Newbury, has a short holiday and returns with the bang of the first classics. A mish-mash of race programming. Surely the flat should start directly after the end of the National Hunt season.
Ireland just do things better. Their racing calendar is balanced, less hectic, with its racing throughout the summer influenced by culture and tourism, treating flat and National Hunt as equals, with the smaller racecourse given opportunity to do their own thing. It is a lesson the B.H.A. and smaller British racecourses should learn from.
Over here summer jumping is one day at Market Rasen, one day at Newton Abbot, one day at Worcester. Sure they have single day fixtures in Ireland but they also go big on 3, 4, 5 and all-week festivals. Killarney, a leading candidate for most scenic racecourse in the world, holds three festival meetings through the summer months. Bellewstown – racing on the Hill of Crockafatha – hosts a 3-day July Festival. Tramore has its August Festival. Listowel has a summer festival and a 7-day Harvest Festival that forms a large part of the cultural attraction of the area and which peaks with the Leinster National. And then there is Galway and its week- long celebration of all that is right with Irish racing. We should never attempt to replicate Galway, though. It is unique. It is truly Irish.
It has just been announced that there is a crock of 8-million quid to boost prize- money in this country. Here’s the thing, how about thinking outside the box for a moment and consider the Irish model for summer racing in this country. Why not create 3, 4 or 5-day summer festivals to promote those racecourses that hold fixtures through the summer months, to install racing as part of local tourism and culture.
Being at the heart of holiday country Newton Abbot is an obvious racecourse to hold a proper summer festival. Cartmel, too. Market Rasen already have the major jump races of the summer season but surely this meeting could be enlarged to a three-day Lincolnshire Festival. There should also be mixed meetings, with perhaps Worcester considering staging flat racing again, and perhaps with Stratford staging a week-long Midlands Festival. Ffos Las is another racecourse that seems in a prime location for a summer festival of mixed racing. If Windsor reinstated its jumps course what a brilliant location it would be for a Thames Festival of racing, a mix of N.H. and flat.
There was a time when the jumps season started at Newton Abbot and jockeys and trainers used to encamp on mass in the area rather than travel back to home, be that Newmarket, Lambourn or further afield. The same might happen if there was a 3 or 4 day Cartmel Festival or Devon Festival; horse racing helping to fill beds in local hotels and B & B’s, boosting tourism and attracting the eye of the media to the region. As lovely Perth already achieves.
If a single penny of that crock of gold (the 8-million) goes to boosting prize money at the top table the B.H.A. should be held to account. It is the grass roots where the future of racing lies and the better weather (crossed fingers) of the British summer is where the potential sits for attracting new people to the sport. The Irish racing festivals are a boon and a blessing to tourism and the same should be established here. The bulk of that 8-million should be used for transforming the summer programme of racing, both National Hunt and flat.
Let’s begin with the obvious – 1764 is a long time ago. We were still fighting the French in that period of our history. It was only seventy years hence from the Battle of the Boyne. Eighteen years since Culloden and Bonnie Prince Charlie humming ‘o’er the sea to Skye’ as he fled for his life in a rowboat dressed as a chamber maid. It is so long ago that racing was in its infancy and the form book was nothing more than a pencil sketch.
Not that we would recognise what then was considered to be horse racing and if it had not changed drastically I.T.V. would be able today to insert ad-breaks during the actual races. 4-mile heats across the flat would not get people switching on their televisions or flocking to Newmarket or Epsom, I suggest. Not that the likes of you or I would be invited to take an interest. Horse racing in the 1700’s, as with the hunting of deer, was a sport for royalty and the idle aristocracy.
In the early days of our sport, when Stubbs made a good living painting the ‘racers’ of the aristocracy, there was no such mantra as ‘equine welfare is of paramount importance’. Life in those days was tough on horses. Match races could often be ‘best of three’. Or even five. The races run over 4-miles. Open races would be heats, again over 4-miles, with only half hour intervals between each heat.
One of the leading riders of the day, Sam Chiffney, described the training routine of horses as ‘ignorant cruelty’. He was specifically referring to what was called ‘the sweating exercise’, a physically demanding routine that would be referred to in our more enlightened times as interval training with the horse clothed in a heavy rug that involved hard gallops up hills followed by a walk followed by another gallop and so on until the horse could do no more. In his memoir Chiffney wrote: ‘It so effects the horse that he keeps breaking out in fresh sweats, that it pours from him when scraping, as if water had been thrown at him. Nature cannot bear this.’
I dare say the aristocratic horse owner might look critically at his horse and seeing an ounce of flesh remaining would suggest ‘a good sweat would be the making of him’. One wonders how many horses were rendered fit only for the knackerman by such ‘ignorant cruelties’?
It is in this era that ‘the horse that changed racing’ lived, raced and became a progenitor of great influence.
Eclipse won all of his eighteen races, though it has to be said in eight he walked over, though in distance he ran 62-miles and beat in total 40 competitors. That he was the best of his day is irrefutable. In eight races he scared off all opposition. The expression ‘Eclipse first, the rest nowhere’ is indication of the ridiculous distances he finished in front of his rivals. It is also where the term ‘distance’ hails, as any horse considered ‘distanced’ was ordered to be pulled up by the distance judge. But it must be remembered that there was no Derby or classic races in the time of Eclipse. He might have been beating hunters with a touch of speed about them for all we know. The term ‘thoroughbred’ had not even been termed for the racehorse. In deed even the term racehorse was probably not known. Horses raced by their owners were thoughts of as ‘racers’ and were used to exercise the gambling habits of the aristocracy. Eclipse could only defeat what was put in front of him and no doubt he was the first great ‘racer’ and his reputation gave him a head start when sent to stud with all the top breeders, not that there were many, sending their best or favourite mares to him.
Where I take issue with the legend that is Eclipse is with the claim, the justifiable claim, I must admit, that in the male line of most great horses from Desert Orchid, Arkle and even all but a small number of recent Derby winners, the name Eclipse, if twenty generations back, will be found. My dispute is that go back one more generation and there is the name of Marske, the sire of Eclipse, followed by Bartlett’s Childers and then the Darley Arabian. Who is to say that the supreme D.N.A. did not originate with one of the male line that came before Eclipse? And that Eclipse was the first to benefit?
If Eclipse raced during the infancy of the sport, Marske was at its conception, with the descendants of the Darley Arabian more likely to be used as chargers on the battlefield as bet on for fortunes in match races across the heath.
In his book ‘Eclipse’, Nicholas Clee assures the reader that Eclipse changed racing. I doubt if he did. Who can say that if he was born a hundred years later whether he would have possessed the speed to win a Derby or even the Ascot Gold Cup? I suspect the majority of the forty horses who lined up against him during his racing career if also born a hundred years later would not be flat racers but jumping horses.
As a social commentary Clee’s book is excellent. But it is more a study of the rogue that owned Eclipse and the social elite who wanted as little to do with him as could be managed given his influence on the sport, as it is about the horse. This is mainly due, I suspect, to so much of what is known about Eclipse being more legend than recorded fact. But then that is what Eclipse has become, a legend of the Turf.
What is known is that he was born in 1764.
This piece was first published in 'Racing Ahead'.
Recently I watched again Denman’s first Hennessey. Now let’s be clear, Denman is my all-time favourite, and it was on this day that the thought entered my head ‘this could be the Arkle of our age’. I was wrong, of course. His heart problem saw to that, as Arkle’s only challenger Flyingbolt was rendered ordinary by a blood disorder. Matt Chapman, a man never to shy away from his opinions, made the bold claim (and I paraphrase) ‘Wow, that is up there with Crisp in the Grand National. No, it’s better than that’.
Matt Chapman was right to be over-awed by the performance. It was awesome. But he is wrong to place it above Crisp’s heroics in the Grand National. Denman won a race his ability and form suggested he could win. The manner of his victory may have took the breath away, and it elevated him into a live contender for Kauto’s crown. But it was not as magnificent as trying to achieve the impossible. At the time we all thought he had simply failed to give 23Ib to a well handicapped handicapper. The subsequent years proved that idea well wide of the mark.
Crisp was a 2-mile Champion chaser. On a good day on good ground he stayed all of 2m 4-furlongs. He had jumped the last in the previous year’s Gold Cup and petered out to finish only fifth. He was carrying 12-stone. They weren’t so worried by weight in those days. Today either a 2-miler or a top-weight would be dropped in, hunted round, to move quietly into contention crossing the Melling Road. Yet Fred Winter did not send Richard Pitman out into battle with such wimpish instructions. ‘Make the running,’ he said. ‘Slow them down from the front’. Crisp, though, was Australian and doing things the easy way is just not the Aussie style. As Pitman described at a later date. ‘Most horses show into the Aintree fences and pop over’. Crisp ate fences and he indulged himself that day. ‘Fearsome’, he laughed at the legend that is the National. ‘These dandy brushes! You kidding me?’
The race was a nightmare for the cameramen. Crisp was so far ahead by the first Valentine’s that the whole field could not kept in one frame. As Julien Wilson exclaimed as Crisp went to Becher’s for the second time. ‘I’ve never seen a horse so far ahead in a National’. The great, and I truly mean ‘great’, L’Escargot was a fence and a half behind Crisp at one point and did magnificently well to finish 3rd. If Brian Fletcher had delayed closing the gap by ten seconds he would not have won. Perhaps if Pitman had not picked up his whip at the elbow Red Rum might not have won. If the race, as today, was 90 yards shorter …
Crisp was beaten, trying to give 23Ibs to the greatest of all Aintree horses. Third was L’Escargot, the winner of 2 Gold Cups and subsequently a Grand National winner himself, and fourth was Spanish Steps, a Hennessey winner and legend of the sport.
No, Matt, Denman winning the Hennessey cheered the soul but Crisp oh so very nearly achieved the impossible.
As everyone knows, to own a string of racehorses requires a lot of money. Seriously large amounts of money. Cash pits full of large denomination currency. Horse racing’s face is Royal Ascot, Epsom in June, the swank of Dubai and private executive jet planes.
Well, it’s not exactly like that but that is how the ignorant general public view our sport. That it embraces all walks of life is a secret only known to those who work in or have a passion for the sport.
But there is a lot of wealth in racing. That cannot be denied.
Which leads me on to the report in the Racing Post today about the in-fighting at Musselburgh racecourse that could lead to its demise. Yes, Musselburgh, that beautiful racecourse set in beautiful surroundings praised by everyone for its efforts to provide a good racing surface, good prize money and a superb atmosphere. The racecourse ‘bigged up’ only this past weekend by the I.T.V. commentators.
The tawdry dispute, as much political as it is sporting, does not really interest me. If I was the powers-that-be I wouldn’t just threaten to take away their temporary licence I would get the rival factions in a small room and bash their heads together. Racing at Musselburgh may not be in imminent danger of coming to an end but if the situation is not sorted by the end of June the B.H.A. have said they will not extend the present temporary licence and as was the case when a similar sanction was imposed on Great Leighs the lights may go out on Musselburgh for years on end, if not forever.
I am fully aware that racecourses are businesses and are owned by individuals, corporations or companies to make a return on investment. But during my lifetime we have lost too many racecourses, with the threat of losing Kempton Park on the horizon. Racing’s rulers need to come up with a contingency for fighting such threats and when necessary stepping in to save racecourses from closure. As I said at the beginning, racing is awash with people of great wealth. And not only wealth but good people with racing’s best interests at heart.
If the wealthiest owners in both flat and National Hunt racing were to be summoned around a table, perhaps at Portman Square, and if we take for granted their willingness to band together for the good of racing, would they collectively have the spare cash to, just for example, buy Kempton Park or to offer the Musselburgh Joint Racing Committee a deal to end the ‘crisis of governance’ or the ‘civil war’ and remove the possibility of Scotland losing yet another racecourse?
Of course what is required is for the B.H.A., the Jockey Club, bookmakers and the other big hitters in racing to have in place emergency funds to either buy up racecourses threatened with closure or to invest money in racecourses in exchange for shares and rights within the existing ownership of any individual racecourse.
Racecourses provide green open spaces, oases in an increasingly tarmac and concrete jungle. In years to come, after my lifetime, especially with the surprisingly large number of golf courses closing and recreational parks being sold for housing, racecourses set within a town environment will provide a function for society outside of its role as a place of sporting entertainment. They will be corridors of green, lungs for the urban landscape. We cannot lose even one more racecourse.
At the moment the situation is ass-about, with the Jockey Club owning so many of the country’s best racecourses whilst being a 100-million quid in debt. Racing needs to slap listed status on its racecourses, to have, if not control, a protective hand on the rudder of self-interest and not leave to chance the future of our sport.
From the dawn of time to 1905 Newbury did not exist as a racecourse, and if it wasn’t for the invention of the railways that might still be the situation. Unthinkable, isn’t it, the world of racing without Newbury. It is akin to the world of cheese without Cheddar. And there is a reason why annually there is a race named after John Porter. Some might say, given his importance to the creation of Newbury, the John Porter is deserving of being the most important and valuable race in its calendar. The villages of Greenham and Lockinge are but small dots on the turf map when compared against the wide-spread achievements of the legendary master of Kingsclere.
Once upon a time, it has to be said, racing did take place in the environs of Newbury, though neither Wash Common nor Enborne Heath were a rip-roaring success and both had long disappeared when John Porter boarded the train at Newbury bound for London. As he idly gazed out of the carriage window as the train passed across the flat land at Greenham Common the idea came to him that it would make a splendid venue for a racecourse. It had a lot going for it, being close to the town, though more importantly it was also in close proximity to the large training establishments in the counties of Berkshire, Hampshire and Wiltshire. He had no doubt his idea would be well-received and patronised by his fellow trainers.
Acting on his idea, John Porter sought out the owner of the land and persuaded him to the financial benefits of building a racecourse. Whether Mr.Baxendale ever regretted his decision is unknown, though the Jockey Club’s view is in the public domain: they didn’t like the idea one little bit and refused Porter and Baxendale a licence.
In fact the Jockey Club were quite stubborn on the matter, refusing application after application to have a racecourse at Newbury and if it wasn’t for the intervention of King Edward VII, who once had horses trained by Porter and whom he bumped into by chance in Newmarket High Street as he was leaving a Jockey Club meeting, we might not today have a racecourse at Newbury. Perhaps a thank-you is long overdue to his late Majesty in way of a race named in his honour?
Newbury opened its doors on September 26th, 1905, and the winner of the first race was Copper King, with John Porter training the winner of the last race at the two-day fixture. Atty Persse must have fallen in love with Newbury from the off as he trained five winners during the two-day fixture.
Of course Newbury thrived and Porter retired from training in 1906 to superintend the racecourse, concentrating all his efforts on what was, after all, his invention. He died in 1922 but under his guidance such races as the Newbury Spring Cup was born, as was the Greenham.
If Newbury got off to a flying start, it is a wonder it survives at all given what was done to it during the two wars. In 1916 it was requisitioned as a prisoner-of-war camp, a munitions inspection depot, a hay dispersal depot and finally a site for testing and repairing tanks. We can only be thankful that the Kaiser had not had a horse disqualified by the stewards at Newbury or he might have made it his purpose to show the British how to properly destroy a racecourse. During the 2nd World War Newbury fared even worse at the hands of the British with large portions of the hallowed turf covered in concrete and railway tracks.
There is one man to thank for Newbury’s rise from the destruction of war: Geoffrey Freer, and he, too, perhaps deserves a race of greater prestige run in his honour than the present limp affair. With the assistance of the Marshall Plan which restored requisitioned land and returned it to it owners Freer worked tirelessly to breathe new life back into the knocked about racecourse and in 1949 racing returned.
I am quite sure in my own mind that outside of Cheltenham and Aintree, racecourses that are as much shrines as sporting venues, Newbury is the best racecourse in England. As a dual-purpose course it is undoubtedly the best. Better than Ascot I would suggest. And it never stands still, as the present alterations and housing complex underlines. Whether you approve or disapprove of the changes to the infrastructure no one can accuse the present custodians of the racecourse of living in the past as they seemingly always have one eye on the future.
Though they are not to blame there are two glaring omissions to the racing programme. Newbury deserves a proper top-class chase outside of what was the Hennessey. Quite why the Betfair Chase is staged at Haydock, ostensibly a flat course that does jumping to keep its hands warm during the winter, and is not a proper jumping course like Newbury, is beyond me.
Newbury should also have a Group I for the staying type of horse, perhaps over 1-mile 6 (named in honour of King Edward VII, perhaps) to give it a distinction of its own.
In 1992 James Douglas-Home wrote a history of horse racing in Berkshire and at its conclusion he expressed concern for the future of the large training bases in the county, fearing the power base of Newmarket was taking all the big owner-breeders and leaving Lambourn, Kingsclere and Whatcombe etc with just the scraps to survive on. Twenty-five years later the game has moved on and Newmarket too feeds off the scraps left to them by the all-conquering Ballydoyle. But the county’s three racecourses remain at the top of their game, even if Windsor’s game is three divisions lower than Ascot and two divisions lower than Newbury. Newbury is an undervalued and underappreciated gem and John Porter and Mr. Baxendale should be honoured for their foresight and endeavours.
On the ‘About’ page of this website, the page that should only be about introduction and welcome, is an ever-expanding list of possible names for racehorses. This list is on the ‘About’ page as at present I have no other facility for it, and because my knowledge of computers is on a par with my knowledge of nuclear physics or why Turkey would vote in favour of a dictatorship.
As with all ‘obsessions’, I suppose, it began with point-making, a point directed specifically at the Coolmore empire, though which I now justify as a ‘service to owners struggling to find names for their two-year-olds and store horses’.
I abhor the re-using of names of famous horses. Cherished names that light up the memory and warm the heart when read in old form or racing books. It is my belief, almost threatening to become an ambition, that those horses who make their mark in our sport but who do not win a classic or major jump or flat race should have their names engraved in a Hall of Fame. Some horses should be granted the distinction of having their names live-on only in memory of them.
Racing people all have their individual favourites. For the great Alastair Down it is Rondetto, a horse who ran with distinction in the big steeplechases of the late sixties and early seventies and who helped capture Alastair’s heart and lead him to become the foremost writer on National Hunt racing. For that we owe Rondetto a debt we can never hope to repay.
For me, though now I will say Denman is my favourite of all-time (I am perhaps cursed by a more fickle personality than greater men) it is Spanish Steps who my youthful heart fell for, and because he was the first he remains special, and it is why I find it both upsetting and unforgivable for his name to be re-used, not once but twice, on the second occasion by someone within an organisation that really should know better.
Let’s be clear about the achievements of Spanish Steps the steeplechaser. He was owned by a stalwart of British racing and one of the co-founders of the Injured Jockeys Fund, Edward Courage, a man bound to a wheelchair through polio. Spanish Steps won what is now the R.S.A. chase at the Cheltenham Festival in 1968, won the 1969 Hennessey Gold Cup carrying 11st 8lbs. He also won the Benson and Hedges Gold Cup and the S.G.B. Chase. He was 2nd in a King George and was placed in Cheltenham Gold Cups. He was 4th, carrying 11st 13lbs to Red Rum in the 73 Grand National, giving the great horse 22lbs and when the first 4 home all beat what was then the course record held by the immortal Golden Miller. He was fourth again in 74, carrying 11st 9lbs and 3rd to L’Escargot in 75.
He was so popular in his day that on his retirement Michael Tanner wrote a book about him ‘My Friend Spanish Steps’.
In the seventies a horse called Prince Regent won the Irish Derby. I was not so militant back then and in my youth history was just things that happened in the past. Now of course I know about the exploits of Prince Regent the steeplechaser, the horse of whom Tom Dreaper said on being asked if Arkle was the best horse he ever trained ‘Yes, I’m afraid he is.’ You see Tom Dreaper never thought he would train a better horse than Prince Regent and in admitting Arkle was supreme he felt he had betrayed an old friend.
This is how I feel about the re-use of Spanish Steps by Coolmore. Horses of the prowess and popularity of Spanish Steps are the greatest friends racing can ever have. Whichever way you look at it we as human beings use horses for our entertainment and sport. Yes we care and look after their welfare and if it was not for our use of them they would never see life. But, and this is an important ‘but’, if our adoration of the horse has any real depth and is not simply rhetoric to help sell and justify the sport, we need to be seen by the public as respecting their achievements long into the future and not say, as is said now, that Spanish Steps is just a name and that in the human world there are many John Smiths, Jack Jones’ and Michael Johnsons, and no one will confuse the three-year-old trained by Aidan O’Brien with the steeplechaser of the seventies. To use such an argument is to have no heart and to care nothing for the history of the sport.
What I am saying will cost very little to be put into practice. I am not suggesting the erection of statues. I am asking for a cherished list of names that can never be used in the future. Perhaps the public could be asked to suggest horses to be elected into a Hall of Fame, with their names and perhaps achievements engraved on a plaque. And not only present day horses but also great names from the past. Names that are not mere names but picture postcards that act as personal memorials to a day when we, mere humans, cheered and exalted a species that in exciting our spirits were elevated into being, for that moment, superior to us. I reference Sprinter Sacre at Cheltenham as example.
There are over six-hundred languages to pick from, with words that if they were calculated the numbers would run into eight or nine digits, possibly more. It is easy to name a horse. It is plain lazy to use a famous name from the past and ignorant of the authorities to allow it.
If the viewing figure for the Grand National is grounds for concern, even though most sports would be happy with 8-million plus viewers, I suggest the following solutions:
1). Make the day of the Grand National GRAND NATIONAL DAY and market it as such. Have Aintree as the only race meeting that day, with perhaps no point-to-points either. This will allow more people involved in the sport to switch on their televisions, not have potential viewers leaving their homes to watch racing at other venues, and allow betting shop staff an earlier finish.
As was said during the television coverage, the Melbourne Cup may stop a nation (I doubt if these days it truly does) but the Grand National stops the world, though obviously it doesn’t, though it does make a substantial proportion of the world look in Aintree’s direction. So why not celebrate our great horse race by allowing all the glow from the spotlight to shine on Aintree. Grand National Day. Let’s celebrate the history of the race. Let’s use this day to celebrate the horse, to raise money for various equine charities. Let the Grand National be instrumental in helping the overburdened donkey in the poor countries of the world. Let the Grand National raise money and awareness for the retraining of racehorses. Use the Grand National to raise funds for research to find cures for what at the moment may be incurable illnesses and injuries.
Allow the Grand National to be a power of good for all horses everywhere.
2) Get the Grand National and the name of its sponsor on to the packaging of any of the following: bread, milk, cereals, beer, brandy etc, or on signage at petrol stations. Promote the race with a competition with a big cash prize and a luxury weekend break at the Grand National, with perhaps accommodation at the Adelphi Hotel and a guided tour of the course with someone of the calibre of Sir A.P. McCoy or Ruby Walsh.
There could be secondary prizes of a day at the Grand National. Or a tour of a top stable. A visit to Moorcroft or Greatwood. Riding lessons. Anything or everything to get people who would not normally look to racing for a day out to at least experience a day at their local racecourse or to take up riding as a hobby.
The powers-that-be, the racing media and the race-fan in general have for too long cowered in defence of the Grand National against an onslaught of ignorance from people with a political grudge against what they see as rich people risking the lives of horses for the sake of selfish entertainment. We, the defenders and protectors of the Grand National, are now on the front foot. Now is the time to go all out to win over the 2 or 4-million people who the sport expected to watch I.T.V.’s coverage of the Grand National but who chose to set their eyes elsewhere.
Perhaps in sizing up next year’s television audience, viewing figures for the Derby (which are alarming low) might go up as well. We might even get across to the general public that our sport serves every social class and is not the preserve of the rich and mega-rich.
The Grand National is the race of the people. So let’s take it to the people. Let’s get the race, the date and time of the race, into every home in the country. Let’s stop crossing our fingers in hope of nothing going wrong and get evangelical in support of what is the greatest sporting spectacle in the world.
There are lamentations amongst racing journalists at the ‘disappointing’ viewing figures achieved by I.T.V. since they acquired the contract to televise and promote horse racing. The ‘Morning Show’ is especially disappointing, with over 8-million a poor return for the Grand National, apparently.
When I.T.V. won the rights to televise racing I was dismayed that no loyalty was given to Channel 4 for the excellence of service they had provided for racing. Their presenters were not to everyone’s cup of tea, of course, but the same can be said for the line-up at I.T.V. That is not to say that the sport is not in safe hands with I.T.V. It is, with the presenters genuinely chuffed to be associated with covering racing. But the slide in viewing figures was never the fault of Channel 4. People keep quoting the figures achieved by the B.B.C. without ever comparing the lack of choice in their day with the myriad of ways people can now watch television.
People like myself, as with anyone who considers horse racing to be the very staff of life, will watch horse racing on any channel that televises racing. It is an essential of life. But there are only so many of us. It would be the same if tennis had the same television air-time as horse racing enjoys. There are only so many tennis mad people and attracting newcomers would take time and perhaps innovation within the sport, though innovation can alienate traditionalists and achieve the reverse of what is intended. I would think I.T.V.’s coverage of cycling has attracted people to take up cycling and perhaps more people go to events to cheer on the competitors.
And here is the rub. If you decide to cheer on the professional cyclists when they speed through your area you cannot be seated in front of your television boosting viewing figures. On Saturday April 8th it was a lovely Spring Day virtually throughout the country and there were three or four other race-meetings for people to attend. How many people attended these meetings? Owners, trainers, jockeys, stable staff, bookmakers, ordinary race-goers who always support their local racecourse. If you add the number of people attending the other fixtures on April 8th and add it to the casual race-fan hauled off to the sea-side or other attractions by the responsibility of being a husband, wife or parent, and you might get a figure close to or above a million, extending over 8-million to over 9-million.
One fact is assured: the experiment of running the race at 5-15 is not working and they should go back to a start time of 4-15. I know of a ‘Cream Tea and Grand National’ afternoon organised for Winkleigh Village Hall to raise money for charity that was timed for 3 o’clock to 5. I also know that a good number of my associates replied to my mentioning the Grand National with ‘oh, it’s this weekend, is it?’ Or ‘when is the Grand National?’ So a good number of people neither know the day of the race nor the time of day.
It is not as if what is on offer is poor quality. The Greatest horse race in the world, accepted by the sporting fraternity as one the most iconic sporting events in the world and delivered to the sitting rooms of the world by presenters who are as good as there is in the whole of televised sport.
As for the ‘Morning Show’. During Cheltenham week I was only able to watch one of the four programmes due to a little thing called ‘work’. Racing Post journalists, seemingly, have little idea of the concept of ‘work’ getting in the way of pleasure. It was the same for the Grand National ‘Morning Shows’; I watched the Saturday show but ‘work’ prevented me from watching on the Thursday and Friday. I am sure it was the same for millions of other people. Programmes like the ‘Morning Show’ are for the connoisseur and the industry. I dare say everyone working in a racing stable would have liked to have tuned in but ‘work’ would have prevented them.
Here’s a thought: stop the brow-beating and enjoy the over 8-million. Next year, if we are lucky, Grand National Day may dawn wet and cold and the magic figure of 10-million may yet be achieved. And make Grand National Day unique by having no other racing on the day, and have a universal promotion by bookmakers and the industry so that everyone in the country is aware of the day and time of the race. And to help the organisers of events like the Cream Tea and Grand National event at Winkleight go back to the 4-15 start and stop pandering to media outlets who obviously do not appreciate the race for what it is – the Greatest Show On Earth.
The Times newspaper, in the days when it truly thundered, and missed no opportunity to saddle horse racing with all sorts of misdeeds and social evils, wrote about ‘the monstrous development of two-year-old races’. Their stance won a supporter in Sir Joseph Hawley, a man who owned no fewer than 4 Derby winners, who was convinced the racing of immature horses was detrimental to the health of the individual and future development of the thoroughbred in general. He proposed severe restrictions on two-year-old races, suggesting no two-year-old racing be permitted earlier than July and that no money should be added from the funds of the Jockey Club for any race which two-year-olds might be entered.
Personally I think they should raise a statue to honour Sir Joseph.
At the time, Admiral Rous, the inventor of the weight for age scale, held sway in matters of the turf and in public he disagreed with Hawley. Some sort of compromise was reached however as two-year-old races were banned until May, though once the dust had settled this restriction was quietly forgotten about and two-year-olds were racing from the start of the season, as is the case today.
In private the Admiral was not quite so wholeheartedly opposed to Hawley’s proposal. He wrote: ‘It is much regretted that the old system of not training horses till their powers are fully developed is abolished.’
He continued: ‘Many two-year-olds are trained to the highest point of perfection in the month of May; consequently few horses retain their racing powers after five years of age. This system unfortunately cannot now be altered.”
It is interesting that the subject, quite enlightened for its time, was being debated in a period we must now think of as organised racing’s infancy.
I am uneasy about the racing of two-year-olds. If I had my way I would go further than Hawley’s proposals and have no two-year-old races until September, and there certainly would be no Group races for two-year-olds. I have written before about the indifference of the breeding industry when it comes to helping the sport attract interest from outside its natural demographic. A breeding industry dominated by the need for precocity, for producing stock to race as juveniles in March and April, is bad for both the image of the sport and the health and future of these early season two-year-olds. It is almost as if precocious two-year-olds are viewed as throwaway versions of the later developing horse; the blue-bloods bred with classics and Royal Ascot in mind. How many, I wonder, of the two-year-olds raced in March, April, May, are still in a racing stable as four or five-year-olds? The thought of these horses lined up in a slaughterhouse to be made into dog food appals me. I suspect, though, that this is the fate of many of those horses.
If we were to restrict the racing of two-year-olds until, as Hawley proposed, July, the money saved could be given over to handicaps and three-year-old races, boosting prize money, a great benefit to the owner who has paid training fees for a horse he had perhaps not seen race as a two-year-old.
This could not be achieved overnight. But a long-term programme of restricting two-year-old racing incrementally over a period of ten years would give the breeding industry time to adjust and plan accordingly.
I may be naïve, though I hope I am not stupid; I know this proposal will never come to fruition, as was the situation in the 1870’s. For one thing, too many people with too much influence have too much of their money tied up in the breeding of precocious bloodstock for the topic to even be discussed. My argument is this: horses live till they are twenty or more; as two-year-olds they are babies. It does the image of racing no good to see immature horses too weak to finish a five furlong race with any degree of gusto being slapped along by a jockey who believes he is tutor to a student when schooling is the least appropriate need for the physical welfare of such a young horse.
It is ridiculous to describe a five-year-old in a flat race as an ‘old boy’ when a horse of a similar age in a hurdle race is thought of as a ‘baby’. A horse is a horse is a horse. They all start life in exactly the same way. Though I suspect the five-year-old in the hurdle race will, luck be with it, have a longer life than the five-year-old in the flat race.
There is, I believe, an excess of two-year-old races, especially in the early months of the season. It is commonplace and has become accepted, with breeders targeting the production of the precocious type of horse. This acceptance does not make it morally acceptable. When analysing the effect of racing the immature horse the spotlight should not shine on the winners of these races but on those who flounder out the back. What is their fate? What are the injuries they incur for being raced when two-year-olds destined for a different sphere of racing are still in the field maturing? How many of these throwaway horses might have gone on to be stars if given time to grow into ‘their full racing powers’?
It is always problematic to leap from a laissez-faire attitude toward the breaking of rules to an attitude bordering on the draconian. The sort of policing exercised by the Dundalk stewards recently, and endorsed by the Irish Turf Club, will capture everything and everyone in its net of vigilant surveillance, including the innocent, and will allow the incredulous and the opposition to say – look at all the cheats they have in Ireland.
There is no doubt that to counter claims of ignoring the alleged misdeeds of the big fish of Irish racing and only going after the smaller fry, the Dundalk stewards set out to make an example of the biggest fish in the ocean, Aidan O’Brien. I don’t suppose it mattered what horse of his was considered ‘gently handled’, and neither did the punishment metered out; it was Aidan O’Brien they wanted in the dock so they could clearly demonstrate that no one was above the rules of racing anymore.
Not so long ago, initiated by the official British handicappers, I believe, and supported by journalists with a loyalty to bookmakers and punters, there was a movement to have all horses ridden out to the finishing post. This flogging of near-exhausted horses was – well, who knows the true reason behind it. What this proposal wasn’t though was animal welfare friendly, and if Aintree has assured us of nothing else it has made it crystal clear to the public that equine welfare is of paramount importance. Though whether we will see cooling stations at Ascot, Epsom or Goodwood, when temperatures will surely be higher than at Aintree in April, I very much doubt.
I am all in favour of catching cheats; jockeys and trainers who give horses easy races so to get a more favourable weight in a big handicap later in the season. But that is totally different to jockeys giving young horses an easy introduction to racing so that in the future they will enjoy their trips to the racecourse and not fear it. ‘Keeping one’s powder dry’ is also different to a trainer wanting to give a horse a quiet run to re-build confidence after a fall or bad experience. If there is an art to training racehorses then doing what is in the best interests of an individual horse must be key to it and brilliant intuitive horse husbandry should never be liable to punishment by the sport’s governing body. If equine welfare is paramount then fines and suspensions for acting in the best interests of the horse must be morally wrong.
Last year several leading racing journalists described Aidan O’Brien as the best trainer in the world. The man has the patience of saints and his horses are always well-behaved and tractable. For pities sake, he can even saddle them out-of-doors, with the world and his wife looking on. If Aidan O’Brien isn’t the straightest and most honest of men I will be shocked to the point of considering the priesthood as a way of penance for my naivety. I, as with many people, I suspect, would follow him over a cliff in a demonstration of his trustworthiness.
When the likes of Aidan O’Brien are found guilty of not being 100% within the rules of racing then you can take it as read that those in authority have completely lost the plot, and journalists who sing hurrah for the Dundalk stewards are in need of a long lie-down in a darkened room and be made to repeat as a mantra – equine welfare is of paramount importance.
Kindness, when it comes to horses, has its rewards on Earth, not in Heaven. No rule of racing should impinge on the notion that horse welfare comes first. The hard cop attitude now prevalent in Irish stewards rooms is not conducive to the clear message broadcast to millions last Saturday from Aintree.
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.