If I have a fault, and I say ‘if’ reservedly, it is my natural propensity to believe as fact what I am told and what I read; in interpreting matters I am quite literal; vague instructions annoy me as much boy racers and the N.R.A. An instruction by definition should be concise and have contained within it information and clarity. If I have a second fault it is my natural propensity to be easily distracted from my point.
I will not say that John Hislop is a hero of mine. If I had met him I would not have been in awe of him, as I would if I bumped into Ruby Walsh or Sir Anthony McCoy. But I do have four of his books in my racing library, evidence enough to suggest that I respect and admire him as a writer. So you can understand how uneasy it made me feel when reading about Dick Hern that John Hislop and his wife Jean were very easy to dislike. I pride myself on my instinctive judgement and it was being suggested that I may have Hislop all wrong. In Peter Willett’s biography of Hern Mrs.Hislop is described by Hern as ‘the most unpleasant woman I ever met’.
My connection and admiration of Hislop began, I suspect, because he bred and owned Brigadier Gerard, the horse I regard as the greatest flat horse of my lifetime. To my mind there is a lack of appreciation for the courage of Hislop in wanting to establish the limitations of the Brigadier’s ability, a refreshing attitude that flies in the face of the established game-plan of keeping good horses well within their comfort zone. If the Brigadier had stayed in training as a 5-year-old John Hislop talked of aiming him at the Ascot Gold Cup. To my way of thinking Hislop was a throwback to the days when owner/breeders were sportsman first and businessman second.
Willett’s main criticism of Hislop, as no doubt relayed to him from the lips of Dick Hern, was that he wanted to take all the credit for the Brigadier’s racing programme, whereas, according to Willett, which races to run in came about through debate and discussion with the trainer. Certainly in his book on the life of Brigadier Gerard Hislop does give the impression that he directed Hern as to where he wanted the horse to run. He also made himself out to be an authority on breeding and that the Brigadier came into this world as a result of a deep understanding of pedigrees. Yet La Paiva, the Brigadier’s dam, was bred to Queen’s Hussar, seemingly, for no better reasons than he stood just up the road from where the Hislop’s had their stud and his covering fee was modest, which suited their budget.
In ‘Hardly A Jockey’, Hislop documented his career as an amateur rider and even those who he had vexed and annoyed throughout his life could not deny he was in a league of his own, winning 87 races between the years 46 & 56 from only 177 rides, though I did not sense any conceit or boasting as he recorded his career in the saddle. He was, as I am, a man of opinions and sad to report he could be very wrong on occasions.
What I have not read of him before opening Willett’s book is that with his wife he was a strident, and it has to be said rather peevish, critic of the Thoroughbred Breeders Association’s initiative, the European Breeders Fund. In fact the Hislops made themselves very unpopular on the matter, especially at the Jockey Club, by continually objecting to the scheme when it was debated. I suspect that if Hislop were a member of the Jockey Club they might have thrown him out. Even with her husband silenced, his wife made herself even more of a nuisance on the matter, writing lengthy letters to the Jockey Club so they could be quite sure why the E.B.F. was an abomination that would ruin both the breeding industry and racing and long telephone calls dotted and highlighted with expletives to the E.B.F. office in Newmarket.
Willett was of the opinion that the Hislop’s fury was because at the time the Brigadier’s popularity as a stallion was in decline and they feared they would be forced to disclose the greatly reduced price his nominations were being sold for. I suspect the Brigadier was being shunned by breeders as much because of his owner’s poor reputation as his overall lack of success as a stallion. What cannot be denied is that John Hislop was immensely proud of both Brigadier Gerard and having bred him.
Will I continue to read John Hislop? Quite possibly yes. He is history, a racing historian, and his contemporary writing is now a reflection on racing as it was in his time. In future, though, I will read him with Willett’s damning indictment of his character rising from the page.
It is odd, isn’t it, that a trainer can have the best two horses of his or her career at the same time, even someone who has trained for twenty years or more. It is a subjective judgement, I admit, but I would say that the best two horses Nicky Henderson has ever trained would be Sprinter Sacre and, at least one hopes, Altior, horses that were stable companions until the former’s retirement.
Paul Nicholl’s had the privilege of having Kauto Star and Denman, not to mention Big Buck’s and Master Minded, at the same time and Fred Winter had Bula and Pendil, as well as Crisp and the ill-fated Killiney. Even Dorothy Paget, an owner, of course, not a trainer, started off with the best two jumpers she ever owned in Golden Miller and Insurance, a dual Champion Hurdle winner.
So it should not be such a surprise that the two horses no less a judge as Ted Walsh believes to be the greatest jumpers of all time were also housed in the same stable. If Tom Dreaper had not trained neither Arkle nor Flyingbolt he would still remain one of the most successful trainers in either Ireland or Britain. He farmed the Irish National like no other and both his great chasers are on the scroll of honour. But he also trained Prince Regent, the greatest chaser of the war years and the horse that kick-started Dreaper’s career and until Arkle came along he believed to be the best he had under his care.
And here lies a problem. I have nothing but utmost respect for the opinions of Ted Walsh and hang on his every word yet he believes Flyingbolt is the best jumper he has ever seen, even though Flyingbolt’s trainer believed Arkle was superior. Indeed the man who knew both horses best, Pat Taaffe, wrote in his wonderful autobiography – ‘I never had any doubts at all about the winner of such a race (Arkle v Flyingbolt) …. Arkle with a bit in hand. He would have broken Flyingbolt’s heart.’
We can never know, with Arkle sidelined with injury, if Flyingbolt would have acceded to Arkle’s throne as brucellosis tragically cut short his spectacular career. And it was spectacular. In this rather sanitised modern world of National Hunt that we have now, when the top-class horses are treated as if made of glass and only run pre-Cheltenham in soft races that will not expose their limitations, it would be considered an act of near cruelty to run a comparative novice in heavy ground under the welter burden of 12st 6lbs and to be in front four out and to win going away from really good horses. From that moment at Cheltenham in 1965 people could say the name Flyingbolt in the same breath as that of Arkle and be not be laughed at.
And no wonder. He gave the runner-up in the 1965 Massey-Fergusun Gold Cup, Scottish Memories, 26lbs and beat him sixteen lengths. In the previous year’s Massey Fergusun Arkle had given the same horse thirty-three pounds (it is mind-boggling, isn’t it?) and a two length beating. In the Leopardstown Chase he gave him 35lbs and beat him one length.
Indeed the form book does suggest Flyingbolt has the credentials to be thought, if not better than Arkle, the equal of the great horse. When Flyingbolt won the Irish National he gave the top-class mare Height-o-Fashion 40lbs, and though Arkle had beaten the mare giving her a huge lump of weight it was not 40lbs. You really do have to keep emphasising the massive amounts of weight these two horses had to concede in their careers.
Flyingbolt was asked questions not asked of Arkle. Flyingbolt won the Champion 2-mile Chase (yes, he had the speed to comfortably win the 2-mile Champion Chase and the stamina to win the Irish National) and to come out the following day to run third in the Champion Hurdle. Pat Taaffe was convinced he would have made a great hurdler and in another age would have been the best chaser in the world over any distance.
Some horse by any measure. Yet it takes people of the calibre of Ted Walsh to keep Flyingbolt in the conscious memory. He was a phenomenon; the likes of which we shall never know again. More should be done to keep his name alive and relevant.
Though the form book suggests Flyingbolt could have been the greatest and he is certainly the closest to Arkle we have ever seen, he did not win the Cheltenham Gold Cup three times or a King George or a Hennessey and it is upon such races that the mantle of ‘the greatest ever’ is forged. And let us not forget that Pat Taaffe was definite in his opinion that Arkle was superior, that he possessed the greater turn of foot from the last fence. And they did change the rules of handicapping in Ireland to accommodate Arkle – one handicap to be used if Arkle ran, another if he didn’t. He was so superior to ordinary equestrian mortals that a handicap in which Arkle was entered but did not run ended up with every horse running with 9st 7lbs.
Arkle is the horse all steeplechasers past and present will be judged against, and for all his wonderful achievements any comparison between Kauto Star, except the good fortune of his longevity, and Arkle are woefully one-sided. That is how great is the name Arkle.
As someone who has championed the cause of female jockeys for far longer than the recent rolling of the media band-wagon, it is beholden on me to put on record my disappointment at the early retirement of Sammy-Jo Bell.
I predicted after she won the leading rider award at the Shergar Cup that her success would have no influence on her career. Sadly, it was one of the few occasions when I was proved correct.
Sammy-Jo could have been a great asset to racing. This will sound sexist because it is sexist; Sammy-Jo is pretty, and combined with her bubbly personality she could have done for flat racing what Bryony Frost is currently achieving for National Hunt. If she had been given greater opportunities in the subsequent months after the Shergar Cup flat racing might have achieved a pin-up girl. A pin-up girl with talent and dedication. If anything, the opposite happened, allied to the bad injury she received when a horse reared and rolled over on her. You cannot blame Richard Fahey; the problem lies, for all female riders, not only Sammy-Jo, with the reticence of the majority of owners to put a female jockey on their horses. The very reason why their hand should be pushed by the introduction of more races on the flat for professional female riders.
Although I wish Sammy-Jo the best in whatever direction her future lies, I hope also that in being partner to a successful jockey his success might persuade her in the near future to give it another go, especially if more opportunities do come along for female flat jockeys. Strangely, Philip Makin has gone largely unnoticed an unappreciated by me in the past; now I know he is all loved-up with Sammy-Jo I will be rooting for him in the future.
Good luck, Sammy-Jo, you will be missed more than you presently appreciate.
The retirement of Liam Treadwell is a fish of a different batter.
As with Sammy-Jo he enjoyed one magnificent day in the sun only to continue his career labouring at the everyday coal-face of the sport. Both successes were unexpected and were made more joyful because of how unprepared we were for such newsworthy results.
Many people made note of the brilliant ride Mon Mome received that day from Liam and yet he was never given the opportunity, except by Venetia Williams, to build a more spectacular career on the back of his great win. Of course he famously got a new set of teeth thanks to Clare Balding’s faux-pas, a side of a jockey’s life that might have enlightened the once-a-year punter; that jockeys of the stature of Liam Treadwell cannot necessarily afford to augment their looks with regular trips to the dentist.
If Liam needs a fillip to his morale over the next few days and months he might want to keep a record of all the great tributes paid to him by his now ex-colleagues and remember how well-liked and respected he was. He earned such fulsome praise not by winning the Grand National but because of who he is and how he has conducted himself throughout his career. He should retire with a heart filled with pride for what he achieved.
Good luck Liam Treadwell. I only hope you find another niche within the racing fold as racing cannot afford to lose someone of your integrity and quality.
Since I was a wee boy the Grand National has had me in its thrall. I am now a wee old (ish) man and still I cannot wait for spring and Aintree. The day I fail to get all tingly at the heart at the thought of the Grand National being soon upon us will be no doubt my last day on this Earth.
My first reaction to this year’s entries was one of disappointment. When the fences were altered, the distance shortened and restrictions imposed upon horses and jockeys, we were, perhaps not promised as much, given to believe that the quality of horse running in the race would significantly improve. That is not happening, as this year’s entries prove. The race is no less worthy on account of not one of the leading fancies for the Gold Cup being entered, though it is disappointing that a prize fun of £1-million cannot attract a horse of the calibre of Sizing John or Native River.
There are three potential superstars entered, though: Total Recall may yet win the Gold Cup and 11st 1lb would then seem a very lenient weight, though as Willie Mullins is yet to commit to either race it suggests to me that his Ladbroke Trophy success is as good as he is. And of course Bellshill, tantalisingly easily treated by the handicapper with only 10st 7lbs, might be absolutely thrown in. Time will only tell, though as I write he has only run four times over fences, falling once, and I suspect he might be directed towards the Irish National rather than be risked at Aintree. The other potential superstar is Blaklion as I agree with Nigel Twiston-Davies that he is a bit in the mould of Red Rum. He’ll not win three Grand Nationals but it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that he could win one if not two.
I have no doubt that ridden with greater restraint, and it is rare to fire the criticism at Noel Fehily that he rode a misjudged race last year, I have no doubt he would have either beaten One For Arthur or finished a close second. He was only beaten just under ten lengths, giving weight to those who finished in front of him. I would think Sam Twiston-Davies would give his eye-teeth (whatever they are) to ride Blaklion and not one of Paul Nicholls runners.
Though he has better fancied entries the horse of Paul Nicholls that I like is Silsol as I thought he ran a promising race in the Welsh National on ground that over a marathon trip was too deep for him. On better ground I think he is a live each-way bet.
It is not because I have dubbed this season ‘the year of the oldie’ that I like the chances of the spring chicken Raz de Maree. Thirteen-year-olds just don’t win Grand Nationals. It is a damning statistic that should not be ignored. Yet thirteen-year-olds don’t ordinarily win Welsh Nationals and yet this year two horses of that age battled it out to the line. 10st 5lb is no weight and if the ground is soft I cannot see Raz de Maree being out of the first four.
Three current outsiders I refuse to ignore are Vieux Lion Rouge, A Genie In Abottle and Alpha Des Obeaux. I have backed David Pipe’s horse for the past two renewals and though it is obvious he doesn’t quite get home no horse will give the punter a better run for his money. Why I like the look of Noel Meade’s horse I can’t really say, only that the trainer must rate him to have tried him in the Ladbroke Trophy when only a six-year-old and 10st 8lbs seems a nice weight for a horse who should be improving. Alpha Des Obeaux is a horse in the mould of Rule The World, the last horse I crossed off my list two seasons ago. My banker for Cheltenham this year is Presenting Percy (as well as Saint Calvados) and Mouse Morris’s horse was not beaten far by him at Gowran over hurdles off level weights. Though I do not expect any of the aforementioned to win the Grand National they form my initial list.
The two I fancy the most after Blaklion are Cause of Causes and Abolitionist. If Cause of Causes is to win a Grand National it will be this year and it will be interesting to see if Barry Geraghty chooses him over J.P.McManus’s classier entries such as Edwulf and Minella Rocco. For some reason Cause of Causes has one pound less than last year and as all ground conditions come alike to him there will be no sweating on too much or too little rainfall coming up to the big day.
I was hoping Rachael Blackmore would be riding Abolitionist this year but now he is with Dr.Newland that is perhaps unlikely. She gave him a great spin in last year’s Irish National, coming to win the race only for Our Duke to skate away like a horse in a different class. He did make a mess of the last fence and was just beaten for second but he looked a dour stayer and his new trainer is adept at improving his acquisitions.
At the moment I find it hard, even though I dislike tipping favourites, to look beyond Blaklion, with Cause of Causes and Abolitionist to follow him past the jam-stick. But as I previously suggested I could not see Raz de Maree being out of the top four I will include him in my initial list.
For the past few nights I have been going to bed with Ruby Walsh. And very enjoyable I am finding it. It is a nocturnal activity I can highly recommend.
Unsuspectingly, as you would never know it from the voice that leaps from the page, I have also had Malachy Clerkin with me as well. He certainly possesses a soft touch as he is unnoticeable throughout the page turning. I suspect he beavered away in the background, committing to the hard miles of research and dotting i’s and crossing the t’s that Ruby overlooked.
I have had this book in my possession for over eighteen months and quite why I haven’t got round to reading it I cannot say. It’s bad enough that it was published in 2010 and I never got round to buying it new. I suppose back then Ruby was still comparatively young and had many years left in his career, with many chapters of his life still to be lived. And autobiographies of jockeys tend to be as enlightening as finding cockroachs in the larder. After reading Paul Carberry’s autobiography I wanted to give him a slap and the advice to grow up and stop being a mad genius because sooner or later living up to the image was going to have a serious impact on both his health and wealth. I began reading ‘One Hell of a Ride’ hopeful of learning what motivated Carberry, why he was such a genius in the saddle, but in the end he just comes across as a bit of self-destructive idiot with little concept of boundaries. It seems to me that he is only truly happy when he is riding. But then he is a genius, something that will never be said of me.
Even A.P.’s autobiography, as interesting and readable as it was, left me wishing he had not been quite so honest. Part of the book read like a confessional. A.P. is a hero to us all; it was disconcerting to discover the worst of his human frailties.
What I like and respect about Ruby Walsh is the broad streak of honesty that defines his character. As with A.P. Ruby is hard on himself when he believes he has made mistakes and like A.P. he admits to brooding about it for days. Unlike A.P. though, this trait does not define his character. Both these two men are great human beings, the difference between them, I suspect, is if you went to both of them for advice A.P. would not want to hurt your feelings and perhaps would sugar-coat his response, whereas Ruby would give you an honest opinion without any worries that it might not be what you expected to hear. Of the two I suspect A.P. might prove the better neighbour.
This may be controversial, and compared to those better qualified to judge my opinion may not be worth more than two peas and a carrot, I rate Ruby the greatest National Hunt jockey of my lifetime. I used to think Dunwoody was the best I’d seen, even when A.P. was riding, and I know for instance that Ruby rates A.P. as by miles the best jockey he has seen. And he might be right. But what separates the two, I believe, is that there is more than a touch of artistry in the way Ruby rides, allied to great strength and tactical awareness. Whereas A.P. demanded his mount to give him every ounce of energy, Ruby seems, at least at times, to sweet-talk his mounts into giving their all.
Ruby is a joy to watch, especially when riding horses as explosive as Un De Sceaux. The 2017 Ryanair will remain long in the memory. When in his younger days Kauto Star kept thumping the occasional fence his instinct told him it was something he was doing that was causing the bone-crunching errors and was not the fault of the horse. It would have been so easy for him to blame the horse, especially as Paul Nicholls half-blamed himself for switching Kauto in trip in consecutive races.
I love it when he snaps at people, as he did to Derek Thompson at Cheltenham after he asked what Ruby thought the stupidest question anyone had ever asked him. Did he regret choosing Kauto over Denman? I think we all could have answered that one. An on the Morning Line when Geoff Banks suggested Denman was not as good as people choose to think, I thought for a brief moment Ruby was going to let fly with his fists. I know I would have done. Ruby values everyone opinion, even when they are wrong. But there are limits and insulting a great horse in Ruby’s eye, I suspect, is the line in the sand.
We must enjoy Ruby Walsh while he still has a jockeys’ license. He is an elder statesman of the weighing room now; any bad fall, and he has endured plenty during his career, could signal times up. I know there are plenty of good young riders about, as there always seems to be, but there has only ever been one Ruby Walsh: the greatest jump jockey of many a long year.
On my study wall there are two photographs of Best Mate. There is only one joint photograph of Denman and Kauto Star, the one where Denman looks to be bullying Kauto. The number of photographs, though, does not reflect my view of their abilities as racehorses. To my mind Denman and Kauto Star were way more accomplished steeplechasers than Best Mate. The disparity is that my other half bought the two photographs of Best Mate as a present and not being able to decide which was the better photograph decided to purchase both. She thought Best Mate to be beautiful, as indeed he was, and I only wish, as he deserved, fate had treated him with more respect.
Racehorses are very much like beautiful women. You can admire them all from afar but your heart usually only aches for one woman, or horse, above all others. For me it is Denman, though I concede that his stable-mate deserves the honour of being the best steeplechaser since Arkle. I do not believe Best Mate is in the same ball park as Ditcheat’s two greatest chasers.
Best Mate was brilliantly trained and to win three Cheltenham Gold Cups is an achievements that should never be underestimated. But 3, as John Randall would say, is a number, a quantity; it does not signify quality, though in Best Mate’s case no one should ever say he lacked quality. He was a magnificent racehorse, I concede him that. But he isn’t, in my estimation, one of the top twenty National Hunt horses of all time, even if in Cheltenham’s Hall of Fame he is one of the elite twelve.
So let’s cut to the chase. No pun intended. His three Gold Cups were ordinary affairs. He was impressive in 03 but then virtually any Gold Cup winner would be impressive in beating Trucker’s Tavern and Valley Henry. In 2002 he beat Commanche Court and See More Business, with the likes of Looks Like Trouble, Florida Pearl and Alexandra Banquet beaten out of sight. Yet if you read Ruby Walsh’s brilliant autobiography it is as plain as the nose on your face that Ruby thought he should have won if he had used different tactics. I remember his father after the race saying ‘that it was alright for Ruby. He is young, he’ll have other chances. But that was my one chance to win a Gold Cup,’ leaving no one in any doubt that he also thought Ruby had cocked-up.
For his third and historic Gold Cup Best Mate held on from two ordinary handicappers, Sir Rembrant and Harbour Pilot, in a race high on potential but low, as history records, on quality.
My point is that if Ruby had ridden a better judged race, and assuming that Best Mate had finished second, his record of two Gold Cups, one of which was not of the highest quality, would not be so impressive. Of course he was no one-trick pony. He won a King George and other good races. You don’t receive a rating of 182 if you are not the best around. But he was wrapped up in cotton wool and never once ran in a handicap. Henrietta Knight’s training of him was nothing short of brilliant and no one dare say different. But I believe peoples image of Best Mate is seen a bit through rose-coloured spectacles because of the geriatric love affair of Henrietta and Terry Biddlecombe and if his racing record is reviewed in light of what his opposition went on to achieve his rating might be revised downwards a fraction.
It is no one’s fault that Best Mate raced at a time when the all-round quality of steeplechasers was on the low side. The good horses were trained in Ireland and neither Beef or Salmon or Florida Pearl could ever reproduce their best form at Cheltenham. Best Mate could only beat the opposition presented to him, and no one could say with any degree of certainty that if he had raced in the time of Arkle, Golden Miller or Denman that he would not have risen to the challenge of competing against horses of a similar ability as himself. It is just that I do not believe he would have beaten either Denman or Kauto at Cheltenham and in beating them, albeit with youth on his side, Long Run rates higher in my estimation to many Gold Cup winners, including Best Mate.
What I am offering is opinion, and I know numerous people will not agree with me. I have no evidence to prove my opinion that Denman and Kauto Star, at their best, would have beaten Best Mate by a considerable distance. It is the same with the belief that if Denman had not suffered the heart condition the season after he won the Gold Cup we would now be talking about him, and not Kauto, as the best chaser since Arkle. Certainly his victories in the Hennessey are two of the most impressive wins since the heady days when Arkle, and to a slightly lesser extent Flyingbolt, would give 25 or 30lbs and a beating to top class horses.
Having decried Best Mate and possibly insulted his memory I should add that I have no doubt he would have a favourite’s chance of winning this year’s Gold Cup. Or indeed any Gold Cup since the special days of Kauto, Denman and the largely forgotten Long Run.
Since yesterday morning when the Racing Post dropped the bombshell that racing’s power-brokers were in favour of sanctioning the journey for flat racing to go to hell in a handcart I have tried to analyse why I am so appalled by the prospect of Championship Horse Racing? And appalled hardly does justice to how I feel about C.H.R. I am actually considering starting an on-line petition to discover how many other racing enthusiasts are as appalled as I am. Indeed I may even walk away from flat racing altogether. I literally hate the concept of C.H.R.
My initial concern was that, though it could bring in extra revenue for the sport, essentially it was a money-grabbing exercise by Mr.Wray and his associates in replica of how Formula 1 has become more of a business venture that can be sold to the highest bidder rather than a sport.
After 24-hours to digest the concept I am now deeply fearful that the end result of C.H.R. will be sheer embarrassment when all the promises made on its behalf slip into history to sit beside other historic get-rich-quick schemes like the South-Sea Bubble and the buying and selling of tulips in old Amsterdam.
Though it would surprise no one if Godolphin bought into the concept by entering a team under the flag of Dubai, with other big name movers and shakers combining to form teams, would we want any of the big bookmaking companies entering a team? Even Mr.Wray could not name a single big brand company to have shown any interest in the concept. And they have little time to put the fine touches to the concept, to iron out the creases that new ideas always spawn when thought is guided by the necessity of speed.
Formula I has evolved to what it is now, even if it has become one of the least competitive of motor sports and certainly the least entertaining. In the beginning it was factory-based and privately owned cars that circulated tracks such as Brooklands and Goodwood. Spiralling costs forced team bosses into accepting sponsorship and the advent of teams owned for the sole purpose of promoting brands.
C.H.R. proposes to liken itself to Formula 1 as it is now. I cannot see how they can forge relationships with so many ‘team owners’ in so short a time frame.
But what lies at the heart of my distaste for C.H.R. is that the purity of the sport is to be sacrificed on the altar of commercialism and one individual’s opinion of how the sport should be presented to the public. Horse racing is about the racing of horses. Over the past few years television has moved away from the idea that bookmaking is the backbone of the sport. The horse is now king. Mr.Wray seems to resent the pull on the public that individual racehorses have. Frankie Dettori is popular but not as popular as Cue Card and no jockey, trainer or owner will surpass the affection the public has for the likes of Sprinter Sacre and Desert Orchid. Horse racing is about the love of the horse, pride in the horse. It is not and never will be about ‘a team owner’ lifting a trophy that somehow declares him a ‘champion’.
But that, I suppose, is half the problem with flat racing. It has no equine stars to pull in the crowds because the top horses are rushed off to stud, long before they achieve maturity and before their limitations can be exposed. What Mr.Wray is attempting to do is reinvent the sport. Yet does it need reinventing? Is flat racing so far down the pan it needs to mimic sports like cycling, Indian League cricket and Formula 1? Only today I have read that British Rowing is to try to enthuse the public by having a series of short-distances races on city centre waterways, rather than keeping faith with the Olympic distances. In recent decades Britain has achieved many gold medals at world and Olympic events, yet British Rowing believes they must alter their sport to achieve greater participation.
Although the 360 horses required for C.H.R. will be allowed to compete in races outside of the July-September event, they will be lost in the main to the established programme of race meetings. Can the sport in early autumn afford to do without 360 horses? In fact some horses may be lost to C.H.R. if they begin winning and their rating goes above the maximum for the proposed handicaps that constitute the ‘championship’. Other horses may go in the opposite direction, of course. And what will happen if a stable gets a virus or if bad weather causes abandonments or if big name jockeys get injured or suffer riding bans or …. There are so many hazards awaiting this concept. So many ways to cause embarrassment to the sport.
I await in anticipation of how the Racing Post columnists and the I.T.V. racing team view C.H.R. I doubt if any of them will be as vehemently as opposed as I am, not publicly anyway. I do hope, though, there is a strong and vigorous debate on the proposal by all sectors of the racing world. And I hope and pray that someone recognises as I do that C.H.R. is a charity to wealth and will not help one bit all those hard-working people at the foundations of our sport. The sport must be helped from the bottom up, not, as C.H.R. is established to do, the other way around.
I thought horse racing brought to the main thoroughfares of the world’s capital cities (City Street Racing) would be the stupidest idea I would ever read about during my lifetime. But no! A twit who goes by the name of Jeremy Wray has come up with a concept that if given the go ahead by the powers-that-be will go a long way to killing off flat racing for good. It’s called Championship Horse Racing and it reminds me of a well-kept muck-heap; neat and tidy but ultimately it is only horse manure (I cannot bring myself to use the s-word) with neat, vertical sides.
Mr.Wray, horse racing has a history that goes back three centuries and counting, and your concept drives a carriage and four through the heart of a history built on the solid foundations of generations of people grafting hard for their pay. F.1. is rapidly losing its appeal because though it may boast 10 teams only 3 of them can win a race and when Mercedes fails to win it remains a bit of a shock. Also, to liken the concept to cycling is to align our sport to a sport that is riddled with drug cheats and cheating. All we need right now! Also horse racing is not cricket, and to sell the soul of the sport for the rewards of corporate branding might work well in India but it will only alienate us further from the working classes and those who oppose using animals for human entertainment.
And something in your long association with horse racing you seem to have missed, is that the pivot of the sport is the horse, not the jockey, not the trainer, and not the owner. “It’s very much focusing on the characters and key participants, so the jockeys and trainers if you like, as opposed to the horse.” …”the horses are the engines.” I shake my head in disbelief that the powers-that-be are taking this man and his twisted concept seriously. He’ll be wanting to dye each horse in team colours and have them stand in grid formation with their jockey, trainer and owners while Luke Harvey and Mick Fitzgerald conduct a grid walk and no doubt explaining to all those television viewers who have forsaken Eastenders and Coronation Street for the night that every horse has four legs and the fifth leg they can see isn’t an actually a leg but a clear sign that the horse is right old boyo who cannot possibly win the race as all that he has on his mind is rogering the filly with the bushy tail.
To use an expression as horrible as Championship Horse Racing, we need to drown this kitten in the river before it has chance to grow up to savage our sport.
360 horses will be required for this enterprise. As far as I can determine 72 horses per meeting, with 4 jockeys per team requiring 48 jockeys to sign up to this charity for the wealthy. The concept is planned for 2019 to take place on Thursday evenings between July and September. Each race will be a handicap and comprise 12 runners. I.T.V. have expressed an interest, though I suspect I.T.V. 3 is where C.H.R. will end up.
Horse racing’s major problem in engaging a wider audience is that for many people racing is associated with snobbery and the mega rich and understand this, people with neither knowledge nor interest in the sport hate seeing horses hit with a whip. These perceptions may be wrong but by throwing millions of pounds into a concept like this you will be shining a light on all those aspects of the sport that the ignorant masses cannot abide.
And Championship Horse Racing will never be a reflection on the real world of horse racing. A Thursday evening at Ascot with its £100,000 handicaps bears no relation to a Tuesday at Catterick or Redcar. This is all about making the wealthy wealthier. There will be no drip drip of enthusiasm for the sport spreading to Fakenham, Ripon or Salisbury. The people who attend the top-end courses that hold these fancy-pants meetings will not go to Brighton on a wet day in October. You are not going to get people travelling the length of the country to spend the night in tents in the centre of the course as happens at the British Grand Prix. F.1 exists to make money for the media company that owns the rights to the sport. Also F.1. does not exist outside of the 20 or so races that comprise the sport. Horse Racing exists all the year round.
Horse racing in this country is not in desperate need of huge amounts of money thrown at the top end of the sport. This proposed £600,000 every summer Thursday would be better spent propping up prize money at the lower tiers of the sport. If the one-horse owner or small syndicate were able to win back their annual training fees they might be more inclined to buy a second horse; this would be better for the sport than a stupid concept that will only make the rich richer.
If Royal Ascot, Glorious Goodwood or the Ebor meeting cannot enthuse the sporting and non-sporting public to embrace horse racing I am damn well sure a team owned by Duff Beer and led by Frankie Dettori will not even ripple a wave of appreciation. I realise that because big money is mentioned a good number of racing people will support C.H.R. but I for one loathe and detest the idea and if it gets up and running I will neither watch it nor comment on it. I just hope and pray that commonsense kicks in and the powers-that-be kick Jeremy Wray’s nonsense into touch.
For over a decade I have argued the case for female jockeys to be given an even break by trainers and owners and I find it rather odd that now, as I believe it to be, the battle is half-won, there seems to be a general debate on how to push forward on the issue, motivated to a great extent by the recent 14-year study that suggests the female to be as competent as the male.
On the day ‘The Morning Show’ debated the issue three female jockeys won races of note – Rachael Blackmore won a valuable handicap chase for Willie Mullins, no less, at the Dublin Festival, Rachel Macdonald won, albeit slightly fortuitously, the Edinburgh National and Bryony Frost, on this occasion upstaged by her female colleagues, triumphed in a race at Musselburgh with the name ‘champion’ in its title.
I believe the issue of whether female jockeys can hack it as professionals is more than half-won; they can, if given the sort of opportunities the three aforementioned jockeys are blessed to have.
The topic of debate should be how to keep up the momentum, not whether females are up to the job.
Opportunity is the key, aligned with acceptance of why it is important to the sport for there to be female representation at the top table. Hayley Turner makes the point that it is equally hard for young male apprentices to make a name for themselves as females, yet the fact that females only make up 11% of people with a jockeys license suggests the playing field remains far from even. Certainly if you look at apprentice races the majority of riders are male and over jumps conditional races have even less females taking part. I suspect in point-to-points and amateur races the ratio will also be in favour of male jockeys. But then for hundreds of years young males have had role models to look up to and attempt to imitate. It is only since the arrival on the scene of Hayley Turner have young girls had someone to emulate. Indeed without her our sport would have far less women with professional jockey licences than is presently the situation.
Hayley Turner will be recorded in the annals of our sport as a true pioneer, as much a trailblazer for her sex as any of the suffragettes; her influence as great, or even exceeding, any of the exploits of Frankie, Lester or Sir Gordon.
So the debate should be how to convince trainers, and to a larger degree owners, as I believe they are the main stumbling block, to give girls a proper sporting chance.
On the flat I can suggest three clear and easily achieved initiatives: the expansion of the ‘Silk Series’, though without the need to have female amateurs taking part; a signature race for professional lady jockeys held perhaps at Glorious Goodwood or the July meeting at Newmarket, with a handful of valuable handicaps through the season confined to professional female jockeys; and though not exclusive to female riders regular races through the season confined to jockeys who have not ridden, for example, 20 winners in the previous 6 or 12 months, an initiative that would help all jockeys struggling for recognition be they male or female.
Ironically it is in the tougher, more demanding side of the sport where the greater inroads have occurred. Nina Carberry and Katie Walsh are recognised as two of the best amateur jockeys for many a year, with all sectors of the sport holding them in great respect. Katie Walsh even rode a gambled on favourite in the Grand National a few years ago. And whenever Bryony Frost is engaged for a horse it is seen by punters and tipsters as a positive booking.
Again it is opportunity that is the key. Because of the scarcity of female professionals at present I would suggest any replica of the ‘Silk Series’ in National Hunt should be open to female amateurs, though there should be an increase in the races through the season restricted to female professionals, with a signature race at somewhere like Aintree or Cheltenham. I have also suggested that on the day after Boxing Day Kempton could stage a ‘Shergar Cup’ type of event for National Hunt jockeys with various teams comprising, for example, British male jockeys, British-based Irish male jockeys, a team from the continent and a team of professional female jockeys. I am sure this idea would be very popular with the public; a battle of male ego versus female pride.
Although I do not believe a female will be champion jockey over jumps for a decade or more – though if owners and trainers got behind Josephine Gordon I can see her becoming champion jockey on the flat – I can see a day quite soon when, as in Ireland with Rachael Blackmore, a female jockey will be one of the top ten in the country.
One last thought: with the burgeoning popularity of female jockeys, and the increasing success they are achieving, is this not a good opportunity to persuade a female orientated company, say a leading cosmetics or clothing brand, to become sponsors? I would have thought a signature race at Glorious Goodwood would be ready-made for such sponsorship. The rise and rise of the female in our sport is an opportunity that should be grasped. The future, as with nearly all aspects of life nowadays, is female.
I have argued previously that there are now more than enough graded races throughout the National Hunt season and I have also made the argument for allocating greater amounts of prize money to racing’s everyday fare. To my mind, and to the owners of horses of lesser ability housed in any trainer’s yard in the country, Leicester or Plumpton on a Monday is every bit as essential to the vitality and health of the sport as Newbury or Sandown on a Saturday. For betting turnover I suspect the week-day fare is more than just of tick-over importance.
What is often overlooked by those people who champion the principle of ‘better quality racing is that racing is not only a sport but an industry in which many thousands of people derive a living and the ‘better quality’ races are in the main irrelevant to the majority of racing’s dependents. It would help every one of the smaller racecourses if once a season they received funding for a significant race or meeting. In Ireland courses of the statue of Roscommon and Tramore have a festival meeting, no doubt allied to a date in the calendar of historic value to the locality. A similar initiative in this country can only be of help to the racecourses that are the load-bearers of the sport.
Also, and I have argued this point for several decades, for the sake of the sport’s integrity it might be a good initiative if on a weekly basis there were races restricted to jockeys who have not ridden say 25 winners in a calendar year or a said number for that season. If one of these races were staged in the north, in the midlands and in the south per week those jockeys struggling to make ends meet would receive the opportunity to demonstrate their talent and to prop up their income. These races have no need of sponsors, no increase in normal prize levels and would take a very small amount from the income of the top jockeys.
It would also not inconvenience the sport if there were races occasionally for trainers who have not trained a certain amount of winners in a calendar year, or indeed the occasional race for those horses who barely scrape an official rating.
The problem I have with the term ‘better quality racing’ is that people are usually referring to races that attract horses of the calibre of Un De Sceaux or Buveur d’Air, horses who because of their reputations scare off any possible opposition as there is so much choice for trainers these days that the good horses can be kept apart until Cheltenham. Yet on any day of the week, at any racecourse, you could witness a rousing finish or a multiple photo-finish in a 7-furlong seller or class 4 handicap. Un De Sceaux is quality but you cannot argue that his races are defined by drama and an exciting finish.
As the upcoming Dublin Festival proves, at this time of year you can throw a shed-load of money at a meeting and yet for many different reasons the crowd-pulling superstars will be absent due to the greater importance of the Cheltenham Festival. No matter how worthy an initiative the Dublin Festival is in real terms only a 2-day trials day for the Cheltenham Festival. And the succeeding weeks in Ireland may seem a little thin with all the races that were the highlights of February now compressed into a single meeting.
If the straight long line of ordinary fare that is the foundation of the racing pyramid is not robust and secure the succeeding stories up to the summit will crack and crumble and instead of having a smooth-sided structure that shines for all to see it will become a stepped pyramid overgrown at its roots. If the sport does not do all in its power to help and protect the Monday racecourses, the journeyman jockey, the small trainer, one-horse owner and racegoers who attend in the rain and cold, the view from the summit might not always be as dazzling as it presently appears to be.
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.