I know a good number of people who prefer the flat to National Hunt because they perceive to be less chance of a horse getting injured or indeed worse. Persian Punch, for instance, even though he had the physique of a jumper, was never campaigned over hurdles because his owner Jeff Smith couldn’t bear the thought of him being killed. Yet he died on the track anyway.
Only yesterday I read in the Racing Post that Coolmore’s Somehow had suffered an injury on the gallops and could not be saved. Wings of Eagles suffered a career ending injury in the Irish Derby and Minding continues to be affected by an injury that looks like we shall be deprived of seeing her again on the racecourse. Injuries and fatalities occur. It is a sad fact of life.
Flat racing suffers in popularity when compared to National Hunt because it is dominated by the few, with Coolmore having the sport in a stranglehold that becomes ever more restrictive as each season passes. It is, unfortunately, falsely labelled as the sport of Kings, when in fact it has become more of an investment opportunity and entertainment for the mega-rich. Coolmore exists to produce stallions, with the sport an important yet secondary enterprise to the main goal. I suspect Wings of Eagles Derby success was a mite bit disappointing to ‘the lads’ as his sire Pour Moi had just been shunted down the pecking order to the lowly status of ‘National Hunt stallion’, where doubtless his most famous son will end up.
Again unfortunately, at the start of each flat season it is not difficult to list four or five trainers who will hoover up all of the important races. Though of course as things stand it is more of a case of which trainer will win the one classic a season that escapes Aidan O’Brien. It would be the same with the jockeys if it were not for Ryan Moore being far from infallible when it comes to choosing the right one from the mobilised forces of the O’Brien stable, which has allowed Lordan, Beggy and Heffernan to enjoy classic glory this season and drive a coach and horses through my suggestion that it is easily predictable which jockeys will ride the winners of the important races.
National Hunt is unpredictable. Who could have foreseen at the start of last season that Thistlecrack, a novice, would win the King George. Or Buveur D’Air would win the Champion Hurdle. Special Tiara the Champion Chase. Sizing John the Gold Cup. Or One For Arthur the Grand National? Tizzard, Henderson, de Bromhead, Harrington and Russell. Five different horses, five different trainers, four different jockeys, which would have been five if Barry Geraghty had not got himself injured.
Though the actual racing of horses across the flat is very often exciting, and the heritage handicaps give the smaller trainer a slightly better chance of winning a large pot and a slice of glory, the flat can be samey, banal, predictable and increasingly it is becoming a fiefdom of the mega-rich, with any horse of potential snaffled-up by the any one of the big four concerns.
The narrative of racing is always made special when a fairy-tale emerges. Yes, Padraig Beggy winning the Epsom Derby had the appearance of a fairy-tale but the horse was trained by the most successful trainer of all-time and owned by the most successful outfit racing has ever known and on hearing Aidan’s uncharacteristic rambling responses to journalists questions after the Derby the impression was that the result was as unexpected as it embarrassing. Clearly it was more desirable for of the Galileos to have won, a son of Pour Moi being a far less commercial prospect for Coolmore. No, fairy-tales are the preserve of National Hunt.
And to prove my point about the superiority of National Hunt all I have to do is type in the following list of names: Arkle, Desert Orchid, Red Rum, Sprinter Sacre, Kauto Star, Denman.
It is doubtless mean and short-sighted of me to claim that the main asset of flat racing is that it fills the void of summer which allows the ‘good old boys of National Hunt’ to enjoy some ‘me’ time in the fields of good grass and fresh air.
But that is not to say I find the flat uninteresting and unexciting. It simply does not capture my heart or imagination as does National Hunt. The history of flat racing is, though, an abiding interest. I am presently awaiting a biography of Fred Archer to pop through the letterbox. Though it will be accompanied by a book on Foinavon, which might have to be read first.
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.