I blanch whenever I am informed there is to be an increase in funding for races at the top level as it can only harden the believe of those outside of the sport that horse racing is run for the benefit of the elite. ‘Good news’ such as this are echoes of the past; the powers-that-be caring more for the rich and fabulously rich than those who turn the axle every day in scant hope of earning enough to pay the mortgage. When will the powers-that-be learn that to cater for the rich at the expense of the working class is completely the wrong stance for any organisation in the age in which we live.
I have read the ‘wisdom’ of people who like to believe they are both authoritative and dedicated advocates of our sport describe the lower class of racehorse and races as ‘rubbish’, proving therein that they do not fully understand the fiscal pressures the axle-turners must contend with on a day-to-day basis. The seller at Wolverhampton on a cold January night could be just as make or break to someone as the outcome of any race of higher value. More so, it can be easily imagined. To describe any sentient being as ‘rubbish’ is morally wrong anyway and perhaps says more about the detractor than the subject.
If you take away prize money and the prestige and social kudos humans attach to certain horse races and reviewed the finishes of races in retrospect, without the prejudice of money won or lost, the conclusion might be that the finish of a selling chase at Plumpton in November might have been more exciting than the finish of the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Or a tight finish of a race at Ripon was more heart-stopping than the stroll in the park of a Derby winner.
The owner of that winner at Ripon, for instance, may have bred the dam who bred the winner; it may be the first winner they bred or indeed the first winner they had ever owned. Their excitement would have exceeded the delight of the connections of the Derby winner. The Ripon race may have been a seller, ‘a rubbish race’ to use a description that should never be used, yet without the hopeful optimists who continue to support horse racing at the lowest level the sport would have no foundation. And many, if not most, of the top jockeys and trainers began their ascent to the summit by winning sellers.
The point I am inelegantly trying to make is this: the rallying cry that enhanced prize money will ultimately lead to better quality racing is baloney. It is a false premise to base strategy. There are only so many Grade 1 chasers and hurdlers, only so many Group 1 flat horses; you cannot make a silk purse out of a cow’s ear and that is what the powers-that-be are attempting. In the houses of the rich caviar is doubtless commonplace; in the working class household fresh bread might be.
The big handicap at Cheltenham last weekend had a depleted field of 10. In fact too few of the races at the meeting had fields that allowed-for each-way betting down to third place and if the Irish ever lost their fascination with cross-country races the Glenfarclas would result in walk-overs and match races.
There are now so many Group I races across the world that it is a novelty when 2 really top-notchers actually meet. Even races like the Arc can now be skipped in favour of easier competition. Strolls in the park do not raise the blood pressure. Basing a reputation on a horse winning, without ever coming under pressure at any stage, a two-horse race or what is essentially a two-horse race is nothing short of hyperbole. There is a lot of talk in the racing media about 2-horse fields for some novice chases and similar races known as Graduation chases. Though it is not highlighted the same could be said of Group and condition races for 2-year-olds on the flat, with the majority of the field sizes made up with horses who are there in hope of picking up for their owners ‘black type’. If I had my way there would be no Group races for 2-year-olds.
To my mind the enhanced prize money detailed for these races would be more beneficial to betting turnover and owners if it was applied to handicaps. When Nicky Henderson bellyaches that we need more Graduation chases not less what he is actually saying is that he needs more Graduation races as they are easy pickings for himself and his owners.
Although our sport could not survive or thrive without the enthusiastic support of of J.P.McManus and Michael O’Leary, Godolphin and others, the powers-that-be should not overlook the necessity for creating openings at the lowest end of the market by pouring resources into prize money through the week, incentivising, encouraging, giving hope to the small-time owner and syndicates that they can break even. Owners of large strings of horses do not need to pot hunt through the week, their personal wealth allows them to take losses the ordinary owner cannot bear. Adding £10,000 to a big Saturday race makes no difference whatsoever to quality or field size.
The Jockey Club have just announced they are to throw £8-million into prize money in 2018, I just hope not one penny of it goes to any of the big races. The Cheltenham Gold Cup is the Cheltenham Gold Cup whether it has a prize fund of £200,000 or £1-million. The Grand National also. What is wanted is for no race at Bangor or Carlisle, for instance, to be worth less than £10,000. When that happens the sport will be making progress. Though as none of us know how long a length of string is there is no doubt that in twenty years £10,000 will need to be doubled or trebles. But we will still know the worth of the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
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.