Between the King George, oh, and the Welsh National, with the powerful exception of the newly created Leopardstown Dublin Racing Festival – 2 days, 7 Grade One’s, an Irish Gold Cup and Champion Hurdle and 1.5 million euros in prize money - National Hunt racing through January and February is all about getting to March, to Cheltenham, and for some surviving so they can go on to Liverpool and Punchestown. We need a re-think.
The Dublin Racing Festival is overdue. The three separate days racing were hung out through the back-end of January and into February like washing on the line on someone rich and famous. Of course with the fabulous prize money on offer other races and racecourses will suffer, especially the traditional Champion Hurdle and Gold Cup trials. And I suspect the top British hurdlers and chasers will be kept at home for fearing of losing Cheltenham on the battle-grounds of Leopardstown and the heavy ground that is commonplace in Ireland throughout the winter months. What the bringers of these big money races always fail to appreciate is that there is only a finite number of top quality horses around; certainly not enough for all the big money prizes now to be found in both Britain and Ireland.
It is, though, what it is, and I have no doubt, the weather willing, that the new festival will be a great success. But it is British racing during the depths of winter that I wish to address.
The one new initiative I do not approve of is the winter all-weather festival at Lingfield on Good Friday. A slippery slope is ever there was one. Jumping rarely encroaches on the flat season, and wouldn’t at all if the flat started after the Grand National meeting and not somewhat indecently before. So it annoys me quite considerably when a flat meeting is given so much priority during the all too brief period when jumping should possess all of the limelight. The all-weather does a fantastic job; it ensures there is racing (mostly) when Mother Nature forces National Hunt to take a breather and to allow flat jockeys, trainers and owners to have sport and an income through what was traditional a barren period for them. Never should it be allowed to shout so loudly, though. Apart from when the Pitman’s Derby is run at Newcastle the all-weather throughout the summer months sits quietly in the background, allowing the flat turf season to hog limelight that is its due. That is the stated purpose of the all-weather, to give joy to the lonely and down-trodden. Not to advance upon the sport with the stealth of a colonising species. Why it is allowed to take over a bank holiday, forcing hard-working stable-staff to work yet another day in the year, is something that shames the industry and diverts the attention from the golden days of March that are the very reason for breathing, at least for the true aficionado.
Since the days of the Whitbread when the likes of Arkle and Desert Orchid thrilled the Sandown crowds, the race that now occupies its place in the calendar has gone rapidly downhill in terms of quality if not spectacle. Now it is ordinary when once it was a race to savour. To my mind Sandown in late April or early May should have as its main event a 2-mile handicap chase or a race over 4-furlongs further, with the 3-mile 5-furlong chase run at the end of January, giving the dead of winter a fillip, and allowing the connections of Grand National hopefuls a good prize and a stern test.
During this period a valuable chase for mares could be established, especially as this type of race is often mentioned as a good fit for the Cheltenham Festival. This race could be held at the Newbury meeting to stand beside the Betfair Hurdle, if they remain the sponsors of the valuable 2-mile handicap. The Dawn Run Gold Cup would be a suitable name for such a race.
A race I have suggested should be considered for the Cheltenham Festival and is sadly lacking throughout the entire season is a 4-mile Championship Chase, a distance that seemingly is only allowed for handicappers. Cheltenham trials day might be a suitable venue or perhaps Doncaster. Not Haydock, though, as it is no place for Grade One races.
I would suggest for the quiet months a novice handicap hurdle and chase to entice the punter and fill the satchels of bookmakers, with a valuable conditions chase for veterans as well. Those three races alone would make an interesting card for somewhere like Kempton or even Ayr, a much maligned and unappreciated racecourse.
It is my contention that if November and December can be crammed with racing goodies why allow January and February to feed on scraps? Good scraps at times but not the joyous feast that early winter delivers. The good and the great need to get together around a table and devise a better blueprint for the back-end of December through to the early weeks of March. A big race on every Saturday, as it is earlier in the season.
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.