It is now conceded by all-comers that not enough people are becoming owners of racehorses. What is not recognised is that the mighty leviathan that is Coolmore, and the wannabe mighty leviathans that are Godolphin, Prince Khalid Abdulla, Al Shaqab and Qatar Racing, are not necessarily good advertising material for a sport perceived by outsiders as entertainment for high society. No one can dispute the fact that the big owner/breeder operations invest huge amounts of money in the sport, employ thousands of people and deserve reward for their enthusiasm and outlay. But the downside of mega-bucks owners carving up the majority of the top races between them is that it gives the impression there is no place at the top table for anyone other than the fabulously wealthy.
It is said that the overriding reason for the low level of new people coming into the sport is the low levels of prize money. It is obviously a contributing factor but if the level of prize money was trebled or quadrupled overnight it would only mean the leviathans would still be taking home the largest proportion. If raising prize money was the answer why is there no campaign for what used to be termed ‘a Tote Monopoly’ as they have in France and other countries? It seems a no-brainer if greater prize money is the answer to all of racing’s ills.
If you research racing and equine related books published prior to the 2nd World War it is striking how diverse racehorse ownership actually was. Yes, the sport in its infancy was dominated by Kings and the aristocracy but as the sport developed those in the lower echelons of society became both owners and breeders, with racing having no long-term dominating force. Eclipse, for instance, was owned by someone who might either be termed a ‘chancer’ or a self-made man.
Now we seem to have come full circle, with the aristocracy of foreign countries ruling the winning posts. I am not xenophobic by nature, I am merely being factual; and having foreign royal families deeply interested in our racing can only be beneficial. But what is largely missing from the racing landscape are the John Hislops, the genuine horse people with a keen eye for the stud book and who keep a few mares in hope of one day breeding a champion, as John Hislop achieved with Brigadier Gerard, possibly the greatest flat racehorse of all time. And while syndicates are a boon and a blessing the people they attract will not necessarily take their new-found interest into the breeding barns.
There was a time, when perhaps the country was more affluent, when a farmer, landowner, people of rank or nobility, would keep a mare or two to breed to the local stallion in order to have a horse to race. Nowadays those who still keep a mare are more likely to breed to sell and this is where, I believe, lies the root of the problem. We need more people to be keeping mares. We need more small-scale owner/breeders. More small studs. We need more people like John Hislop; proper equestrian people.
Once upon a time there were races termed ‘Home Produce’ races, restricted to home-bred two-year-olds. This type of race should be revived. It is all very well pumping millions of pounds into sales races but what must not be ignored is the requirement to foster and encourage the increased involvement of those who are the very foundation of the sport, the small owner/breeder.
I recognise that in the beginning ‘Home Produce’ races will be relatively uncompetitive but they should be persevered with. If implemented ‘Home Produce’ races will give an incentive for people to keep the odd mare, to put its offspring into training. As it is in National Hunt with races restricted to mares. And these races must not be allowed to be dominated by the big owners but restricted to owners with less than, shall we say, five active broodmares and should have enhanced levels of prize-money. ‘Home Produce races should also be promoted and advertised throughout all sectors of the equestrian world, both at home and abroad, with a major race of great value to further encourage the keeping of thoroughbred broodmares.
And one further thought on encouraging people to actively engage in our sport. The owner of Diore Lia, the no-hoper filly that is to run in this year’s Derby, is hardly being smothered with love at present due to him having the audacity to want to mingle with the leviathans at Epsom. All he wants to do is raise awareness and money for Great Ormond Street Hospital. He is not a suffragette in want of causing trouble and disturbance. Racing is a rich man’s indulgence. Instead of trying to persuade him to go elsewhere with his no-hoper, why not encourage all the jockeys riding in the race to donate their riding fees to the charity, as is Gina Mangan, the lucky lady being given the opportunity to raise her own profile by riding in the Derby, perhaps the only time she will ever receive the opportunity.
Diore Lia running in the Derby is problematic on two fronts: that she will be a filly amongst so many impressionable young colts suggests she might inspire the growth many ‘extra legs’? And secondly, why are fillies allowed to run in the Derby in the first place? Seems anomalous, doesn’t it, a filly running in the supreme colt’s classic?
When a racecourse is forced to close the area in which it existed is denied more than a place of sport and entertainment – it loses a green space in an increasingly tarmacked world. If the racecourse is situated in a town or city what is removed from the environment is a habitat for wildlife, greenery and an open space that is a reservoir of fresh air.
If I lived in Derby, for example, and frequented my local racecourse – Derby racecourse closed in 1939 and the site is now the home of Derbyshire Cricket Club – would I have automatically, or attend as frequently, Nottingham or Southwell racecourses? Lose Kempton Park, for instance, and the sport will lose those local people loyal to their local racecourse. It is the trickle effect. I am sure the same happened when the likes of Stockton and Wye closed.
It is possibly an effect of ageing that causes nostalgia for that which is lost forever to manifest so boldly in the heart and imagination; a desire to peer into the ghostly world of the sporting past. As I write I have before me a black and white photograph of Lanark racecourse taken between the wars, with women in thirties fashion mingling with men in suits and hats, the long straight stretching out toward moorland and hills. The place closed in 1978 and I dread to think how much tarmac and brick spoils a natural beauty of the landscape that the racecourse had preserved.
It was a line of no consequence in William Day’s ‘Turf Celebrities I Have Known’ that sparked my interest in Shrewsbury racecourse. You see Day trained in Wiltshire and as there was no such luxury as horseboxes in his time the horses and grooms must have travelled by foot and by railway, suggesting that Shrewsbury racecourse was a destination worth great effort to attend. Even today, by car or train, it would be a far from convenient journey. Stable staff today do not realise how easy they have things.
The horse Day was writing about was called Pitchfork. I suspect in the eighteen-hundreds horses were given names in the same way Native American Indians traditionally were named and when asked for a name the owner, Lord Rivers, looked around him and glanced upon a pitchfork. He might have named the horse Muck-Sack or Snot-Face, or more poetically as the Native American would have gone about the task, One Cloud in Sky or Running Fox. Mind you, Pitchfork is a far better name than the unflattering names present day owners come up with, especially in Ireland. Anyway Pitchfork ran in and won the Shrewsbury Gold Cup, the signature race at Shrewsbury, though there was also His Majesty’s 100 Guineas Plate and a Shrewsbury St.Leger.
Day’s book, by the way, is exceedingly dull, though perhaps rare, with the theme being the people Day trained for. He also makes it known that in his day betting was the main object of the sport. It seems in Day’s time the easiest way to lose an owner was to win a race when the odds were too cramped to get on a sizeable wager.
Because of having a Gold Cup and a St.Leger of sorts one might think Shrewsbury to be a rip-roaring success and wonder why it no longer features in the Racing Calendar. In fact racing in Shrewsbury began in 1718 at a place called Kingsland, moved to Bicton Heath in 1729 only to be sold in 1825 when the owner of the land, and here is a name known to racing followers through the name of a horse, Mad Jack Mytton became bankrupt. In 1832 it rose from the ashes at Monkmoor Road and it must have been this venue that Day wrote about as his book was published in the 1890’s.
Concurrent with the general opinion of horse-racing at this period of history, to remain even now with people ignorant of racing’s glories, Shrewsbury gained a reputation for the races being fixed. There was probably grounds for the rumour as John Frail, the man responsible for returning racing to the area and who was in effect clerk of the course, owned a number of horses; he was also responsible for handicapping and no doubt looked favourably upon his own horses.
The description of the course at Monkmoor Road, though I have seen Bicton Heath described in the same terms, was that it was rather akin to Chester, being a round mile, though with the last furlong being on an incline. In 1928 the local council built an estate of council houses on the land; the sad fate of so many racecourses in this country.
The surprising aspect of my research into this subject is that Chris Pitt failed to include Shrewsbury in his inestimable tome ‘A Long Time Gone’, a book every racing man should own.
Whenever I pick up Chris Pitt’s labour of love I have an overriding pang of regret for the loss of every one of those doomed racecourses, even those that held only one meeting a year and were no better than a point-to-point. It is the same now for Shrewsbury. I wonder how many we can lose before the penny drops that we need more racecourses not less for the powers-that-be to be able to substantiate their pervading outlook that the sport is thriving. Also, and this may be more important, the environment, especially the urban environment, needs more green reservoirs of fresh air and open space that sporting venues like racecourses provide.
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 radical thought, optimism and a leap of faith.
The Qipco Champions series, despite the good intentions inherent in its conception, is both specious and irrelevant. Champions Day rarely crowns an equine champion, with even the human champions considered by the majority to be unworthy of the crown given that more than one of the ‘beaten’ jockeys, namely Adam Kirby or Luke Morris, will actually ride more winners in the turf season than the man who gets his hands on the trophy.
The Flat Season suffers through not having any sort of climax, a situation Champions Day has failed to conquer. National Hunt rises to a crescendo at the end of its season, whereas the flat has its top meetings in high summer, and with so many valuable races scattered throughout Europe and beyond there is no incentive for owners and trainers to keep their best horses to challenge each other in the major races of the autumn, with even the Arc these days merely an option rather a than a date set in stone.
There is no solution to the situation. The flat programme is a mixture of the archaic and the hastily fashioned and there is nothing anyone can dream up to return us to the days when the St.Leger was a prize of distinction and the Arc the greatest flat race in the world. Ah, the good old days!
As I suggest, the Qipco Champion Series fails to deliver the champions it sets out to create. It rambles through the season in the manner of a pick-pocket working Oxford Street on a busy Saturday and I suspect only the very best of anoraks can name the individual races that comprise the individual categories of champions.
We could simplify the concept, and still keep the day known as ‘Champions day’, by dropping the word ‘champion’ and replacing it with the term ‘Triple Crown’ and adding sprint, stayer, miler, middle-distance etc.
I propose a Triple Crown series for sprinters, milers, middle distance and stayers, with a six-furlong triple crown for two-year-old colts and fillies. Two races in each category will be nominated to be the first two legs with the third leg run on what is now ‘Champions Day’. In the sprint division it might be the King’s Stand Stakes and the Nunthorpe. The mile division might be the Lockinge and the Sussex Stakes. The Stayers division the Ascot Gold Cup and the Goodwood Cup.
There is, I believe, a duty to ensure the Arc does not lose prestige by the invention of any new race or race meeting and should remain the pinnacle for mile and a half horses, so I suggest the Triple Crown for middle distance horses should be over a mile and a quarter, with perhaps any Triple Crown for a mile and a half horses competed for across Europe, with the Arc as the final leg.
Of course it will not be every year a Triple Crown winner will be decided at Ascot. In some years one horse will dominate one of the categories and in another year no horse will dominate any of the categories, though I doubt if a year will go by when at least one horse does not go for the Triple Crown in at least one of the categories.
Personally I would like my proposed Triple Crown races, with the obvious exception of the two-year-old races, to be confined to older horse to offer an incentive to owners/breeders/trainers to keep the top three-year-olds in training for a third season and encourage the idea of finding out the true merits of a horse rather than the present rationale of not endangering the stud value of a potential stallion by running the risk of racing them in races they might not necessarily win. If only there were more of the mindset of John Hislop who set out to prove Brigadier Gerard’s true merit by testing his metal in races, as he did in the King George and Queen Elisabeth, where going, distance and weight-for-age, were not always in his favour.
Flat racing has a burning need for equine stars. Brilliant stars that light and delight the racecourse for more than a single season. One season wonders are shooting stars, useless for the marketing of the sport. The top owner/breeders are ruining the sport. They are investment bankers, commercial giants, empire builders. They are not sporting men. If Frankel had stayed in training as a five-year-old not only would the question of who is the greatest flat horse of all time be rendered moot but the sport would have benefited to a degree that only National Hunt can boast. Yet apparently we all had to be grateful to Prince Khalid for keeping the horse in training as long as he did. But then in his first season at stud Frankel did add 15-million quid to the Prince’s unimaginable wealth.
To my mind every encouragement should be offered to owners to keep their best horses in training for as long as possible. When Sea The Stars retired to stud at the end of its three-year-old season John Oxx said the horse had nothing else to prove and no one in the racing media challenged him. If an owner is too gutless to keep a horse in training beyond its three-year-old season I doubt if my idea of a Triple Crown series will change matters. But I do think winning a Triple Crown will carry more prestige than earning enough points to be declared a Qipco Series Champion. After all, who can name the winners of each of last year’s categories?
Yet another idea has come to me. It is as yet rather hazy in my imagination, only part-formed. Yet it is worthy of exploration, if only by people better informed about such matters than I shall ever be.
Back in the days of the Sporting Life, and perhaps even during the early years of the Racing Post, I wrote letters expressing my concern about what I considered to be the hidden issue of racehorse welfare. I remember being appalled by the neglect of Hallo Dandy, the horse being found in a poor state of health either on or close by a rubbish dump. Grand National winners, I assumed, were treated like heroes by those privileged to care for them, their every need supplied until their very last day on this Earth. It surprised and upset me to think that neither the late Gordon Richards nor Neale Doughty kept in close contact with the horse, naively believing that one or both would have visited the horse on a regular basis to ensure he was healthy and happy. The only good aspect of Hallo Dandy’s ordeal was that others too were appalled and he became the flag bearer for the first rehabilitation and equine retraining charity and lived into old age.
The Jockey Club’s response to the scandal, as I recall, was on the lines that once a racehorse passes out of the hands of its original owner he or she cannot be held responsible for its welfare. Thankfully there is now a more enlightened outlook at play and horse welfare has become a central theme of the sport, with owners expected to see racehorse ownership as a lifelong commitment to the horses they own. Godolphin and J.P.McManus, in caring for their ex-horses, should be honoured by the sport for the wonderful example they set.
Owners alone should not, though, shoulder all the responsibility; trainers and even jockeys have a moral responsibility to ensure the horses that have made their careers are cared for long into their retirement from the sport. I also believe that once a horse leaves a licensed trainer its name should be registered on a national data base, with people, perhaps employed to do so, held responsible for their well-being.
The idea forming in my head is that as an adjunct to the retraining of racehorses in other disciples of equestrianism, dressage, show-jumping, eventing etc, a competitive activity might be invented that could be staged at racecourses on race days, with prize-money on offer to help defray costs and to encourage owners to keep horses for the purpose.
In my head the aim of the ‘new sport’ would be to compete a course in an optimum time, as in the cross-country phase of a 3-day event, with a mixture of steeplechase fences, hurdles and fixed-jumps to be negotiated, along with parts of the course that must be walked, trotted and cantered, with other disciplines such as gate opening and veterinary inspections, with horses competing at intervals. There would be no necessity to have a horse race-fit, merely healthy.
If this idea, or a development of the idea, is adopted, horses that at the moment leave the environment that has been home for most of their lives could remain with their trainers to be perhaps ridden in this new discipline by stable staff. Though of course all ex-racehorses would be eligible to compete. Given the ages of some of the horses competing in 3-day events this new discipline could prolong a horse’s active lifespan well into their late teenage years or even beyond. It will also keep these horses in the public eye, ensuring far fewer escape the welfare net and end up in as sad a state as Hallo Dandy.
I have had many letters over the years published in both the Sporting Life and Racing Post arguing my point that though punters should be served honourably by the sport it is the horse that must always come first. If the public believe that the horse is merely slave to man’s desire to bet our sport will wither and die. It is why all aspects of horse welfare must be paramount.
It is heartening to learn at last that the powers-that-be are finally waking up to the moral imperative of lifelong care of the horse but they must also ensure that retraining charities are suitably funded so that their vital work can continue long into the future and that the sport itself finds uses for racehorses when they leave the competitive arena and not leave that aspect of the imperative to big-hearted individuals.
To this end there should be many more fund-raising race days in aid of the retraining charities, with even the Grand Nationals linked to raising funds and there should be buckets for donations and information posters in every betting shop and on every racecourse.
When it comes to horse welfare enough can always be bettered.
Nijinsky will probably be the last horse ever to win the Triple Crown in my lifetime or even the lives of your grandchildren. As we know, Coolmore win most of the classic flat races, as boring and repetitive as that is, and they are just too commercially minded to care about winning the St.Leger with a Derby winner, especially after Camelot was soundly beaten in the race. These days it is almost a black mark against a Two-Thousand Guineas and Epsom Derby winner if he goes on to prove he stays beyond the ‘proper’ classic distances. So unless the powers-that-be turn truly radical and run the St.Leger in April as a race confined to 4-year-olds as I have advocated in the past I very much doubt if you or I will see another Triple Crown winner. You might as well leave the term ‘Triple Crown’ to the Americans.
There is an idea going around my head at the moment that when flushed out and given consideration by the great and the good of the sport might if given a run for its money reverse both the decline in the concept of the Triple Crown and the fortunes of the world’s oldest classic. Indeed if my radical idea ever came into being the oldest classic would stop being a classic!
My suggestion is that either a ‘new classic’ is invented, a race more in keeping with the mindset of the present day top owner/breeders, or one of the established races is elevated in status to that of a classic. I prefer the latter.
A series of races that constitute a Triple Crown that begins in late April or early May, peaks in early June and yet doesn’t reach a conclusion until late September is a flawed concept, especially when the last race in the series is dwarfed in both prize-money and esteem by two other races and by a Breeders Cup meeting held on a different continent.
Because times have changed and new races are elevated in prestige above the Leger the race is nowadays little more than a consolation prize for horses that are shy of being true Group 1 material. It is not even a recognised stepping stone toward the big Cup races of the following season, which logically it should be. As with so much that is part and parcel of the racing fixture list something needs to be done. And I have a solution that goes against my radical idea to run the race in April as a race for four-year-olds.
I know trainers will howl at the suggestion that the Eclipse should be restricted to three-year-olds, reminding us that it is traditionally the first clash of the generations. But if any of the present Group I’s is best fitted to be upgraded to classic status it is the Eclipse. It is situated in the calendar at the right time of the year and is over the most appropriate distance for modern-day owner/breeders, 1-mile and 2-furlongs.
What I propose is a Triple Crown of classic races comprising the 1-mile, 2,000 Guineas, the 1-mile 4-furlong, Epsom Derby and 1-mile 2-furlong, Eclipse Stakes. The classic races done and dusted by the middle of summer.
And what of the poor beleaguered Doncaster St.Leger, you may ask? Make it a more valuable race than either the Arc or the Champion Stakes and open it up to all ages. As the most valuable race run in Great Britain and run over what is nowadays quite a distinct distance, at least as far Group I’s are concerned, the St.Leger would regain its noble, standout place in the British racing calendar. For too long the St.Leger has been left to drift into seclusion. It is in many ways a lesser classic, as is the case with the Irish version. Indeed the money the St.Leger has earned the lads from Coolmore over the years in prize money, stallion shares and stallion fees, they could give something back by sponsoring this newly polished and reinvigorated Group 1. Indeed this new St.Leger could become the third leg of an older horses Triple Crown comprising the Coronation Cup, King George & Queen Elisabeth and St.Leger.
Of course I don’t expect this radical suggestion to be acted upon, though I do not see the harm in debating it, and I appreciate that financially it is a big ask to find a sponsor willing to pump millions into a revamped old warrior like the St.Leger, without the added increase in prize money the Eclipse would require to make it a genuine classic race. But if you can radically alter an institution like the Grand National, change the tried and tested way of determining the Champion jockey and take the Champion Stakes from its natural home in an attempt to make sense of a ‘Champion’ series that by October most people have tired of, then you can create a ‘new classic’ and give pride back to and old and dear friend.
What is it with Nottingham? Does the racecourse truly exist or is it one those computer generated fantasy courses like Steepledowns that punters who lack a proper life bet on to while away the time between their medication? If Nottingham closed would we miss it? Not that I am suggesting it should close, far from it. The removal from the calendar of any racecourse is cause enough to slow my heartbeat and excite an inner discourse on how the world is going to hell in a handcart. Indeed I personally yearn for racecourses I have never known, even those like Aldershot whose demise came in 1939, long before I was a twinkle in my father’s eyes, and for whom I know practically nothing (the racecourse not my father) and Gatwick where the gates closed in 1948 and where once, though it is impossible to imagine, a substitute Grand National was staged.
To my mind racecourses should have preservation notices assigned to them, so that in the decades ahead when most of the green belt will have been sacrificed to housing development these places of sporting endeavour can be green oases of tranquillity in a grey and soulless sprawl of humanity.
What I am ponderously driving at is that to all extent and purpose Nottingham is largely anonymous. Grenville Davies wrote its history and to be honest little has ever happened at Colwick, pronounced colic, Park to justify the time and research devoted to the subject. Nottingham had a racecourse, not at Colwick Park, as far back as 1689 and in1770 Eclipse walked over in the King’s Plate, (to be honest the great horse walked over nearly as many times as he actually galloped to victory) having no doubt walked the byways and green lanes of England to Nottinghamshire from his home in Epsom.
Colwick Park opened in 1892 and apart from staging a war-time Cambridgeshire, the first ever staging of the famous handicap on a Saturday, Jockey Club Cup and Cheveley and Middle Park Stakes, nothing much of note has happened in its history, though it nearly closed in 1965 and in recent years it was decided to concentrate on flat racing and to do away with its National Hunt course. A strange fact that early in its history Nottingham was referred to as the Kempton Park of the Midlands. Ominous or what!
Let us neither bemoan nor criticise the decision to abandon National Hunt in favour of flat racing. I dare say the decision, as ill-considered and cockleheaded as it was, was based on hard economical fact, and if jettisoning one discipline of the sport was for the greater good of the racecourse then we must suppose for the sake of argument that the correct decision was made.
Courses like Nottingham should be given all assistance possible by the powers-that-be to help ensure their survival. It is all very noble to start petitions after the redevelopment plans have been served but it would be more helpful if these racecourses were given practical help to survive and thrive. Remember in 1965 Colwick Park was earmarked for housing. Who is to say, during a period of our history when new housing is apparently desperately needed and the planning process is clearly skewed in favour of the destroyers of the environment, that the plans of 1965 will not be revisited?
In my opinion, and this idea is more in way of making racecourses less anonymous than in ensuring their viability, though perhaps the two concepts walk hand-in-hand, every racecourse should have a signature race or signature meeting. If I was to ask what is Fakenham’s main race of the year would anyone know? Or Windsor. Or Hereford. I suspect Nottingham’s signature race is the Nottingham Stewards Cup, a six-furlong handicap.
It’s this extra 8-million bound for prize-money next season that is exercising my imagination at the moment and the best way to utilise the windfall. I would hate to see one penny of it go to the major races. If half-a-million quid isn’t enough incentive to get good horses into races then I can’t see an extra 100 grand will make any difference. This money should benefit the grass roots, the Nottingham’s of the racing calendar. In a previous article I have suggested instigating summer festival meetings replicating the model that is so successful in Ireland. I would also suggest assigning six-figure chunks of the 8-million to racecourse like Nottingham to boost the prize fund for its Stewards Cup and to give the course say a 2 or 3 day fixture where local businesses and cultural activities could combine with the racecourse to boost the local economy and to highlight the entertainment that can be found at Colwick Park throughout the flat season.
Every racecourse, no matter if owned privately or by the Jockey Club, deserve the united support of every aspect of the industry. 8-million quid may not be enough to create a rainbow of opportunity over the sport but without the grass roots thriving there is the inherent threat that the whole sport will slowly descend into sporting irrelevance.
The fox can relax, the hunt is, until the autumn, at rest. I know the hunting of foxes is all but banned in this country, even though I also suspect that those who live for hunting think of it as only a moratorium and to keep their eye in illicit killing of foxes still occurs when opportunity presents itself.
Over the years my view on hunting has altered from appalled and wanting it banned to recognising that within the colourful and yet rather annoying activity lies necessity and benefit to the countryside. I still oppose the killing of foxes for sporting pleasure, and indeed dislike the term ‘sport’ to be attached to any form of gratuitous violence.
If I had my way I would put the welfare of foxes and the sustainability of their habitat into the hands of the Hunts. They alone have a definite need for a healthy countryside to be able to support a healthy fox population. And in exceptional circumstances and to maintain the right number of foxes for any designated hunt area I would allow them a licence to cull an agreed number of foxes. But the actual hunting of foxes I would not allow. Meets though I would encourage.
Historically hunting people have defended their right to hunt as a kind of retribution against the fox for killing lambs and raiding hen houses. Yet farmers will leave the carcasses of lambs and hens that have died of natural causes in fields for the fox to conveniently dispose of, a kindness that gives a mixed message to an animal whose only desire is to survive. We live in technologically sophisticated times; surely as the ‘superior’ species we can defend our animals, our livelihoods, without resort to gun or the spectacle of the chase? The fox must eat, if only to have the energy to be part of the chase, and it is beholden of us, on the Hunts, perhaps, to ensure the countryside possesses enough of the ordinary foodstuffs that a fox requires so that lamb and hen are less of a temptation.
But where fox-hunting is essential, where it befits a website dedicated to horse-racing, is that there is no better, perhaps no other, environment for young people to hone their riding skills than the hunting field. I would suspect a great majority of the National Hunt jockeys riding today regularly hunted as children. In the past nearly all the jockeys would have learned a good deal of the skills required to ride and jump at speed in the hunting field. Without the learning ground of the hunting field I doubt if Britain could have possibly won as many medals at Olympic Games as have come our way through the decades.
The most persuasive argument for the continuance of the activity known as hunting, though, is the arena it provides for the education of young horses and the second career it gives to retired racehorses. To ban fox hunting on grounds of cruelty to the fox, which undoubtedly is true, is to condemn a large number of horses and ponies to a one-way journey to the slaughterhouse. Yes, racehorses can be retrained for eventing, show-jumping, showing – Denman happily team-chased before his recent retirement from active service – but it is the hunting field, and for many it is a return to the hunting field, where their abilities are best adapted.
Hunting also provides direct and indirect employment to people living and working in the countryside.
The problem that lies within the heart of this thorny issue, the reason why no solution has ever come about to resolve it, is that only two voices has ever been heard in the media – the pro and the anti. Rage and violence make for better news than diplomacy around a table. Hunting people can claim they are providing a service to landowners and farmers until they are blue in the face but it does not take away the fact that it is morally unacceptable in our more enlightened times that to kill for pleasure is wholly wrong. Take away the killing of the fox and the activity known as fox-hunting becomes not only acceptable but a spectacle that brightens the heart of even the dourest critic.
If the present Government repeal the ban on hunting they will be making a great error. Now is the time to make hunting acceptable to all, to remove from its routine that which is repulsive and to allow celebration of all that good about the riding with hounds across the Great British countryside.
The history of flat racing fascinates me more than, for instance, what will win this year’s 2,000 Guineas or whether one of John Gosden’s exceptionally nice 3-year-olds will give him a Derby success to add to Golden Horn’s.
It has to be said that the history of steeplechasing goes back no more than a hundred years or more, with the Grand National dominating the racing landscape to far greater effect into the 1920’s or 30’s than even today. The flat, though, has a history that goes back to the late 1600’s, with the sport flourishing, thanks in part to its royal patronage, alongside its notoriety in the 1700’s. Unfortunately horse racing has throughout its history been coupled with skulduggery, with coup and scandal its almost constant companion, with not even the Epsom Derby excluded from controversy as on more than one occasion a 4-year-old has substituted for a 3-year-old.
But it is the seemingly small scandals that tell the greatest and most worrying stories because it is there where we might see reflections of corruption that might still exist. Jockeys, you see, though they are sportsmen (and sportswomen, of course) and dedicated to a job that is also their life, are human, too, with families to house and feed, and bills to pay. It must cost the journeyman jockey the cost of a single ride, and for those making their way in the sport a single ride a day is perhaps all they have to look forward to, just to fill his car with fuel to drive to the racecourse. So who can truly blame a jockey when he falls to temptation and ‘pulls’ a horse on the instruction of an owner or trainer. I do not condone, and do not fully understand, yet I appreciate the need to keep a roof over the head of loved-ones and to bring home jam occasionally rather than the usual margarine.
In the autumn of 1928, to give an example of wrongdoing in the history of our sport, Charlie Smirke, a jockey who later was to win the Derby 4 times, was summoned to Cavendish Square to explain his riding of Welcome Gift in the 2-year-old Home-Bred Plate at Gatwick. Incidentally I wonder how many runners a Home-Bred plate would attract nowadays. Of course over the passage of time the lines between who was the true wrongdoer and who the victim have blurred.
Smirke, as with many jockeys of his day, came from a very poor background and before becoming a jockey had been a boxer. He was many social rungs in the ladder below those who were his accusers and judges.
Even forty years after the Gatwick incident he professed his innocence, claiming his mount was unruly at the start and beginning to become unruly at home and that he missed the start due to the starter triggering the rising of the barrier before he had chance to straighten up the horse and have him in line with the others.
His warning off, I suspect, had more to do with his reputation, and the reputation of jockeys in general, for betting on the horses they rode than for instigating Welcome Gift’s refusal to start. He was warned off indefinitely, a harsh penalty for the authorities to impose as a warning to others.
According to Smirke even jockeys at the top of their profession regularly bet. He claimed in his autobiography ‘Finishing Post’ that Steve Donoghue was in debt at one time to a bookmaker to the tune of £10,000 and that jockeys of repute like Brownie Carslake and Michael Beary were also never out of debt to the bookies.
The hope is of course that the situation prevalent in Smirke’s era is not present today. In his day even the top jockeys needed, seemingly, to earn extra income through betting, whereas today I suspect the top jockeys earn the small fortunes that drives off the need to risk careers by association with bookmakers. Yet the journeyman remains, the family man in need of both following his dream and attempting to keep a roof over the heads of his family. The temptation to break the rules when opportunity demands must be crippling at times.
In Smirke’s era, especially at the time of the Home-Bred Plate, jockeys remained little more than servants, with racing ruled by members of an aristocracy well used to putting ‘inferiors’ in their place, and the sentence imposed on Smirke to teach others a lesson hardly put an end to jockeys ‘pulling’ horses or even betting.
I remain convinced that more could be done to help financially those at the lower end of racing’s pay scale. I accept that initiatives to increase the pay and public awareness of the role of stable staff are largely effective and that many of those holding jockey licences benefit from also being employed in racing yards. Yet shouldn’t there be a stairway to greater achievement for the men and women of talent in the racing industry? Not everyone can rise to head-lad or assistant trainer. More and more it seems to me those making it as jockeys are the sons and daughters or nieces and nephews of men and women of influence in the sport. This may reflect other walks of life but that doesn’t make it either fair or a useful tool for encouraging an uncorrupted sport.
Riding horses is a continued learning school, with many riders only becoming truly proficient in their mid-twenties, in many instances too late to think of becoming jockeys. Why is there no initiative to have ‘stable staff’ races and races limited to jockeys who have only ridden less than 5, 10, 15 or so winners? As one supermarket tells it ‘Every little helps’.
I have heard it said that you will never know complete contentment until you achieve your long-held ambition. I suspect ‘ambition’ might be changed to ‘hopes and dreams’ for many of us. Only a very small proportion of the population have the stomach for the sacrifice and pain that is involved in achieving ambition. The rest of us simply dream.
Winning the Euro Lottery, for instance, is neither my ambition nor is it central to achieving my personal hopes and dreams. In fact I don’t even play the Euro Lottery. I might, though, if the profits went to the N.H.S. and not the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan. Though I admit a sum in the region of 150-million would be needed to bring to reality my most cherished hopes, my most fantasised of dreams.
Of course with 150-million in the bank I would own racehorses, perhaps a string, and it would allow me to publish in proper paper form (for some obscure reason these are now known as hard copy, even though a paper back would have to fall from a blooming great height to hit someone with the force hard enough to do any damage to the average man’s cranial) the many novels I have written over the long lain years. I will include an apology as by way of introduction to my readers. But they must be aware that though they might think their modest outlay to be poor reward for the entertainment provided I sweated and laboured over these works of fiction; it would be folly of great magnitude not to publish when financial clout allowed me not to have to grovel to publishers and literary agents. It is arguable whether they or I would have the last laugh.
What I dream of achieving is to make a mark upon the racing landscape by way of instigating a few new races that I believe the powers-that-be lack the will and imagination to create themselves. I have no vanity and the titles of these races would not include my name. What I do, or dream of doing, is for the love of the sport.
If you think about it, and please do, the signature type of race throughout the jumps season is the long-distance handicap chase. In fact I believe there are 16 localised ‘Nationals’ these days, and that does not include the Grand National and the Welsh and Scottish variations. So why isn’t there a championship race run over 4-miles. I believe the only weight-for age or conditions chase over such a distance in the entire calendar is the National Hunt Chase for amateurs at the Cheltenham Festival. When my boat comes in, when my bank balance bulges to obscene, though still beautiful excess, I shall correct this oversight.
I have written to Sandown in the past about this subject, suggesting that a 4-mile championship chase would sit comfortably on the Tingle Creek card. But they believe there is greater merit in having a London National. So I won’t be bothering Sandown with my 10-million pound investment over ten years. I will ask Newbury if they are willing to allow me to sponsor my 4-mile championship chase. I like Newbury and think it undervalued.
I first thought of the idea when Denman and Kauto Star were coming to the end of their careers, thinking such a race would be encouragement enough for Paul Nicholls to want to keep them in training for a further year. But of course that was not to be. But it would be an obvious race for Grand National winners, those who are not quite Gold Cup class and horses with handicap marks that make winning a tiresome task. It is a race that is needed and when the gods look favourably on me I will be on the case faster than a nine-dart finish. I would like to name this race the Spanish Steps Memorial Gold Cup.
On the flat I would create ‘The Ladies Race’, a 1-mile 4-furlong conditions race for female professional riders with a prize fund of £500,000. I would fund this race for 10 years. Remember, in my dreams I have 150-million in the bank. Again I would ask Newbury to stage the race. There is a blinding need for a signature race for professional female jockeys and I would hope all the top females from around the world would be keen to compete. Females are our future, they need to be encouraged and helped.
I would also create a series of races, both on the flat and over jumps, confined to jockeys who have only ridden a limited number of winners over the previous 12-months. The journeyman jockeys deserve a helping hand and such a series would put their skills in the spotlight. I have always argued that it is a major mistake to have races confined to amateurs, conditionals, apprentices, females and celebrities but not a single race for the hard working jockeys who are the backbone of our sport. Such a series of races would be a negligible cost on racing’s finances and I believe it short-sighted of racecourses not to include at least one such race every season.
Alas, I can only dream. But out there on the sea of self-delusion, steaming to port, battling the trade winds that are my nemesis, is the boat laden with my fortune. Let no man tell you I do not deserve a windfall from the Gods. And when it arrives I will be generous to the great love of my life. But only if I have my 4-mile championship chase, my Ladies Race and my journeyman jockeys series.
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.