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?
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.