John Hislop bred Brigadier Gerard, to my mind the only horse to run on the flat in modern times that can be compared favourably with Frankel. Indeed, alongside the Hislop family, I suspect, I believe the Brigadier, in respect of his victory in the King George & Queen Elisabeth, to be a smidge superior to Frankel.
John Hislop rode as an amateur on the flat, where he excelled, and over jumps. He was champion amateur on the flat year after year. He was also a racing journalist; a contemporary of Peter O’Sullivan and Clive Graham.
In his memoir ‘Hardly A Jockey’ – there is no explanation in the book for the title – he makes note of the changes in racing since the ending of the 2nd World War, in which, incidentally, he was awarded the Military Cross after an operation with the S.A.S.. He refers to this period as the ending of the phase of Turf history that started with the introduction of the American seat and before the fashion of the ultra-short stirrup leather as introduced by Lester Piggott.
Starting stalls have replaced the barrier start; jockeys now wear crash helmets and goggles (and since the publication of ‘Hardly A Jockey’ body protectors are now compulsory) there was no overnight declaration of runners; motorways make for shorter, straighter journeys, whereas in the period in question a road map was an essential accessory to any day out at the races; racegoers, and jockeys, regularly travelled to race meetings by train and stayed in hotels if the meeting was a 2 or 3 day affair; hundred horse stables were unknown (now, of course 150 – 200 horse stables are not uncommon) discipline was stricter and the standard of stable husbandry was higher; stable-girls were rare, whereas now racing could not function without them; in the immediate post-war years entry to members enclosures and the Royal Enclosure was restricted and socially biased, with even trainers barred unless they had joined prior to taking out a trainer’s licence; divorced people were disallowed entry to the Royal Enclosure; commoners had little chance of becoming members of the Jockey Club. Yearlings were not bought at U.S. sales for racing in Europe; the Grand National remained a fierce test of man and horse; all-weather racing was a distant dream; as was the propping up of the flat by mega-wealthy Arab owners; horses racing abroad was an adventure on a par with Scott’s expedition to the Antarctic; sponsorship was in its infancy; we have lost many good and important racecourses, with Kempton’s future presently hanging in the balance; there was no night racing at the time of publication of ‘Hardly A Jockey’; the photo-finish, patrol camera and technology in general was akin to science fiction as far as racing was concerned; and racing was not so wonderfully served by television.
And of course in our time jockeys and trainers are under much closer scrutiny, with whip offences and drug violations punished with bans and fines. Indeed horse racing in this country may be the most closely scrutinised sport in the world.
And who would have thought thirty years ago that you could walk up your high street at eight-o-clock at night and go into a betting shop to place a bet on the eight-fifteen at Chelmsford or Newcastle? Our sport, though, has not changed out of all recognition to the sport that started up again after the cessation during the 2nd World War. Fundamentally the sport remains a love-affair with the thoroughbred and an eternal temptation to ‘break the hearts of bookmakers’. The aesthetic appeal of the challenge of the horse race and the desire to always back winners are strange bedfellows yet they remain undivorced from one another after the passing of hundreds of years and hundreds of cases where good men have been tempted to circumvent the rules of racing and where bad men have committed foul deeds.
In the years ahead there be other changes, I have no doubt. Through the need to survive perhaps, the sport will have to introduce what used to be referred to as a ‘Tote Monopoly’, prize money being the number 1 bug-bear of all and sundry. Personally I hope the revolution in treating the broken bones of small animals and birds, a revolution inspired by the greatest vet the science has known, Noel Fitzpatrick, will lead to a method of healing the broken bones of racehorses, the treatment of which is made challenging by the way horses naturally get up from laying at rest. I also hope that one day the rule of ‘one crack and no more’ is introduced, a rule of the whip that cannot be misinterpreted. As Brigadier Gerard’s rider, Joe Mercer, used to say: if a horse doesn’t run faster for one smack, it certainly won’t go faster for two.
My hope for the future is that despite change brought about by necessity and invention racing survives and flourishes and that the generations to come can enjoy the beauty and magic of horse-racing and man’s love of the horse. After all, to the discerning man or woman, without horse-racing what is life?
Soon we are to enter that period of the horse racing year that can be best summarized as ‘after the Lord Mayor’s Show’. The Flat season.
And boy is Doncaster flat!
You have to pity the flat campaigners, having to pick up the sporting baton from the greatest show on Earth, with the greatest horse-race in the world waiting in the wings to demonstrate what true sporting endeavour is all about.
I suppose after the heady champagne cocktail of Cheltenham all racing, including the Midlands National, I have to admit, is small beer, and if it wasn’t for the glittering constellation that is the Grand National people of my persuasion might be persuaded to go into hibernation long before the threat of the last frost has receded. Yes, I concede that the flat does get a tad interesting come the Derby and Royal Ascot and this year it will be fascinating to see how many winners Josie Gordon and Holly Doyle ride but all-in-all flat racing is not the staff of life, is it?
If flat racing is the connoisseur’s bee’s knees, as many would champion, why is it allowed to start with an apologetic whimper? It’s almost as if after the thrills of the jumps season the flat is too embarrassed to part the curtains and step into the limelight.
The situation is perhaps not helped by the mega-bucks Dubai Carnival. It casts a long shadow and the Lincoln is really only an inflated handicap by comparison. Yet it will be a hundred years before Dubai can boast a similar lineage.
A great disservice was done to racegoers in East Anglia when Lincoln racecourse was allowed to close, as horse racing is done a disservice in allowing the Lincoln to deteriorate into just another heritage handicap. Indeed the Totopoly board game possibly celebrates the Lincoln to better effect than racing itself. (The winners of the race from 1926 to 1937 still race each other in the game). And you hardly ever hear the term ‘Spring Double any more, do you? And just for the sake of interest Mighty Gurkha won the last Lincoln at Lincoln.
Now with a little imagination the Lincoln could be re-invented as something out of the ordinary. Of course the flat season should start on a Saturday at Doncaster. It is plain dumb to start the season mid-week at Leicester or Redcar. Where is the publicity value in starting the season in a backwater? The Lincoln meeting could be a two-day fixture. Six handicaps on the Saturday. Six races on the Sunday with at least four being of listed status. Not a grand firework display or a Shirley Bassey cabaret, I grant you. But not a Bay City Rollers tribute act either.
The six handicaps could comprise a one-off ‘Scoop Spring Six’ type bet with a one-million pound plus prize fund. A five-furlong handicap, a seven-furlong, mile and a half, two and a quarter mile handicap, a ‘silver Lincoln’, with the grand finale the Lincoln itself. With a heritage going back to 1865 I suggest the Lincoln deserves to be one of the richest handicaps in Europe.
Quality, it is said, always sells. Return the grand old Lincoln to the importance it held in its heyday and a purse deserving of its history and the flat season will be off and running with the verve of Crisp around Aintree.
This article was under consideration for ‘Racing Ahead’ magazine, though they chose to publish a more relevant piece I wrote about Crisp. So this ‘blog’ or article was written six weeks ago and since then I have come up with a more radical way to re-popularise the Lincoln. This can be found under the title ‘Review of the Lincoln’.
.The Goddess we name in Earthly terms Aintree delivers that what she deems is the due of her subjects. In some years she is disappointed with us and we are delivered of disappointment and heartache. Yesterday, under a clear blue window to allow her fellow gods an unspoiled view of the sport, she delivered for the faithful to enjoy a spectacle only the divine could mastermind.
For Brian Hughes and Nico de Boinville the day, I dare say, was an unmitigated disappointment. The first fence is not where any jockey chooses to leave the service of thanksgiving. Next year, perhaps, Aintree will look more kindly on them. Not that Hughes and de Boinville can look upon their season with anything but contentment.
So 38 horses galloped on to Bechers, a steeplechase fence that remains handsome and proud even without the savage bite of its incisors. Is there a more thrilling sight in the whole of the known world than 38 thoroughbred horses ridden by 38 brave and colourfully clad riders approaching a site of significance and legend with the gusto and immoveable desire of pilgrims in want of a glimpse of their maker? No, there is not. It is why the Grand National is the greatest sporting event on planet Earth.
Perhaps a similar number sailing over the Canal Turn with the pomp of ceremony or with the exuberance of youth horse and rider in glorious symmetry scaling the mightiest Chair in all Christendom as if on the landing side there was to be found the answer to the meaning of life. Though for this life-long follower of the Goddess the truly memorable sight is that of horses enjoying the freedom of jumping the most inviting fences ever devised.
Life, if only for the one day, was worth living yesterday as the Goddess delivered a feast for the eyes.
And though done for all the right reasons, Man’s fussy insistence on every horse being dismounted after the race and being taken to a cool-down area took away the spectacle of the victor returning in triumph. The lack of homage to the new hero was an anti-climax. What Red Rum would have thought of it Heaven only knows. I suspect he will discuss the matter with the Goddess at the earliest possible moment.
I.T.V., too, though on a more human scale, delivered a spectacular show. Their first ever Grand National went almost without a hitch. Next year they will present a more coherent review of the race, I suspect, and in the excitement of the finish I am sure the commentator will not make the same mistake as he did this year in confusing Katie Walsh with Robbie Dunne. It almost goes without saying that these days Robbie Dunne is always close at hand between the last fence and the elbow.
A.P., though was the jewel in the crown. Why he seems so more relaxed alongside Ed Chamberlain and Oli Bell than he was when Channel 4 had the contract only he can know but his wit, insight and humility is a both a bonus to I.T.V. and a great ally for the presenters.
Yesterday was more than One For Arthur and one for Scotland but one for the devotees of the Goddess Aintree and for Aintree herself. May we always please her and may she always reward us with the beneficence of the sport she so lovingly presented to us yesterday.
I have backed the Grand National winner twice. Yes, twice. I vaguely remember Team Spirit in 1964, though I was too young to have a bet. Incidentally the horse that came 5th Pontin-Go had run in the race in 63 but under the name Gay Navarree. Wouldn’t allow that these days. In 65 I remember begging my father to back Freddie and thereby started what has become standard procedure when it comes to trying to find the Grand National winner.
Without having conducted any research to verify my claim, so this must be taken on trust, I am one of the worst tipsters in the country. If indeed if I can even claim to be a tipster. I suspect if there were an Association of Tipsters they would distance themselves from me by a distance that could only be measured in light years. I suspect if there was such an organisation I would not pass any entrance exam. I am a shocking tipster, as my three ‘good things’ for Cheltenham proved.
The Grand National is an exception. I am only unlucky when it comes to the world’s greatest horse race. If I were born without sin or had lived a purer life the National would be a source of revenue for me. As it is the National is just a constant reminder of what might have been.
My method for selecting the National ‘winner’ is unusual, at least for me, as I study the form and use reasoned judgement. Sentimentality, backing the horse, jockey, trainer or owner you would like to win, is sheer folly when it comes to Aintree. My prolonged and heart-breaking backing of Spanish Steps back in the seventies is proof of that.
I start with the publication of the weights, selecting what I believe to be the six most likely winners based on how favourably weighted they are and if I believe they will take to the fences. This year the six were Don Poli, Ucello Conti, Definitly Red, Blaklion, Houblon Des Obeaux and Vieux Lion Rouge who I backed last year at 100/1 and who from Valentine’s second time round to the Melling Road was giving every indication of providing me with the winning bet of a lifetime.
Unusually, at the time of writing, five of the six remain in the race, with five of them either favourite or close to being favourite.
At the four-day stage I complicate matters by going through field rejecting those who prefer ground other than what is forecast, those who won’t stay and those who no obvious chance no matter what. Annoyingly this process can result in having to dismiss one of my original selections. I am sure every procedure has its failings and selecting Grand National winners is by a long chalk not a science.
Eventually I end up with six names from which I choose three, one backed to win and two backed each-way.
This method has led me to backing Neptune Collonges. My other winning bet was Red Rum when he won for the second time and then there was no method other than the blind faith that he was a ‘certainty’.
The relevant fact for those who might be reading this and who is desperate to find the winner is to disregard the three I intend backing and go for the three I reject. Rule The World was in my six last year and he waltzed in at 33/1. I turned him aside because horses who have never won a chase do not win Grand Nationals. Sensible logic, you’ll agree. Many Clouds in 15 was in my final six and he danced in at 25/1. I thought he had too much weight. Pineau De Re was another 25/1 shot that was in my final six but missed the cut. Why, I can’t remember. You can add Ballabriggs and I dare say a dozen others to the list.
As things stand, and I am staying this year with my original five plus One For Arthur, the three I intend to reject and from where history suggests the winner will come from is: Blaklion, the best horse in the race, Ucello Conti, well handicapped considering how well he ran last year, and Definitly Red who I reject for no better reason than another Red cannot possibly win a National, even though you could say it is about time another Red did win.
So the three to consider having nothing to do with are One For Arthur, who is my win selection, Vieux Lion Rouge for a place (I would look a fool if he won after backing him last year) and Houblon Des Obeaux.
When the weights were published I considered Houblon leniently treated on his best form. He was top weight in the Hennessey only a few years ago. But with all the original top weights defecting and The Last Samuri now carrying 11st 10lbs, the weights have risen by five Ibs, raising Houblon to 10st 12. I don’t think he’ll fall but his jumping does concern me and those extra five lbs might make a difference. He shortens into a fence and his careful approach may lose him valuable ground. But he’ll stay, of that I’m certain. Not that I am certain he’ll run. Commenting on the weights Venetia was vague on whether the National was his objective. But 50/1, his odds at writing, represents value.
So there you. One For Arthur will win from Vieux Lion Rouge causing Tom Scudamore pain and happiness at the same time, with Houblon Des Obeaux running on to finish third.
So all you have to do is back Blaklion, Ucello Conti or Definitly Red. And that is your choice.
My fiction can be found on kdkworkadaywriter.com
Below is one of my racing based short stories. Possibly the only one that does the sport justice. There is no conclusion to the story as anyone who knows anything about racing knows the outcome. Indeed the knowledgeable reader will know the outcome the moment the subject matter is realised.
The rain strikes the car without pity. All hope is washed away. He turns off the engine and slumps down into the seat. This day was supposed to be the culmination of a life-long dream; it was confirmed in nearly all of the newspapers. When he had turned out the bedside light last night everything seemed perfect. Now he wishes he was somewhere else. Now he wishes they had taken a different decision.
He looks back at the dogs. They are oblivious to the rain, to the consternation dancing a reel of horrible consequence upon the heart of their owner. They only see open space and the certainty of fun and intriguing scent. For half an hour he has kept them waiting, ignoring their canine persuasions.
The rain methodically transforms into snow, vanquishing the last scintilla of hope.
Eventually he succumbs to duty, to positive action. Half-heartedly he replaces his shoes with wellington-boots, buttons up his old greatcoat and pulls on woollen gloves. It is time to move, time to exercise judgement, time to be brave. The others rely on him, which is his awful obligation. He is their spokesman. He is expected to be better informed. They will expect knowledgeable advice, especially if David leaves the final decision to them.
He opens the car door and steps into a puddle. He reaches back into the car to remove the ignition key. Noticing his binoculars on the passenger seat he decides to take them with him. Not that he will be able to see very much with or without them. The visibility and his mood are so sparse he might be about to wing-walk on clouds. He slams the door but does not bother to lock it.
The dogs bound from the car with the enthusiasm of a summer romp. For once their joie de vivre fails to raise his spirits. Head down he walks across to the course, calling the dogs to follow. The snow settles on his shoulder, on the rails, on the fences. As he ducks under the plastic running rail a featherweight of the white menace finds its way down his neck. He shivers at its death-like touch and senses that it must be an omen. As he digs his heel into the turf he finds himself praying for it to be frozen, for fate to make the judgement call for him. It is soft, very soft.
“Bit grim,” someone comments, passing hurriedly by. “I shan’t be running mine,” he adds almost cheerily.
“Hey,” someone else shouts from the hurdle course. He looks up and recognises the face beneath the flat cap but cannot put a name to it. He waves in acknowledgement and smiles weakly, suddenly aware that he is not alone, that his plight is shared by trainers, jockeys, racecourse staff and other owners. “The Gold Cup in April, couldn’t be better for you, jammy sod,” the man shouts across to him, adding. “They’ll abandon, run the race at the April meeting. They’ll have no other option if this stuff keeps falling.” The man brushes snow from the running rail with his bare hands and throws a snowball at an acquaintance passing in the opposite direction.
His spirits are raised. “The stewards will abandon, of course,” he tells one of his dogs. “There will be no need for a decision.” The weight lifted he straightens his back and stares up at the leaden sky, up over the second last and toward the grandstand. Lights pierce the gloom, the famed panorama thick with silent grey foreboding. Carefully he looks around him, at the men and women inspecting the ground, assessing the situation and taking decisions on behalf of their connections, hoping to
spot the clerk of the course or a steward.
Someone comes up from behind and slaps him on the shoulder. “Mine will love it. Been waiting for ground this heavy all season. Them bookies are in for a right skinning.”
“But they will abandon, surely,” he argues, committing the heresy of verbally suggesting the Gold Cup should be postponed.
“No, why should they? The horses will gallop through this. It’s just wet. Anyway, this is the Gold Cup. They will race if they damned well can, mark my words.”
He calls the dogs, looking around him to see where they are, his optimism torn in half. They are at a workman’s hut, begging for food. He strides across to them, cursing their effrontery, apologising to the groundsman. “Shame about the weather, eh? I should think you are pig-sick,” the man says, snapping a digestive biscuit in two and sharing it between the dogs. “Wrong course, wrong way round, wrong distance and now the wrong ground. You got the full set, congratulations. And it’s been beautiful all week. If it doesn’t stop snowing in the next hour we can all go home and get warm.”
As he makes his way toward the grandstand, toward the fateful meeting with his father, the other owners and more importantly David, people, professional and racegoers alike, offer their opinion and their condolence at the abrupt, unforecasted, change in the weather. The professionals are unanimous that they, or he, should withdraw. The racegoers, though, maintain the faith and urge him to run.
A television interviewer with a cameraman and sound crew in tow begs a few minutes of his time. Doubtfully he agrees. “Does he run, sir?” It is a polite question and the viewers at home, the fans, deserve an answer. He stares at the microphone as if it was a Kalashnikov and digs his heel once more into the snow-topped turf, unable and unwilling to commit to running or not running. “The ground is against you,” the interviewer needlessly reminds him, wanting to get a scoop for the one o’clock news. Raising his hands to the cruel heavens he mutters ambiguities which place the burden of decision at the feet of David. “You would not be upset if the stewards abandoned the meeting, I dare say?” the interviewer hastily continues, adding to the agony of the ambush interview.
Back at the car the snow has mercifully called a halt and a pale sun blinks through the murk. He rubs the dogs’ dry, offers them water and returns them to the car. He cannot put off the moment any longer; he must go and talk with his father and David.
On his way he rehearses in his mind what to say. The horse must be withdrawn. There will be no argument about it. It is the decision they would take on any other day. It will be unpopular with some and to others it will be a grave disappointment. But for the true fans, those with only the horse’s best interests at heart, it is the only acceptable decision. No one will want to see him vanquished, pulled up or worse. They might be accused of cowardice, of wrapping the horse up in cotton wool. But it is not a case of winning and losing. It is about caring. And there will always be next year.
“There you are. Let’s go and have a reviver. We have to talk.” It is David, unworried, as ebullient as ever. David is not the man he wants to see. It is his father he needs to talk with, to form a united front to defeat David’s blind optimism. They are going to disagree; he knows from the expression on his face that David still wants to run.
“Now let’s have that drink before you lot get together and frighten yourself stupid.”
He leans against the weighing room door, unwilling to be pummelled by David’s infectious logic. He needs his father; he needs his fellow owners to help safeguard him.
“I know the ground is on the soft side but let’s not worry over that,” David assures him.
He feels his jaw drop at this adjustment to his usual opinion. But he steadies himself. He knows he must concentrate. David might be indulging in one of his wind-ups.
“Our horse is the best balanced horse in the race. On this ground that will be worth lengths to us. Trust me, we can’t be beat.”
He is too bemused to reply. His well-rehearsed acceptance of the twist of fate is now worthless to him. David has sprung a reason for running which had not for one moment crossed his mind.
A journalist joins them, only for David to take him by the arm to lead him away. “If you bastards start on him we will never agree.” The journalist, sniffing disagreement between owner and trainer, pursues the matter. “No,” David answers him, opening the weighing room door and pushing the journalist inside. “There is no difference of opinion, so stop fishing. We both want what is best for the horse. And when he agrees with my opinion we will have come to a decision whether to run or not.”
“Have you collared David yet?” It is his father, standing outside the owners and
trainers marquee. The weather has improved, though it remains cold and dismal. “The bugger’s hiding from me. I keep spotting him walking in the opposite direction.”
He is told David’s upbeat ‘trust me, we can’t be beat’ speech. “So he has collared you.” His father laughs out loud, slapping his son on the back, demonstrating togetherness. “Let’s have a drink. You look like you need one. After all said and done, we still have the favourite for the Gold Cup and we never thought that would happen a few years ago. And I suppose as we normally leave the difficult decisions to David we might just as well leave this one to him. And to be honest, and you know how hard this is for me to admit to, but the bugger gets it right more times than he gets it wrong.”
David’s logic is beyond reason, beyond what is written in the form book. Yet without David’s expertise where would they be? He cannot accept that it is correct to run the horse on ground he has always hated but at least they have the option of pulling up if it is too much for him. The public will understand. Their love of the horse will be strong enough to accept the disappointment.
He smiles. His father smiles. They all agree. Though only David believes they will be lifting the Gold Cup. Quite possibly David is the only person in the country who believes the grey horse cannot be beaten.
The good people at Doncaster seem to think, (they have plans, apparently) that they need to increase the profile of ‘Lincoln Day’, believing it 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 had ratings applied to them 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 longer.
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 reversion to the old days 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 a leap of faith.
For there to be a thriving racing industry in both Britain and Europe it is incumbent on all sectors to do everything they can to promote the sport and to provide the racegoer with exhilarating sporting action. Unfortunately, as in all walks of life, vested interest can be a stumbling block to achieving the noble aim, with the bloodstock industry a prime offender.
Now I plough a lone furrow, I suspect, in my condemnation of the big owner/breeders for packing off their best horses to stud with undue haste. I accept that the big outfits such as Coolmore, Godolphin and others, breed to race to produce stallions. My argument is that the bloodstock industry seems to collectively believe that it has no other responsibility to the sport other than to breed stallions and produce yearlings for the sales ring.
Yet the B.H.A. and all other organisations within the sport are striving to bolster interest; to get new-blood through the gates at racecourses, and with the new I.T.V. contract to increase the numbers following racing from the comfort of their armchairs.
But what efforts are being made by the bloodstock industry to help this campaign?
It is the commonly held view that National Hunt thrives because of the ‘narrative’ it provides, with star horses returning year on year, greeted as old friends that the public want to protect and savour. Yet this year’s Derby winner will not be racing next year, will he? To all extent and purposes Derby winners are not horses with personality and quirks but equine investments that must be protected. Classic winners, especially Derby winners, are worth too much money to risk racing as four-year-olds in case they should get beaten and prove to be not as ‘superlative’ and ‘awesome’ as previously described. It would be as worrying for investors in a classic winner racing beyond its three-year-old season as hanging a Rembrandt in a school corridor would be for the National Portrait Gallery.
All the bloodstock industry allow racing is a succession of colts who were the best of their generation. These horses are useless for the marketing and promotion of the sport. It is why iconic films are re-made with a new cast rather the original re-released. You cannot market a movie if all the cast are dead or gone doolally. A retired racehorse might as well be dead to the public and the marketing arm of the sport as serving mares at five-figures a pelvic thrust in the shadowed environs of a country stud.
When Sea The Stars retired at the end of his three-year-old season his trainer John Oxx said ‘What else is there for him to prove’? Well for one thing, to see if he was capable of winning a race giving weight to the best of the succeeding generation. I have the same quibble with Golden Horn, Dancing Brave and most of the Coolmore Derby winners. All they ever were was the best of their generation, yet time after time they are included in the lists of all-time greats. How does anyone know the extent of their abilities? None of them were allowed to strut their stuff as four-year-olds, to race against the succeeding generation.
Of course there are no incentives or disincentives to help persuade the big owner/breeder outfits to keep their top horses in training after their three-year-old season. But there should be. Perhaps colts should not be allowed to stand as a stallion until they are in their fifth year. If a colt is injured and cannot race as a three or four-year-old rest and recuperation should be the by-word, not the getting-out clause of the moneyed road to the stallion shed. At the moment as soon as a three-year-old wins a Group 1 or 2 all thoughts seemingly turn to finding it a place at stud, with no thought given to actually determining what heights the horse might achieve. This self-interest is no use to those whose job it is to increase attendances at racecourses. Indeed this self-interest is more like selfishness. How can anyone market a product where the true stars are here today and gone tomorrow?
With the proliferation of big money races around the world racehorses are establishing reputations and ratings that are as meaningful and truthful as a political party’s election pledge. I know weight-for-age is meant to even the playing field between three-year-old and older horses but in truth the younger horse will inevitably have an edge, especially come the autum. And keeping a horse in training as a four-year-old and beyond will establish whether a horse is truly sound, a variable that must be of importance to the owner of broodmares.
Something must done to encourage the big owner/breeders to keep horses in training beyond their three-year-old season. Racehorses should race when fit and youthful and retired to the stallion shed to pass on their genes only when their true merit is established. Perhaps instead of being weight-for-age, races like the Arc and the King George should become more like handicaps, with weights determined by racecourse performance and not age.
Perhaps the top three-year-old races, the classics included, should have reduced prize money with the weight-for-age Group 1 given significantly increased levels of prize money, so to incentivise owners to keep their horses in training in order to win the biggest purses.
I know one thing: in Britain something needs to be done. Because the stars of the sport are the horses and flat racing just does not have enough. Or indeed any.
GOING TO THE LAST
A HORSE RACING RELATED
COLLECTION OF SHORT STORIES
SOON TO BE PAPERBACK.