Cheltenham and Exeter on the same day. Musselburgh and Newcastle, too. Hereford and Wolverhampton. Southwell and Wolverhampton. Surely someone at the powers-that-be can recognise that the Midland racegoer cannot be in two places at once. Does he attend Hereford or does he attend Wolverhampton? The bookmaker, too, must make the same choice.
The British racing calendar is out-of-date and lacks imagination. Here we are in late April and the focus of attention this weekend is on Sandown and the final day of the National Hunt season. As a jumps fan this is okay by me but only last week the flat season, the flat turf season, which officially started in March, sort of officially re-launched itself with the Craven meeting at Newmarket. The flat aficionados polished their shoes in a fog of overexcitement, vented their belief that Churchill (as they did last year with Air Force Blue) will prove the greatest horse in Aidan O’Brien’s career and I.T.V. brought out of hibernation the prettier and more handsome members of their racing team. There was much talk of, the Guineas, Royal Ascot and Epsom ….
The flat season begins with a whimper, that goes without saying, goes into hiding when the Grand National takes centre stage, peaks around the curtains through Easter, becomes overwhelmed with despair knowing it cannot compete with the greatest race on planet Earth or even the Irish equivalent, emerges briefly for the Craven meeting and the Greenham at Newbury, has a short holiday and returns with the bang of the first classics. A mish-mash of race programming. Surely the flat should start directly after the end of the National Hunt season.
Ireland just do things better. Their racing calendar is balanced, less hectic, with its racing throughout the summer influenced by culture and tourism, treating flat and National Hunt as equals, with the smaller racecourse given opportunity to do their own thing. It is a lesson the B.H.A. and smaller British racecourses should learn from.
Over here summer jumping is one day at Market Rasen, one day at Newton Abbot, one day at Worcester. Sure they have single day fixtures in Ireland but they also go big on 3, 4, 5 and all-week festivals. Killarney, a leading candidate for most scenic racecourse in the world, holds three festival meetings through the summer months. Bellewstown – racing on the Hill of Crockafatha – hosts a 3-day July Festival. Tramore has its August Festival. Listowel has a summer festival and a 7-day Harvest Festival that forms a large part of the cultural attraction of the area and which peaks with the Leinster National. And then there is Galway and its week- long celebration of all that is right with Irish racing. We should never attempt to replicate Galway, though. It is unique. It is truly Irish.
It has just been announced that there is a crock of 8-million quid to boost prize- money in this country. Here’s the thing, how about thinking outside the box for a moment and consider the Irish model for summer racing in this country. Why not create 3, 4 or 5-day summer festivals to promote those racecourses that hold fixtures through the summer months, to install racing as part of local tourism and culture.
Being at the heart of holiday country Newton Abbot is an obvious racecourse to hold a proper summer festival. Cartmel, too. Market Rasen already have the major jump races of the summer season but surely this meeting could be enlarged to a three-day Lincolnshire Festival. There should also be mixed meetings, with perhaps Worcester considering staging flat racing again, and perhaps with Stratford staging a week-long Midlands Festival. Ffos Las is another racecourse that seems in a prime location for a summer festival of mixed racing. If Windsor reinstated its jumps course what a brilliant location it would be for a Thames Festival of racing, a mix of N.H. and flat.
There was a time when the jumps season started at Newton Abbot and jockeys and trainers used to encamp on mass in the area rather than travel back to home, be that Newmarket, Lambourn or further afield. The same might happen if there was a 3 or 4 day Cartmel Festival or Devon Festival; horse racing helping to fill beds in local hotels and B & B’s, boosting tourism and attracting the eye of the media to the region. As lovely Perth already achieves.
If a single penny of that crock of gold (the 8-million) goes to boosting prize money at the top table the B.H.A. should be held to account. It is the grass roots where the future of racing lies and the better weather (crossed fingers) of the British summer is where the potential sits for attracting new people to the sport. The Irish racing festivals are a boon and a blessing to tourism and the same should be established here. The bulk of that 8-million should be used for transforming the summer programme of racing, both National Hunt and flat.
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.