As with Faugheen, as racing people we enjoy an unbeaten sequence and feel cheated when the ‘invincible’ horse is eventually beaten. I suspect bookmakers are not of the same opinion. Unbeaten runs do not occur very often and as with Altior at present there is always some unexpected development waiting in the wings to spoil a good story.
In the distant days of the 1830’s a mare by the name of Catherina won 79 races, all on the flat, a record for a horse of British breeding. I can find no reference to her in any of the books in my small racing library but one must assume there would have been a good few walkovers sprinkled throughout her career, as was the case with Eclipse, and many races that were easy pickings. 79, though, remains an impressive score-card.
Lonesome Boy won 65 point-to-points between the years 1950 and 1959 and of course Frank Cundell’s Crudwell must take the honour of being Britain’s most versatile racehorse, winning 50 races spread between the flat, hurdles and steeplechase, and of the winning most horses in British racing history he must surely have achieved the highest rating.
There is one horse though who, arguably, can be spoken of in the same breath as Crudwell. In fact Flying Ace ended his career the winner of 59 races, registered under the rules of National Hunt and point-to-pointing. He ran 88 times, so his wins to races ration is exceptionally high. In fact as his regular rider would admit, if she had not made errors in judgement in two races Flying Ace might have finished on 61 wins, 62 if he had not been disqualified for losing the weigh-cloth on the run-in at Kelso one day.
Flying Ace was bred and trained by Adam Calder on his farm at Marigold near Duns and was ridden in all but one of his races by his daughter Doreen. For a point-to-pointer he was well-bred, being by the Champion Hurdle winner Saucy Kit out of the Vulgan mare Flying Eye, a winner herself of 13 Point-To-Points.
As a four-year-old Michael Dickenson was interested in buying him, rejecting him on the grounds that he would need time to mature. The Calders’ never rushed their young stock, preferring to Hunter-trial, team-chase and hunt them so they gained as much experience of jumping as was possible before they were subjected to the white heat of the steeplechase.
Flying Ace was six before the Calders’ thought him ready to race, though a broken pedal-bone brought about by landing on a jagged stone out hunting took him out of training and into box rest for two months. As with his siblings Flying Ace also suffered from a paralysed larynx and while he was recovering from his broken pedal bone he underwent a pioneering operation that used a piece of stainless wire to hold open his larynx. While at Edinburgh Veterinary College it was discovered that Flying Ace also suffered from a consistent heart murmur. If he knew, I suspect Michael Dickenson would have thought he had dodged a bullet the day he decided not to buy Flying Ace.
How good Flying Ace might have become if M.Dickenson had trained him we will never know. He might have won a more prestigious race than the Horse & Hound Cup at Stratford, then the top hunter chase in the country, but the one certainty is that he would not have won 59 assorted races.
He was retired from racing aged 15 and lived an active life until illness took him aged 27. His owner died aged 94. One can only hope that they were reunited on some other plane of existence.
For whatever reason horses with career records as achieved by Flying Ace only come around infrequently. In National Hunt and the flat it has not occurred since the days of Crudwell. It is to be regretted as the horses with extended win records are the working-class heroes of the sport and racing is diminished by their absence.
Perhaps the handicapper is to blame, with improving horses given high ratings too quickly, without ever being given the chance to prove their true level before they are over extended in races that are beyond their ability. Or perhaps there are just too few conditions races. Whatever, it is an aspect of the sport that should be given some thought by the powers-that-be.
This is an old and on-going gripe of mine. In fact it comes second only to my despair at having famous racehorse names recycled by lazy owners and the ignorance of the panel in charge of such matters at Wetherbys’.
This weekend we have the Bet Victor Gold Cup at Cheltenham, to be followed in early December by the Ladbrokes Trophy. Of course the race at Cheltenham has had many sponsors down the years, starting I believe with Mackeson. My objection is that once a new sponsor takes on a race for the purposes of advertising its brand the race becomes an entirely new race, not a continuation of sporting history as it is with the Grand National, Cheltenham Gold Cup and Derby. Many histories of those three races have been written, though the one about the history of the Hennessey filed its last chapter in 2016. The Ladbrokes Trophy will be a new race for a new trophy; it will not be a continuation of a traditional and well-loved steeplechase.
When the name of a sponsor is removed from the race, the period between one sponsor moving its advertising to a new port of call and the new sponsor signing on the dotted line, what is the name of the 2-mile 5-furlong chase at Cheltenham in November or the 3-mile 2-furlong chase at Newbury in December? In that period of hiatus does the race even exist?
The Grand National, for example, has existed as a fully functioning and solid concept since 1839 when Lottery galloped and jumped his way to immortality. Randox Health can sponsor the race, as John Smiths and Crabbies did before them but they cannot assume ownership of it, and when the present contract with Randox Health expires the Grand National will remain as steadfast and as real as life itself in the Racing Calendar.
Our sport is unique in this country as its history is documented from the ‘pounding matches’ held in Clare, Galway and Roscommon, to the famous 1752 race between Mr.O’Callaghan and Mr.Blake from the church at Buttevant to the St.Leger church, to the race meetings of the present day. In that magnificent book ‘The History of Steeplechasing’ compiled by Seth-Smith, Willett, Mortimer and Lawrence, both the Whitbread Gold Cup and Hennessey play an important part in mapping the time-line of the development of steeplechasing. In 1971 when the book was revised the two races were an integral aspect of the season. Now they are both no more; regretted by all, I suspect. And while no amount of fine words can repay the debt we owe Colonel Whitbread and the Hennessey family for what their sponsorship and marketing has achieved for the sport, the lack of foresight by the Jockey Club and the racecourses in not giving the races a name that could be linked to the sponsor’s brand is an oversight still to be made right.
Why the Grand National is inviolable when it comes to altering its title (thankfully) steeplechases only a few degrees down the pecking order can be wholly consumed by a sponsor. Let’s for arguments sake place the Grand National at the top of the pecking order, with the Cheltenham Gold Cup second, the King George third and the race presently known as the Betfair Chase (I believed the Lancashire Chase is its registered name) fourth, the race at Newbury in December would be fifth and once upon the time the Sandown race would be sixth, though these days the Welsh and Scottish Nationals out-rank it, as I suspect many other races do. So the top three steeplechases cannot have their titles consumed by sponsorship but the fourth, fifth and sixth can. This is not the situation (again thankfully) with the flat.
It is all very well registering the official race title in the Racing Calendar but what good is that if the title is not allowed into general use. The 3-mile 5-furlong handicap at Sandown in April still gets referred to as ‘the Whitbread’, as the Ladbrokes Trophy will be referred to as the ‘Hennessey’ for years to come. As the 2-mile handicap hurdle at Newbury in February is thought of to this day as ‘the Schweppes’. I’m not knocking Ladbrokes. I have confidence that the race is in safe hands. They loved, cherished and saved the Grand National, and for that the sport will forever be in their debt. I just don’t understand why the fifth most significant steeplechase of the season cannot be named the Ladbrokes Newbury Steeplechase or some such title. Is it asking too much, if only for the sake of continuity and for the ease of those who compile the history of our sport, for our newsworthy races to have proper names and not to exist solely as a medium for corporate sponsorship?
For just above twenty years I worked in various racing stables. I would like to boast that when tiredness and dissatisfaction made up my mind that the future should be searched for elsewhere, the racing industry lost someone of great value. I would like to make such a boast but I can’t. I had my moments, and the skills I possess were never fully utilised, but the truth is I was better on my feet than on a horse and it is horsemanship that is better valued where racehorses are concerned.
There were two problems I could never properly overcome, three if you include my limitations in the saddle. The first problem was that I was always a square peg in a round hole. Though occasionally, to demonstrate my versatility, I was a round peg in a square hole. I must have had an air of intellectualism about me as in my younger days people always thought I was a student on a vocational break from university. My second problem was that I had no background in horses. I did though have a deep abiding love of the sport and a knowledge of its history that filled the spaces in the brain intended as storage for the clever stuff they try to teach you at school. In those days I could recite Derby and Grand National winners going back fifty years or more. Whereas today I couldn’t go back with accuracy more than five years, and soon that will be two years.
Because of these handicaps I had no preconceived ideas about how horses should be looked after and trained and in time my overall impression was that horse husbandry was very much about personal circumstance, blind opinion and ignorance. Trainer A would do the job in complete contradiction to the methods of Trainer B, whilst Trainer C would consider himself right in every husbandry matter even though neither Trainers B nor A would agree with him. What was sacred in one stable would be a no-no in another.
Along the road – I had a really flaky personality in those days, mainly due to a lack of self-confidence – certain people and certain methods impressed themselves upon me. The people who I was in awe of were the old stablemen, the men who had served their time with training stalwarts who were sticklers for procedure. One old boy – he was so superior to the rest of us that he barely spoke to us, mainly because he had no respect for the way we did the job – used to strap his horses after exercise and again at evening stables.
Now, unlike most stable staff, I enjoyed evening stables, especially the grooming. I used to pride myself on the shiny well-being of the horses in my charge and would have quite happily groomed all morning and all afternoon. Yet despite all my efforts, my horses never gleamed with rich health as the old stableman’s. There was too much work to get done by feeding time to go ask him for advice and the trainer, his son, as it happens, didn’t seem to think his father was an example to be followed.
I think even now that grooming, and especially old-fashioned strapping, is becoming a lost craft due to the excessive amount of washing down of horses after exercise that now persists in all racing yards due to a lack of staff and time.
When I started in racing I had not even sat on a pony let alone a racehorse and after about ten years, when I was just about adequate on a horse – didn’t fall off too much or get run away with – I came to the conclusion that trotting was injurious to a horse’s back. In the wild a horse will only use the trotting gait when slowing from a canter to a walk. Bouncing up and down on a racing saddle seemed strange and without benefit. It also seemed odd that trainers did not do most of the early work with a horse at a slow, collected canter. I also decided it was perverse of racing people to dismiss the riding techniques of event riders and show jumpers as an irregular form of riding, when many horses, it seemed to me, would benefit from basic dressage.
So it was a ‘wow’ moment for me to read that Martin Pipe never had his horses trotted, not even when he used the lanes around his stables to get to his gallop. Somehow it vindicated much of what I believed in. He also believed you could not give a horse enough love and care and got through hundreds of packets of mints every week. He also believed, as I did, that injured horses were better off being able to have some form of exercise so that the whole body could be kept in good health. Normally as soon as a horse ‘gets a leg’ it is confined to its stable. I believed that as long as the horse was not in pain it was better off being walked on a lead rein, and when there is access to a horse-walker to be lightly exercised for twenty minutes. It went against accepted thinking, of course, and people thought me mad but as I found when I broke my leg the rest of the body goes to mush when you are inactive. I also could not understand why horses were deprived of water after a race. Now, of course, they are offered water in the winners’ enclosure as a matter of course.
He also believed the long summer rest was not good for a horse’s fitness, which is something else I also advocated without ever achieving a favourable response from those who employed me, though I expect when a horse is out to grass it is saving its owner a good wodge of money.
Unlike Martin Pipe, I am not a genius. Though if born with a sounder personality and if I had made better life choices there is a distinct possibility that I might have become borderline brilliant.
Who was the best, Arkle or Kauto Star? Or as the Racing Post more simply puts it to featured racing personalities in there Sunday supplement Arkle or Kauto Star, making it less a question about ability as which horse is their personal favourite. The young will answer Kauto Star, while those with more experience will answer Arkle.
As in so many other facets of life, the young are wrong.
Not that I am in any way suggesting that Kauto should not be spoken about in the same breath as Arkle. Indeed he is quite possibly the only chaser who can be considered in the same bracket as Arkle. But he was not as good, though to be thought of as the second best chaser of all time is honour enough.
There is an argument that Flyingbolt, Arkle’s stable mate, should be placed second in the rankings, with some thinking if Tom Dreaper’s two great horses had met Flyingbolt at worst would have put it up to Arkle, perhaps even beaten him. In the same way some people will insist that in beating Kauto in three Cheltenham Gold Cups, though he only won one Gold Cup himself, Denman proved himself superior to Kauto.
Perhaps at Cheltenham Denman was a better horse than Kauto. He was more robust and perhaps the demands of Cheltenham and his style or racing suited him more than Kauto. But you cannot make judgement on a career by only including facts that support your view. As with many, I loved Denman. He is and always will be my favourite horse of all time and without the problem with his heart I remain of the opinion that he would have gone a long way to emulating Arkle. There were times when I thought he was the very embodiment of Arkle, especially round Newbury.
But there is no fudging the issue, when you consider their records Kauto Star comes out better than Denman. As it was with Flyingbolt, with Denman it was all about what might have been.
Before we leave Flyingbolt, mention should be made, indeed it should never be overlooked or forgotten, that in the year Arkle completed his Gold Cup hat-trick, he won the Irish Grand National carrying 12st 7lbs beating the really good mare Height O’Fashion carrying 9st 9lbs, making him, strictly on figures, only the distance of a neck behind Arkle. In the Whitbread of that year the handicapper placed Arkle 4lb superior to his stable-mate. It rather puts into perspective Denman’s thrilling and heart-warming victories in the Hennessey.
What the advocates of Kauto do not appreciate is that Arkle rarely had the opportunity to race at level weights. If he had raced in our present era he would have proved unbeatable. When he was beaten in the Massey-Ferguson Gold Cup he carried 12st 10lbs and was giving ridiculous amounts of weight away to his rivals. In the Hennessey of his last season racing he carried 12st 7lb and was beaten an inch and a half by a horse who perhaps should have won a Gold Cup, giving him nearly 3st, with an actual future Gold Cup winner behind him.
Off top weight he won a Thyestes, Irish Grand National, 2 Hennessey Gold Cups, Whitbread, Gallaher Gold Cup (in a time that remains the course record for 3-miles at Sandown) and a S.G.B. chase at Ascot. He also won 3 Cheltenham Gold Cups, 3 Leopardstown Chases and a King George. The Irish handicapper became so frustrated with having to handicap every race Arkle was entered in by giving him top weight and every other horse bottom weight that for the Irish Grand National he framed one handicap to be used if Arkle ran and another to be used if he didn’t.
Kauto Star, of course, was a remarkable horse, especially for his longevity and courage. His fourth victory in the Betfair Chase is etched both on my memory and my heart. But in many instances he was the best horse by many pounds in conditions races where he did not have to concede the sort of weight that Arkle regularly had to overcome. It is one of the hardest of sadness’s to accept that like Arkle he was not to have the long and honourable retirement he so richly deserved.
In the coming seasons when we are thrilled by all the good young horses who will undoubtedly come along, as with the likes of Thistlecrack, Douvan, Altior and even Sizing John, a horse I believe to be underrated at the moment, we should not compare them to Arkle. It is like comparing apples with pears. It is like comparing all other Prime Ministers to Winston Churchill, the greatest British Prime Minister due to carrying on his shoulders a herculean task that no other Prime Minister has had to do.
Arkle, like Churchill, has no peer. He is, and always will be, the greatest racehorse of all time.
Reading the Racing Post this week it seems the general overview of its journalists is that ‘Champions Day’ is a success, with no tinkering with the format required. From a marketing perspective I would imagine it is a success and 30,000 spectators make a good argument for the defence. And I am quite certain the concept has potential, even if I cannot understand why the major Group 1’s need to be bracketed together to form a league table.
What pulls my chain the most, though, about Champions Day is the title. The title ‘Champions Day’ promises a day of champions, and as the central spectacle of the day is horse racing the title suggests an array of equine champions, of which this year there were few, though by its conclusion Cracksman had perhaps saved the day. But equine champions are not what Champions Day is about, even if the racing can be, weather permitting, out of the top drawer. If only Ascot could have promised the spectators Enable and Winx, true champions, the title would not be subject to the trades descriptions act and the racecourse would have resembled an Indian commuter train.
Of course the day is truly Qipco Champions Day, with the day spawning five Qipco champions and the sponsorship of Qipco should not be undervalued. But who remembers the names of the Qipco Champions twelve months later or indeed one week later? So why not title the day Qipco Day. They throw enough money at the event; why not umbrella the whole day under their branding.
In my previous piece on this subject I suggested, radically, moving ‘Qipco Day’ to the start of the season, mainly as an incentive for owner/breeders to keep their good horses in training beyond their 3-year-old careers. This may seem a barnpot idea. But think on. Already Group horses are sent to Dubai for the Dubai Carnival, which allows for the two events – ‘Qipco Day’ and the Dubai Carnival – to work hand-in-hand. Also, the general criticism of the flat is that it begins not with a bang but a whimper and this idea will knock the whimper into the North Sea, if not the Norwegian fjords.
If by some unlikely event my idea is implemented the turf flat season could begin as tradition dictates with the Lincoln, with perhaps trials for the races chosen for ‘Qipco Day’ added, with the big day two weeks later, allowing the Group I horses time to relax and recuperate before the big summer meetings come around.
Give it some thought: the glory and high sporting profile of the Cheltenham Festival, the Grand National and then ‘Qipco Day’. Three meetings that will keep the sporting eye on horse racing over a period six, seven or eight weeks.
Now, the contentious issue of the ground. At Ascot in October the odds are that the ground will be soft, though the same can be said for April. But that is not necessarily so. Both Cheltenham and Aintree invariably have to water to retain safe ground and the shift in our weather patterns suggest firmer ground for spring than for autumn will become the norm. But in this country who can be sure. A ‘Qipco Day’ in April could be lost to either frost or snow. In that eventuality it could be rescheduled, whereas at present in October if the meeting is lost to waterlogging I doubt if it would be practical to reschedule.
Of course the big stumbling block to a blockbuster start to the British Turf Season with ‘Qipco Day’ is the European Pattern Committee, though as there are few Group 1’s in Europe in April I think they may find the proposal acceptable, if not downright attractive. If I had my way, which is highly unlikely, there would be six Group 1 races, not five, with a Group 1 established either over 7-furlongs or 1-mile and a half. I would suggest a Group 1 for 3-year-olds but I suspect that is not viable with all the Guineas races only a few weeks away.
I would return the Champion Stakes to Newmarket, its spiritual home and put in its place on ‘Qipco Day’ a new 1-mile 2-furlongs race, with consideration given to naming it after Frankel. The Frankel Stakes has a ring to it. And I would return the Royal Lodge to Ascot. But that is a discussion for another day.
If we were to launch the new flat season every year with a 40-runner Lincoln Handicap started from a barrier as in the days of yore, allowing the flat a race that is as different from the norm as the Grand National is to every other jump race, followed two weeks later by a ‘Qipco Day’ with 6 Group 1’s, the spring sporting programme would belong to horse racing.
Sir Gordon Richards had 21,834 rides in his career, winning 4,870 races. He won the 2,000 Guineas 3 times, the 1,000 Guineas 3 times, the Oaks twice, the St.Leger 5 times and famously the Derby once. He was champion jockey 26 times, a feat no one is ever likely to equal. He considered Pinza the best horse he ever rode.
Trainers flocked to him and at one point in his career he had 5 retainers all at the same time. His character was as straight as a die and his word was his bond. His career straddled the careers of Steve Donoghue and Lester Piggott. At the start of the 2nd World War he wanted to enlist but he had been struck down with T.B. as a young man and the scars prevented him from active duty. Determined to do his duty for King and Country he bought a farm to help in feeding the population, made public appearances to raise morale, joined the Home Guard, and, though race meetings were zoned and limited, he continued to ride.
I just can’t imagine in similar circumstances Lester either wanting to enlist or buying a farm to grow potatoes.
Incidentally Sir Gordon was very supportive of young Lester, advising him and reminding people when trouble seemed to stalk his every move that he was a mere child in a man’s world, and in his autobiography he makes a point of reminding his readers that a lot of trash was written about Lester. He said that it was to Lester’s credit that despite everything written about him, both praiseworthy and critical, he remained ‘so natural, and in no way conceited’. He also made it plain that Lester was never cheeky in the weighing room, never referred to him as ‘Grandad’ and in Sir Gordon’s hearing was never rude to anyone. He liked Lester and wanted him to succeed.
He wrote that one day at Worcester – they had flat racing there in Sir Gordon’s day – when Lester was only thirteen or fourteen, he was riding a big horse in a 2-mile race. Going down the back stretch he thought Lester was going to fall off through exhaustion and passing him Sir Gordon offered the advice to ‘sit still and let the horse run round himself’ and Lester did as he was told and he was ‘alright’.
Interestingly, on the day at Ascot when Lester got one of his lengthy suspensions, Sir Gordon, Poincelet, Doug Smith and Rickaby all spoke up for him in the stewards enquiry, asking them to be lenient. Mind you, Sir Gordon expressed the view that it would be a sad day for racing if the public were allowed to view steward enquiries.
I am not sure if it is widely known but when Sir Gordon began training he was negotiating with Lester for him to take up the position as stable jockey but Noel Murless also wanted him, offering him the opportunity to take over from Sir Gordon as his stable jockey.
One of the many retainers he had was with the former Aga Khan and at the end of each season he would write to him to express his opinions on the prospects for the following season. Having so many top trainers and owners wishing to employ him no doubt allowed Sir Gordon to always be honest in his opinion and he told the Aga Khan that though he was breeding beautiful horses bred in the purple more and more they were lacking resolution at the business end of a race. The Aga Khan took his advice and brought in American bloodlines and culled a major portion of his broodmares. So the present Aga Khan has Sir Gordon to thank for his continuing success.
The surprising aspect of Sir Gordon’s story is that at the height of his career he suffered from what he called ‘nerves’ or depression as we would term the condition today. And not just for short periods but in prolonged spells, even taking to his bed and refusing to get up for days. Keeping it secret for the whole of his career is testament perhaps to the shame associated in those days with the condition and the integrity and loyalty of his friends and family.
And the secret of his success as a jockey, in his own words – ‘Briefly, I have never ceased to be on the job’. I think he meant he was 100% dedicated to his craft.
Sir Gordon was proud of his achievements, especially of beating Fred Archer’s record for the most wins in a season. Never boastful, mind you, but proud in the right sense of the word. Yet being the sort of man he was, if he were still alive in 2002 when A.P.McCoy rode 289 winners to take away his record, he would have been one of the first people to congratulate him. And A.P. would have been as proud of that handshake as he was of breaking the record.
And A.P. never did break his career record total, and I doubt if anyone will come close to 4870 winners.
Unusually I had company for the racing on Saturday. Uninformed company, I admit, though the lack of specialist knowledge might make the following observation of more interest to those who believe ‘Champions Day’ to be a rip-roaring success story. Acclaimed as the flat season’s end of season highlight, the last day of the championship, if not the turf, season, with Ed Chamberlain wishing a fond farewell to Francesca and Jason, - it is Hayley I will miss the most - it made my reply to the question ‘I take it from next Saturday it will only be jump racing on television’ far more difficult to answer than if what was being discussed was the last day of the Premier League or the cricket season as next Saturday I.T.V. will be covering one jumps meeting and two flat meetings, with one more Group 1 for Aidan )’Brien to win still to come.
So much for making the flat season’s narrative easy for the non-racing public to understand.
Not that Silvestre de Sousa is not both a deserving and inspirational champion jockey. But that does not change my opinion one iota that the present way of determining the champion jockey is as bonkers as a pork pie lolly-pop. It is marketing straight out of the Bernie Ecclestone ‘How to make a formerly exciting sport as dull as the M4.”
My big gripe about ‘Champions Day’, though, even though the racing was of a level above the ordinary fare for a Saturday, was that no real ‘Champion’ was crowned. It was, supposedly, Britain’s big horse racing highlight, yet the connections of Ulysses considered the Arc and the Breeders Cup more inviting opportunities, with no takers from the U.S. or Australia, as happens with Royal Ascot. The problem with the ‘Champions’ concept is two-fold. Firstly there is no convenient place in the season for it to sit, with only October, when the ground will doubtless be testing and when the meeting faces stiff competition from both the Arc and the Breeders Cup, available. And secondly the notion that bracketing all the big group races together will entice connections to run their best horses more frequently is completely flawed as the big Group 1’s will always attract the same horses as before the Qipco branding.
I admit that the weather cannot be predicted, and the next five instalments of ‘Champions Day’ may take place under a blue sky and on top of the ground. But this is England in October and as often as not the ground at this time of year for a flat meeting at Ascot will be described with the word soft as its main constituent. The horses that went on the ground on Saturday provided either an awesome performance or exciting finishes but the finishing distances resembled heavy ground at the end of a 4-miler at Cheltenham.
Cracksman (Mr.Oppenheimer gives his horses brilliant names. Other owners take note.) was as impressive a winner as I have witnessed all season yet though he won the Champion Stakes no crown could be placed on his head. He was the closest we came to a Champion racehorse on Saturday, though he did not win any one of the five divisional championships up for grabs. Not that I.T.V. thought it important enough to display the final placings in the divisions. Which it wasn’t as no one in two or three years’ time will be able to remember the five horses that topped the Qipco championship league tables.
Also, if you must have a non-championship race on ‘Champions Day, why not have mile handicap qualifiers throughout the season with the final as the final event instead of the Balmoral H’cap, a worthy enough race but very much a spectacle on the lines of ‘after the Lord’s Mayor Show’ about it. In fact whether they keep faith with the Balmoral or take up my idea wouldn’t it better for this race to be the first race on the card, allowing the Champion Stakes to bring the curtain down?
As someone who believes the best marketing strategy the flat could implement is to give every possible incentive to owners to keep their top horses in training for as long as possible I offer this radical idea: schedule ‘Champions Day’ at the other end of the season, as a glamorous appetizer to the season to come, when there is no competition from horses races around the world. This idea would marry the previous season to the present and replace the traditional drab start with glitter and stardust about it. Perhaps the Saturday after the Grand National, with 2,000 and 1,000 Guineas trials instead of the Balmoral, or as well as. Perhaps £4-million in prize money would not be enough of an incentive to keep the previous season’s top milers, sprinters, stayers and middle distances horses in training. If it were to be doubled perhaps top horses from around the world might join the party.
The concept of a ‘Champions Day’ should be kept. Even arch misery-guts like me see the merit in it. It just doesn’t do at the moment what is said on the can. And that should addressed, not swept under the marketing carpet.
I am presently reading Sir Gordon Richards autobiography ‘My Story’. Like similar books on horse racing it is now – the book was published in 1955 – very much a history book, with much that can be learned. What is very clear from the outset of the book is that alongside British Society horse racing has changed, perhaps less radically than society in general but the alterations are easily marked in the tone of Richards’ account of his career and within the racing scene he describes.
Sir Gordon was born into what we would categorise these days as poverty. He was one of eight children. His father a miner. Although intelligent Gordon had only a limited education, his family were strict Primitive Methodists and he was sent out to work for his living as soon as he was able. It was his mother he had to thank for his career as she was astute with money and saved earnestly so the family could own their own home, even buying other properties to rent out. She also built a range of stables so that Gordon and his siblings could have a pony. Gordon used the pony to earn extra money ferrying passengers to and from the local railway station by pony and trap. He was barely thirteen when he started the enterprise.
At the beginning of his career there were no horseboxes and horses had to be led to the nearest railway station for transportation to the races. Sir Gordon relates walking a horse 5-miles to Shrivenham Station, with the same 5-mile walk back to the stables after what might have been a journey to Ayr or Yarmouth. These days, of course, after a long journey by road horses are taken straight to their stables. Athletes, footballers, tennis players etc, have long warm-down sessions after competing and the thought struck me that perhaps the walk from the railway station to the stables was in effect what we would term a warm-down session and benefitted the musculature of the horse, allowing it to recover more quickly from its exertions.
Sir Gordon was small, something like 4ft 11 and weighed under eight stone. In his book he balances his success against the man whose record total of winners in a season he broke, Fred Archer, and although he felt that he was at a disadvantage having to carry so much lead in his saddle overall he thought Archer’s achievement was greater because of the physical disadvantages he had to overcome and the greater difficulty in getting to racecourses. He wrote early in the book that his story was that of a successful life ‘and so I suppose I shall not be able to escape giving, here and there, the impression of conceit’, he comes across quite modest in his achievements. He might have titled his book ‘Modesty To False For Words’, as his modest overtone is balanced by pride in all he achieved.
Sir Gordon rode for the majority of his career – certainly the most successful years of his career – as stable jockey for the man he termed ‘the master of Beckhampton, Fred Darling. There is, of course, a 1,000 Guineas trial at Newbury named after Darling, and given his successes perhaps deserved, though he does not come across, even though Sir Gordon is more praiseful than critical, as someone I personally would not get on with. Even Sir Gordon said of him: ‘Mr. Fred Darling was absolutely ruthless. He was ruthless with horses and with men’.
I will repeat two stories from the book that makes me believe Fred Darling is not the right kind of character for racing to commemorate. ‘I shall never forget one morning, out on the gallops. A horse called Justification suddenly went savage. He got one of the boys down and went for him.’ Darling’s response, once the horse was caught, was to hit him hard across the knees to bring him down. Then he got on the horse’s head and gave him a tremendous beating. Sir Gordon said it was the only thing to do, even though it seemed cruel, and thought Darling brave. I thought Darling a greater savage than the horse.
Darling’s head lad, described by Sir Gordon as ‘the best Head Lad I have ever known’, was in the Home Guard with Darling his senior officer. Fred Templeman was in charge of a post on the Downs. One evening finding all was quiet Templeman slipped into Devizes for a quick pint. When Darling visited the post and found Templeman absent he was far from sympathetic. In fact not only did he dismiss him from the Home Guard he sacked him as an employee. Templeman died shortly afterwards. Sir Gordon thought from a broken heart. As Sir Gordon described Darling, ruthless with horse and man.
In Sir Gordon’s day tyrannical behaviour was allowed to prosper, with selfishness and arrogance alloyed to respect and no doubt fear. It was a different time, perhaps in its way a better age in which to live and perhaps we should not make judgement on that we do not fully comprehend. But that does not mean we can gloss over cruelty to man and beast. Whereas Sir Gordon deserves to have a good race named after him, I just do not think we should flatter the reputation of someone like Darling, no matter how great his career.
I’ll be honest; Champions Day fails to float my boat. Don’t get me wrong; it is a good day’s racing, with races to anticipate and with the prospect this year of Aidan O’Brien achieving something truly memorable. But CHAMPIONS day. A day of champions? It doesn’t exactly do what is written on the tin.
It is the overarching title that grates with me. At the Cheltenham Festival horses are crowned champions through winning races that are most definitely championship races: 2-mile Champion Chase; Champion Hurdle; the Gold Cup; the Champion Stayers, for instance. The whole season weaves its magical way to Prestbury in March. It is an organic passage through winter, as if set out in stone since all of eternity by the sporting gods. Flat racing has a dozen cracking good meetings throughout the season yet not one of them mirrors what is achieved at Cheltenham. The flat season does not ‘weave its magical way’ to Champions Day. No horse is trained all year with Champions Day in mind unless, of course, injury has prevented it from taking in the big races throughout the summer.
Champions Day has the feel of something contrived; invented by the marketing department more for the sake of money and publicity than clarity. No horse will truly be crowned ‘Champion’, even though the five divisions of the season-long Qipco Championship will have winners ascribed to them, though the names of those horses will in quick time be forgotten. Or at least in reference to the Qipco Championship.
For starters Enable will not be there and no one doubts that she is the true champion of 2017. If Cracksman wins the Champion Stakes by ten lengths he will not be crowned champion; he will still lag behind his illustrious stable-mate. If Harry Angel wins the sprint then yes he will be the leading sprinter of the year. But what if The Tin Man or Quick Reflection wins? Does that make either of them a champion?
Since 2011 Champions Day has been labelled the ‘end of season highlight’ which, as it is the final big pay day of the season, I suppose it is. But it pales by comparison to any of the five days of Royal Ascot. Or indeed any one day of any of the big festivals throughout the season. And there will be no significant overseas raiders, destroying any comparison to the Breeders Cup, the meeting it was supposed to mimic. I very much doubt if Champions Day is much talked about in countries other than Britain and Ireland. You might have thought £4-million in prize money would have tempted foreign competition. But no, it remains very much a home-grown event. I doubt if £10-million on offer would tickle the fancy of owners and trainers from abroad.
In 2012, to give the day the greatest endorsement possible, Frankel won the Champion Stakes. He drew a crowd of 32,000. That is in the ball park of Cheltenham Festival attendance. Unfortunately no horse anywhere near his calibre – if that could be likely – has graced the day since. And I dare say 32,000 will remain the top attendance for a very long time into the future.
On Saturday the racing will be exciting and perhaps memorable but the only champions on parade will be human and we can see them in action every day until the end of the season. They have even made the crowning of the Champion Jockey into a controversial topic as it likely that Adam Kirby or Luke Morris will end the year having ridden more winners than Sylvester De Sousa. It is plainly absurd to not include every race of the flat turf season when deciding who is champion, while including every all-weather race during the period that decides the championship.
What is required is the well-intentioned Qipco Championship Series to fade into history. The races that fall under its umbrella will still remain, as they did before the Series came into being, with, hopefully, the Qipco name prefacing race-names that reflect the overarching title of the day. The Qipco Six-Furlong Championship. The Qipco Mile Championship. The Qipco 2-mile Championship. And so on and so forth.
Personally I do not see the point of a Champions Day that does not set out to attract the true equine champions of the season. To my way of thinking there is plenty enough prize money at the top end of the pyramid. It is the lower end that needs bolstering and that £4-million the high and mighty will trouser on Champions Day might achieve a greater benefit for racing if it were spent on prize money at racecourses that we never see on the television. £4-million pound would finance a heck of a lot of £20,000 handicaps.
The day comes to a conclusion with a concert by George Ezra, whoever he happens to be.
The world of finance is as much a mystery to me as the things scientists study using an electron microscope, and I am not really sure what one of those does or even looks like. Money, too, is a dark and slippery commodity to me. As are numbers. In fact if there is such a condition as number dyslexic then I have it. Bye the bye, you would have thought the word describing the condition of having difficulty with words would be short and without y’s or x’s and easy to say, or remember. Though in this perverse world that we live in I dare say dyslexics have no trouble reading the world dyslexic. Less trouble, perhaps, than I have spelling the word!
Square roots, algorithms or even Roman numerals pass me by in a similar manner to which high or fast flying birds do when I am trying to identify them.
So my next great idea may be easily torn to shreds by those of you with a university education. Or indeed any education that afforded you half-decent grades in mathematics or applied physics.
When I read the report in the Racing Post on the 4-million guinea yearling filly bought by Godolphin something that at the time I could not put into words irked me. On the way in to work today that idea manifested. What does racing financially get out of the auction price of the 4-million guinea baby? It doesn’t even get good publicity as anyone outside of the sport reading about a 4-million guinea horse will assume that racing must be awash with money and the combined envy of the masses will stretch from here to Saturn and back, with mainstream media more interested in the rumours of back-handers and the laundering of crooked money. We must accept that racing is not understood by the outside community. Not even by other sports fans.
It seems unfair on the much criticised betting industry that it is expected to put money into racing’s finances when the breeding industry, or at least I believe, operates in splendid isolation. The vendors of million dollar babies get their profit; Tatts, Goffs etc get their commission, which I should imagine is substantial and owners of half-brothers and sisters to the 4-million and other million dollar yearlings reap the reward of association. Yet racing, seemingly, gets not a sou.
Stallions are made commercial and profitable largely through winning races and prize money. The value of mares is enhanced in a similar manner. In fact the breeding industry, at least at the top end, is fuelled by horse racing. One could not survive without the other. It is on the racecourse that reputations and investments are won and lost. Is it asking too much to expect the breeding industry to give a little back? A strong, vibrant racing scene must be good news for all sectors of the sport, and prize money that challenges the purses of races abroad is central to securing racing’s long-term well-being.
So why not impose a 1% or 2% levy on the purchase price of yearlings and mares to help fund horse racing. By my very sketchy workings-out, using Google, obviously, the sale of the 4-million guinea baby, if 2% went to fund horse racing, would net £84,000. Hardly the value of one of the bids in the battle between Coolmore and Godolphin to buy the filly.
I leave more intelligent people to figure out how much additional revenue would fall into racing’s coffers if my idea could be turned into a runner. I have no doubt that if my idea was, in any shape or form, put up for debate the wailing and gnashing of teeth from breeders would be heard the length and breadth of the land. As it was when bear-baiting, cock-fighting and no doubt hanging, drawing and quartering, were banned. All activities that were once, long long ago, associated with a good day out at the races.
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.