I don’t know how many people will agree with me on this topic but I am increasingly puzzled by the large number of races, especially on the flat, confined to amateur riders. I am not against amateur races, they have their place, and amateur riders have always played more than a bit-part in the history of our sport. Yet surely they are now rather dated, if not an anachronism.
The owner-rider was at the forefront of the sport in the early days, with match races over extreme distances organised for the purposes of proving equestrian superiority, and, of course, the winning and losing of huge sums of money in private bets. Even through the twentieth century owner-riders remained in the sport, with people like Brod Munro-Wilson and Lord Oaksey becoming iconic participants. But now? Are there any of these Corinthians remaining outside of the point-to-point arena?
I am not suggesting there should be no amateur races, far from it, though on the flat they should lead to a grand climax and not be a cheap option for clerk of the courses seeking to save on prize money. I realise that rides in amateur races are a reward for non-professionals who regularly ride out for trainers, and they provide entertainment and experience for both assistant trainers and the sons and daughters of trainers. But it is the sheer randomness and multiplicity of these races that perplex.
For more years than I care to remember a bug-bear of mine has been the lack of opportunities for the journeyman jockey, described by the media when one of them retires, as ‘the backbone of the sport’ and on announcement of their retirement these men and women are invariably honoured with ‘never received the breaks his (or her) talents deserved’. Yet the amateur is well cater-for, as is the apprentice and the claimer, and there are even celebrity and charity races. To my mind many of these amateur races would serve racing’s needs to better effect if they were given over to professional journeyman jockeys who have only ridden a limited number of winners in the preceding 12-months.
Not that I am proposing excluding the amateur. I simply think that the programme of amateur races should be less but lead to a fixed celebratory point in the calendar. What if the amateur race run at Epsom at the end of the summer was firmly established as the world’s one and only Amateur Derby, with all the supporting races finals of a series run through the course of the season? A proper amateur’s day out at the home of the Derby rather akin to the final meeting of the year at Cheltenham. Through the season there could be qualifying races over all distances from 5-furlongs to a mile-and-a-half, with the Amateur Derby as the centrepiece not only of the meeting but the whole of the season for amateurs.
Although racing should always debate and embrace change when it is in the best interests of the sport, it should also remain faithful to that which has served it well down the centuries. The amateur should be celebrated for what they bring to the sport and a showpiece day at the home of the Derby would be an appropriate spotlight, especially if the meeting were to be on terrestrial television.
The amateur should never be derided, after all Ryan Moore, quite possibly the greatest British flat jockey of all time, came from its ranks.
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.