Thursday, 30 July 2020

AN ASTERISK RIDDLED SEASON


Anyone really believing that this flat season will be looked back at with any sort of fondness due to the unique close down, restart and catch up sequence in which it's being staged, is well wide of the mark. 

This spoilt and blotchy programme, where the winners of many of the major races should be carrying an asterisk beside their names in roll of honor lists is one in which there is an urge to wish time away to the season's end, draw stumps, with the  scorecards filed away in a locked room.

With one or two exceptions, the circumstances under which the season is unfolding have only gone and highlighted more than ever how a smaller number of  'associations' than ever before are in a position to mop up the showcase prizes at the very top end of the sport.

To make derogatory comments over the downhill direction in which the once restlessly awaited King George V1 Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes has been going for some time now is not to criticise a magnificent mare like Enable, whose campaign allied to her yet again remaining in training, would be an excellent advertisement for the sport if only the emerging generations took an interest.

On the other  hand, despite a facile success the lack of opposition means the we will have to wait until later in the season to find out whether she is still capable of producing her very best as we are certainly none the wiser using Japan as a yardstick who is developing the profile of a messed up performer having looked to have finally arrived when taking last year's Juddmonte.

The fact that the midsummer Ascot showpiece event has for a while been hit and miss is one of the most lamentable developments in UK flat racing in recent times. It's not uncommon for the three year olds to be completely absent, with the French runners now being more welcome than ever as many follow the pattern of giving their top performers a mid season let down before building up to an Arc prep, a route that is not a proven path to sucess, as highlighted with the contrasting paths taken last year between Waldgeist and Sottsass

There have also been some very strange looking renewals. You still have to pinch yourself to take in that in 2015 Clever Cookie started at 4/1!  Well, I suppose the ground was pretty testing, the field ordinary by normal standards, and didn't Brunico turn over the top notch Shardari in the mud in a running of the Ormonde.

Being fair, the last real celebrated Derby winner Golden Horn was set to line up after already taking in the Eclipse but connections withdrew late when conditions worsened. And the eventual winner Postponed was a likeable high class colt - nevertheless it was still an uninspiring renewal.

To give Enable credit - there is more to her than than the hardy, concentrated constitution that allows  her to come through each close season and retain the ability to win at the very top level. Of all the various ratings, rankings, course records, Group 1 victories attained, that fans will cite to support their assertion that one famous horse is better than another, the one boasted of most by long term racing fans would still be the best rating awarded by the Timeform organization, which in the case of Enable, has her on a peak of 134 which is only 2 lb behind the trio topping the best of all the fillies and mares since the end of WW2.

Admittedly, there are flaws in obsessing over such figures as they take no account of versatility in addition to also adding a subjective input in cases of wide margin winners, along with those winning without being stretched. Reference Point attained a 139 best, Nijinsky a 137 best, but we know which one was the superior animal - at all distances.

Still, as measures of ability the figures supplied by the Halifax based handicappers down the years will be referred to more frequently than other measurements of merit and on this basis we have it carved in stone that at her very best, certainly at the time of her 2017 Arc de Triomphe victory, she proved herself to be in the mix with the best of her sex over the past seventy five years.

The other real speck of light emanating through this strange season comes through the widely acclaimed feats of Stradivarius, returning yet again to the top of the stayer's league. Truth be told, if he's a Le Moss there is no Ardross to test him which is why it's a much needed boost to the season that he will now be concentrating on proving his worth in the middle distance sphere, with a crack at the Arc on the agenda.

Ardross himself produced a wonderful effort when narrowly failing to get up to win in Paris and with the Gosden horse carrying enough surplus when he made his seasonal debut in the Coronation Cup, hope remains that he still may be involved in the finish at Longchamp - it would certainly add some welcome spice to the season if he was able to put the wind up his stable bud.

And from a nostalgic point of view there is a link to a more pleasurable racing era as Stradavarius's third dam is no other than the Wildenstein's Pawneese who shone in the drought hit summer of 1976, when trained by Angel Penna to notch up a unique treble by winning the Epsom Oaks, French Oaks and King George.

For those who think the sport is not demeaned when the power is in so few hands should note that in the Epsom race the fourteen runners were represented by fourteen different owners and thirteen different trainers with Harry Wragg responsible for the third and fourth fillies home, African Dancer in the Oppenheimer colors, and Laughing Girl carrying the Moller silks. Thirteen different sires were represented with Sassafras being responsible for two runners.

In the King George the eleven runners were covered by ten different trainers and owners, with Penna and Wildenstein fielding Ashmore in addition to Pawneese, but not in a pacemaking role with the winner leading from the start. Eleven different sires were represented.

Ending on a brighter note; irrespective of whether the action will be unfolding before live audiences or not, once the jump season 'proper' swings into action during October it will be an asterisk free programme with the quality of the action out on the track unaffected by what has been happening in the wider world.  Michael O'Leary's winding down of his involvement will be welcomed by many on both sides of the Irish Sea so there looks to be plenty to look forward to.

Monday, 20 July 2020

A SPELL HAS BEEN CAST ON THIS SPORT


It would be totally absurd to pick out the areas in racing where you can just maybe find some things to be optimistic over when all they would be is specks of light against a background of gloom, leaving one with a feeling that this truly has become a cursed sport.

The news that Graham Wylie, in the week that the British Masters Golf is held in his back garden, has  announced that he is curtailing his horse racing interests does not come as a shock as his once enthusiastic restocking with quality store horses and classy ex flat racers had already ceased.

It is also an  item of news that ends hopes that he would return his focus to the north of England where he began his racing interests with Howard Johnston, who despite taking a hammering on the forums by those claiming that he did not deserve the quality of animal Wylie placed with him, rewarded his loyal owners faith by bringing him by far his most successful days which were not matched after the trainer lost his licence and the horses were shared between Willie Mullins, and to a lesser extent Paul Nichols.

Because many were yearning without hope for a return to the the heady 1970's and 1980's when the top half of the country was a match for any other region in addition to the whole of Ireland when comparing the quality of national hunt horses in training, many were complaining when Wylie came on the scene, using his instant success as a sign of how poor the northern jumping scene had become.

This was indeed so if you obstinately felt the need to forever compare with two golden decades in the past, but by Christ looking at the state of the jumping scene north of the Trent now, we were spoilt during the Wylie era as in addition there were more Trevor Hemmings owned animals turning up at the courses, plus Ashleybank Investments, formerly the Edinburgh Woollen Mill, were responsible for providing a steady supply of promising performers to Lenny Lungo who now had a bigger share of animals carrying those colours than those housed at Greystoke.

And not to forget that Robert Ogden had a spell during this period when he had some seriously good jumpers with northern trainers - many forget that Ad Hoc began his career with Lungo, Kingsmark spent the first half of his with Martin Todhunter, while Squire Silk had his best days with Andy Turnell.

Whilst quality national hunt performers are a rarity in those upper regions, the northern racecourses have somehow survived. To now at least, but regrettably we must now be nearing the time when venues will begin to fold and some of those in the top region of the country will be well and truly in dire straits. For the time being Edinburgh has been rescued but one can be certain that the few years that separated Lanark and Teeside Park/ Stockton perishing, will be shortened dramatically by the gap in between the next two northern courses to close.

It's nearly forty years since Stockton went. This at a time that the area was crucified economically which would have been apparent when the industrial chimneys and furnaces that formed part of the skyline when you gazed over to the horizon from inside the course, stopped billowing out their clouds of smoke.

Racecourses are now apt to be more discreet when the subject of their financial viability is raised.  In times gone by these issues were discussed more openly, making it common public knowledge which venues were on their uppers

Look back through newspaper archives and you will find stories appearing in the national press predicting which venues were set for the chop. And more often than not, the gloomy predictions came true - not least from one story which appeared in April 1963, predicting that no less than a dozen courses faced imminent closure, with brief but to the point reasons provided, which all amounted to why the levy board planned to withdraw support for the tracks on the list.

Stockton was on the list, being cited as an economically unsound proposition due to the cost of much needed modernisation along with the fact that Redcar, which was described as having more crowd drawing power, was situated only thirteen miles away. It took longer than predicted for the track to fold. Edinburgh also made the list, with claims that it was not economically viable due to a lack of space curbing potential development.

All told, five of the twelve cursed courses survived into the future with Folkestone marching on for a further half century. The others that survived were Pontefract, which has certainly gone and defied the doom mongers as it appeared not to have much to rejoice about being put on the black list not only due to costly building needs, but also having subsidence and drainage issues; and the West Norfolk Hunt, which soon after changed it's fixture name under rules to Fakenham.

The seven locations that the omens unfortunately came true for soon after were Manchester, Rothbury, Lincoln, Lewes, Bogside and Woore. The other venues that have gone under since that article appeared are Birmingham, Alexandra Park, Lanark, Wye - with Towcester joining Folkestone, in becoming a recent victim.

The venue that beat all the spells that appeared cast upon on it was none other than Aintree, which came perilously close to succumbing in the 1960's, 1970's and 1980's. Once the property became part of the portfolio of racecourses under the Jockey Club Racecourses banner, massive investment was put into a costly redeveloping programme which has paid off, meaning it's future is secure even if the same cannot be said of the ' Grand National In Name Only Handicap Chase.'.

There was however a near miss for another premium jumping track in the same ownership. With their  business heads on, Jockey Club Racecourses felt that it would make sound financial sense to accept an offer for Kempton Park from property developers, then use the money to plough funds into Sandown Park where the King George V1 Chase would be transfered over to.

Thankfully, what amounted to a scare for many racing fans has blown over for the time being at least but logic dictates that if the funds of even the most successfully operated racecourse ownership groups had to come under review long before Covid 19 had been heard of, then the fates will have cast spells on a number of racetracks whose futures will be in jeopardy.

And those of us who turn our nose up at the courses that have long gone after the cult crowds, who go along for a noise booze up, have the cheek to enjoy themselves, and quite like a concert afterwards, may after all be forced to have a rethink and eat our words, particular if racing's share of the betting pie continues to dwindle.

image taken by author - Munich street theatre


Thursday, 9 July 2020

A SPORT LOSING ITS WAY


Television viewing figures must always be viewed with cynicism, particularly so when they are used as evidence to back up a claim that a struggling sport such as horse racing is experiencing a rebirth in popularity amongst the general populace, a theory that flies against the prevailing wind.

If any racing fan had been unwise enough to think that last Saturday presented the opportunity to encourage some indifferent soul to the sport to sit back, pay attention, then see if they had warmed to it, then they would now be regretting the decision.

It's akin to the times when we've been hooked on a sitcom, implored others to watch it, only for that particular episode to be a rare below par production. And on Saturday those causing the spike by switching over briefly to watch the main event, many already in front of the television having watched a Premiership football match which concluded five minutes before the race started, with many preparing for the next match kicking off half an hour after the end of the race, would have been as engaged as someone tuning into the Tour de France but failing to feel a buzz watching continued domination for Team Sky come Team Ineo.

Horse racing has become adept at using other more popular sports to ride on the back of and pick up viewers, and while Premiership football in particular is in for a rocky ride, it will still remain in a different stratosphere to racing in the popularity stakes. To put things into perspective, horse race broadcasting  has now for many years had to adjust programme times for a wide range of bigger viewer attractions from Countdown to Grand Prix practice, so will always be thrashed by football despite that sport bring a dreadful spectacle at the moment.

They say that the golfers who were at their peak during Tiger Wood's long lasting period of a dominance previously unknown were born unlucky, with the fates conspiring that resulted in a situation that gaining a victory in not only the majors, but in regular PGA Tour events, would be a task with an extra obstacle added.

A similar story has unfolded in European flat horse racing. No one in the press will dare say it. If they did it would not be personal criticism of individuals, rather regret in how things have evolved with the result that the sport is a less gripping spectacle than at any time during the past seventy five years.

Instead, those that broadcast the sport take the cop out route by reminding us that we should be thankful that Coolmore choose to pit their strongest combinations against one another in our top races. On the forums many threads attract more readers than articles in the racing press and on which many of the sane contributors have a better knowledge of the sport than most of the contemporary racing media.

In one thread on the Betfair Forum someone asked a pertinent question that someone with a clear, uncluttered mind process may wonder about. The post headline asked, " If Aiden Is God Then How Come His Sons Can Win Group 1's Straight  Away ", alluding to the fact that following on from J. P. O'Brien producing a Moyglare Stud Stakes triumph soon after setting up, whether Donnacha O'Brien in training the Prix de Diane winner just months into his training career was evidence that it's completely all about the quality of horse a trainer receives.

This is a subject that racing fans are far more interested in than some of the inane nonsense chatted about in broadcasts. Remember, some say that sharing out the Coolmore reared yearlings was trialed but this is not the case. David Wachman was given a steady but restricted stream of animals and probably performed no worse or better than would have been the norm expected, and while many years back their were rumours that John Hammond would be receiving a share in numbers not too far lower than at Ballydoyle they remained just rumours and did not materialize.

This would make fascinating TV discussion but it's not a subject the present racing media will go near. I'm quite sure it is something that Julian Wilson would have brought up, perhaps John Oaksey too whose willingness to play a stereotypical role on TV to fit in with the title would conceal for the casual viewer his intelligence and knowledge of the game. His Mill Reef book is one of the most enjoyable racing reads ever. I'm sure he would be dismayed at the present state of the flat game.

It was the norm to label a trainer lucky for being able to saddle a fancied runner in the Derby the year after fielding a colt similarly in the mix, regardless of how they performed. I sometimes find it hard to believe that when Peter Walwyn saddled Oats to finish third in the 1976 Derby, it would be the last time he would have a runner reaching the frame in the race. This only a year after training Grundy to win the same race. And he would continue to hold a license for a further twenty years too! 

It's a fine example of how the gold seal jam was spread wide. Nothing could be taken for granted. And anyone thinking M V O'Brien had shelves full of Northern Dancers should look through Horses In Training editions from the 1970's. They will be surprised. It made it such a more enthralling sport to follow.

If the modern TV racing broadcasters examined the balance of power in the flat game they would cop out, or at least would come up with a conclusion that would sound like a cop out even if it wasn't - with the usual, the cream rises to the top, Lewis Hamilton has the best drive for a reason ect

If they never used the multitude of M C Pipe examples, they could cite Venn Ottery as a magnificent example of how a showcase trainer improved a horse from a small set up into something with a rating five stone superior. Examples of flat trainers taking in an exposed animal racing on the level that finds such dramatic improvement racing in the same sphere are rare outside of the sprinting ranks.

A P O'Brien squeezed perhaps a small amount of improvement from the already high class Excelebration - though compared with Michael Dickinson who was put at the helm at Manton, unproven in the flat racing arena, it highlights just how spectacularly unsuccessful that venture was to think that Barry Hills came in to rescue the project and improved many of the charges, including turning Handsome Sailor into a Nunthorpe winner, an animal who had been purchased from the yard of Ron Thompson to be used as a lead horse on the gallops for Dickinson's babies.

But the area most of the media would be unwilling to delve to deeply into would be the one on the lines of Fernando Alonso being the best driver pound for pound - in racing the topical equivalent would be how John Oxx or Dermot Weld would fare with the full Coolmore support behind them.

It is the type of debate that would swing back and forth, going from trainer being a genius tag to just good, precise, devolving of powers to the most talented staff available, along with the reality that the Galileos are available on tap and will be for the next five years at the very least.

On that note, even if infirmity set in suddenly, Coolmore would still be in a much stronger position than when Sadler's Wells was well past middle age with In The Wings and El Prado his two most successful stallion sons, despite all the racing stars that he had been churning out regularly  - that was until Montjieu and Galileo came along to start a new chapter.

On what the racing broadcasters are willing to deliberate candidly over could just possibly be changing. For who would have expected ITV racing to have a realistic discussion today over the consequences of the Covid 19 crisis which concluded with the message that racing was not out of the woods yet, with a scaling down of the sport still a possibility.

Maybe this was on the agenda because it was a sensible Thursday . I somehow doubt it would be on the schedule on smiley, dumb down Saturday when all is well in the house of racing. Most would hope differently.
image from peakpx.com

Monday, 29 June 2020

A SETBACK THAT WILL LEAVE LONG LASTING DAMAGE


Frank Taylor may have been one of the most noted and long established names in British sports journalism in a career lasting well over fifty years, but despite all his achievements and awards his biggest single claim to fame will be that he was one of the fortunate survivors of the 1958 Munich air disaster.

He enjoyed a long stint at the Daily Mirror during which he had a spell in the additional role of editing the sports post bag and nominating the winning letter. In November 1976, one of the chosen winners was a A.W. Elbourn from Faringdon, Oxon who was concerned with the amount of money being taken from the prize pool for the big flat races by foreign raiders.

Whether it was the fact that racing was not Taylor's main sport or whether racing did not realise how well it was faring during hard economic times, he introduced the prize letter, by claiming that racing was facing hard times, pointing to an estimated £903,000 of the £1,350,000 available in the top races, being taken away from these shores.

Mr Elbourn himself did not mince his words, going as far as declaring that the " British turf had suffered a near disaster and the biggest setback in its history", all because, by his reckoning, the French and Irish had taken over half a million in prize money between them.

One has to remember that during the flat season that the curtains had just been drawn across, the 2,000 Guineas was the only English classic not scooped up by the French; the race falling to Wollow who came home first in a field of seventeen, compiled of seventeen different owners and seventeen different trainers.

This profile was the norm for all of the top events - Frank Taylor passed away in 2002 and I've no idea whether Mr Elbourn is still with us but God knows how they would have felt if they could have foresaw the profile of the typical big events nowadays, with the jam in a shockingly small number of jars.

It was what made it all the more amazing that the French based Argentinian Angel Penna trained the Wildenstein owned trio Flying Water, Pawneese, and Crow to win the 1,000 Guineas, Oaks and St Leger respectively. Their winners were their sole representatives in these events. Indeed, the sport truly was something to rejoice in those days.

Now, we needn't even dwell on so few taking such a high percentage of the prize money as horse racing in the UK is running so low on prize money to offer it is being served in rations. This really hit home when you saw the amount picked up by winning connections in Saturday's  Northumberland Plate.

When the 3 lb claimer John Higgins steered the Tom Waugh trained Tartar Prince to victory in the 1971 renewal of the Northumberland Plate, the monetary prize for winning connections was a total of £5,266. By 1979 when Bruce Raymond carried Lady Beaverbrook’s silks on board Totowah to take the honours, the winner’s funds had risen significantly to £14,840.

It was 1988 when the winning prize was on parity with what was on offer at the weekend, thirty two years later. That day Michael Roberts was aboard the Jimmy Fitzgerald trained Treasure Hunter. In the interim period the costs of keeping a racehorse in training have risen considerably. Certainly by enough to have made the victor's prize of £92,000 for the 2019 merely par for the course for a showcase handicap.

Consider that when the jockey and trainer's share are taken out of the winning connections pot of under £25,000, there will be barely enough to cover twelve months training fees. Particularly as the winning yard does not appeal as a set up that cuts corners for a Poundshop training fee.

And while the owner of the winner, similarly to the majority in the yard, are unlikely to be forever checking their accounts to ensure they have sufficient to cover the monthly fees, there will come a time when owners of similar standing will take a stand on principal.

Look at it this way, Sheikh Mohammed once threatened to pull out of British racing due to the prize money situation. That was over twenty years ago but he has brought the subject to surface on occasions since when prize funds, compared with the dire levels they have fallen to now, were reasonably buoyant and increasing steadily.

For the many owners further down the scale with one or two animals in their name they cannot afford to play a poker game for they will simply be unable to sustain their outgoings, something that was at the heart of the matter when industry wide action was taken to boycott the Arena Leisure owned venues for a short period last February.

Again, this was not confined solely to those operating in the lower tiers. The chief organiser from the training ranks was Ralph Becket, whose list of patrons include some of the wealthiest involved in the sport. Remember, this hullabaloo was in full flow during a period, that if those involved were now given the opportunity to return in time to, they'd bounce up and down with joy, breath a sigh of relief and get on with it.

Industrial action cannot be an option now. With the plague impacting the wider society as a whole such protestations would cause the industry to be viewed with ridicule as well as a degree of cold indifference. Downsizing is now inevatable and if Mr Elbourn's claim that British racing was suffering its biggest setback in history was totally out of context back in 1976, it would not be wide of the mark to describe the present.

Image from scrapbook

Saturday, 20 June 2020

A GOOD WEEK BUT ONE THAT MUST BE PUT INTO PERSPECTIVE


That the 2020 flat racing season has been salvaged to to a degree that could only have been hoped for two months ago is something to be thankful for but, as with most other industries, there will be a staggering and sustained financial shortfall to be reckoned with once a full assessment can be made.

Prizes even at the very top have reverted back to levels of many years ago. In the very short term of a season or two it may not make much difference to an owner of a well bred entire winning a Group 1, but for someone with a hardy four year old gelding who will be able to tough it out in high class company for another two seasons at the very least, then the temptation to seek to sell, or to race in Australia or Hong Kong must be far greater than it normally is.

It’s tickling to dwell over the fact that it was as long ago as the 1980’s that Brought Scott, in his unofficial role as cheerleader for the Maktoums, would remind us how poorer UK racing would be if the family suddenly decided to up sticks and transfer their whole operation to a far away location.

In fact, on occasions he looked into the camera with such an intense expression as he spoke, it was as though he was responding to a critic declaring, “ they are ruining the sport, we don’t need them !”, but who could not be seen or heard by the television audience.

One must now start to wonder just how long certain races are able to retain their prestige with reduced prize money. If the deprived funds impact for just one or two seasons then it is something that can be overcome. But what if the new levels become the norm while remaining unaffected in the Southern Hemisphere?

Put it this way, when the powers that be in this country address criticism from those who maintain that the increases in prize funds at the top level are needless and disproportionate, they will try to justify their approach by warning that retaining prestige in a top level race can only be maintained with money levels similar to the other major racing nations.

At the other end of the scale, many of those involved with horses competing at the bread and butter fixtures will be forced to leave the industry if no solution is found to solve the crisis. Those departing will include trainers in addition to a multitude of owners. If this sounds like an overstatement then consider that the lower levels of the industry went on strike over lower grade prize money levels at a time when the present world impasse belonged to sci fi fiction.

The racing structure does have to be pyramid shaped but many fans despair how bloated the basement tiers became under Peter Savill’s tenure as chairman of the old BHB. This model fits in with the sport harvesting funds from the bookmaking industry through a gross tax profits agreement though purists will point to the resultant day to day menu of too many meetings to keep a handle on along with too much tripe.

There are races framed for horses rated so low that you could argue that they should be flapping at the likes of Hawick. This of course leads to the subjects of over production, animal welfare and wastage. These are areas that will not be able to escape the spotlight for much longer as the sport is forced to cut its cloth accordingly and downsize.

John Gosden has visualised this but for many it is something of a taboo subject. And it’s baffling why ITV racing have been boasting of the audiences tuned into Royal Ascot as though it is the beginning of an upturn in the fortunes of the game, while at the same time choosing not to allow even a moderate amount of air time to examine the detrimental long term impact the past few months will have on a sport that already had enough worries before the plague arrived.

It can’t be repeated enough how much better racing was in the days the fixtures were served, as top chefs will say, to leave you wanting a little more. Now the whole programme resembles an all you can eat for a fixed price but with the risk of picking up a dose of food poisoning.

Those of a certain age can sleep easy with the comfort that they followed the sport in the halcyon days of the 1970’s and 1980’s, knowing with certainty that the sport will never return to both the status and enjoyment levels that existed then.

Yes, it’s been a good week considering the circumstances with Stradivarius producing a memorable visual performance in the Ascot Gold Cup even if not beating a line up that could be considered anywhere bordering on above average for the event, a race which fell apart in conditions where winning margins exaggerate superiority.

Sagaro ( pictured) took his third Ascot Gold Cup on good ground by five lengths with Piggott sitting quietly until gently asking his mount to extend, with John Sharratt returning a comment for Raceform of  ‘ v easily’.  The runner up was another great French stayer Buckskin, the third home Citoyen completing a Gallic whitewash. They’d filled the first three places in the Prix du Cadran with Buckskin winning on that occasion. The fourth horse home was Bruni, widely acknowledged as the most visually impressive post war winner of the St Leger.

Despite those being times when widespread industrial action was continually on the daily main news agenda, there existed no dark clouds on horse racing’s horizon. The future seemed infinitely assured, it was a major sport and you could not imagine it being anything else at a time when many successful top flight football clubs could not fill out despite tickets being available for tuppence. Football was of course always far bigger but not by the country mile that exists between the two now.

Contrast with the present - admittedly football is going through a crisis period with the likes of Sky trying gimmicks and no doubt instructing guests to be more outspoken with the already outspoken guests asked to be even angrier, all to try and stem the cancellations of contracts -  but at the end of the day it will at least recover to a level whereby it will safely remain head and shoulders in popularity above the other sports.

But racing is, putting it politely, deep in the mire. For some, it will mean having to leave the industry and begin a new life in an unknown sphere, for others, in particular many long term fans, they will at least have their fingers crossed that the new landscape offers something that if not able to match that of a few decades back at least can be tracked, even savoured on occasions.

But wishing that the sport returns to a fixture list size of fifty years back while also retaining its quality with the jam spread wide, is unfortunately an unrealistic hope.

Image from cover of Pacemaker International 

Tuesday, 9 June 2020

A SPORT ENCIRCLED WITH WORRIMENT


It would be foolish for anyone to consider the big year on year increase in the terrestial television viewing figures for the Guineas meeting coverage and believe that racing is on the pathway to securing a new born boost in popularity.

In normal circumstances Saturday would have seen the final qualifying session of the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, while the England cricket team would be in the third day of their first Test Match against the West Indies at the Oval - not to mention all the programmes covering the countdown to the beginning of the Euro Championships which was due to begin in a few days time.

It's a mark of where the once major sport of horse racing now stands in the pecking order in the UK when final Grand Prix qualifying sessions attract a larger television audience. 

So together the fates conspired to provide the sport with what could be interpreted as a golden opportunuty to showcase its strengths, with even the dip in temperatures outside keeping many from their gardens.

Looking at the present state of the various sports objectively, horse racing is not reliant on an attending audience to maintain the quality of experience for the living room viewer. Indeed, we were even spared those obtuse and ingratiating interviews with the victorious jockeys, as they are led back in off the course.

This is not to say that a pre or post race opinion of a trainer cannot enhance the viewer experience provided the questions are tailored for the circumstances, similar to an early day recording of a chat with one or two of the riders, or a post race jockey interview after the weigh in, when he is able to watch a replay with the interviewer and offer an insight with his mind now clear and relaxed.

But all in all, given the circumstances, nothing too major is taken away from the core attraction if you are genuinely interested in the sport, which is not something that could be said for the football fanatics who may be facing an impending meltdown of their sport.

If the restart follows the same pattern as the Bundesliga where, as feared by many, the empty venues have whittled away ' home' advantage taking away a component of the game, then SKY will have a job on their hands billing their games. They won't be able to come up with the ' make the journey to....where they will face the hostile atmosphere of...'  line and subscriptions are going to be cancelled like never before.

There may be initial enthusiasm but the viewers will soon realise it's not football how they know and like it. The subscription TV companies will try adding all sorts of red button gimmicks but it probably won't wash. This could finally be the time when the endlessly expanding bubble bursts.

This does not mean that those with horse racing's interests at heart should think that they have the product to take advantage of the situation for there is most unlikely to be any substantial increase in online wagering on the sport which means that the pending mass closures of high street betting offices will put the sword to the sport with a massive shortfall in funding. And not to mention the separate issue of those venues that have sold their soul to the cult summer crowds.

For the well being of the sport it would be wiser for those on the power buttons to move their attention away from hoping to get one over on the round ball game and hope for an outcome that favours both - namely the dreaded plague fading away with the realisation that the imposition of lockdown was unnecessary, an opinion shared by some respected scientists.

And if by the end of the month there is no reversal in the pattern of declining fatalities, hopes will increase that no notable second wave will be forthcoming. It would still take until next spring to be confident that it won't be returning but the prospect of sporting venues with large capacities as early as the spring jumping festivals is considerably better than the alternative of seeing this uncertainty lasting for a long, indefinite period of time, that could relegate the status of horse racing here to a level unknown over the past century and a half.

A further area of concern must be drawn to the anti racing groups. Now, those of us who followed the sport in the 1970's and 1980's know full well that the opposition to the sport was far more numerical than it is now. This stems from the fact that a countless number of souls who potentially could have been shaped into animal liberation 'revolutionaries' are instead concentrating their full focus and energy on the just cause of saving the oceans and its inhabitants from the grim affects of pollution.

The problem lies within clever utilisation of social media which can enable a relatively small group of people to allay the impression that they are far more widespread and powerful than is really the case. And as they will be open to new angles to create an impact it is hard not to believe that some of the antics  witnessed this past weekend will have had their light bulbs flickering away.

Put it this way, is it that far fetched to imagine a group of wannabe revolutionaries descending on St Jame's Park with the intention of inflicting wanton damage on the Queen Mother Memorial statue, drumming up support by linking the racing connection with crimes of the British Empire.

And even less imagination is required to picture a sizeable mass of stirred up demonstrators descending upon the Charles 11 statues in Soho Square, on the Rowley Mile course in Newmarket or up in Edinburgh, as here they have a luminary who played a pivotal role not only in the development of horse racing but also in the legalisation of Britain's involvement in the slave trade. Oh dear!

image by Prioryman - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0!

Saturday, 30 May 2020

A LESSON IN HOW THE SPORT SHOULD BE PRESENTED


The prospect that the Covid 19 crisis would provide racing with an uncontested shot at conjuring up interest from an untapped, fresh audience, is now diminishing through a combination of the massess gradually returning to work, those at home venturing outside to soak up the sun, not to mention the approaching return of football.

It now seems an age ago that we were monitoring markets by the day inviting us to speculate whether the Grand National meeting would go ahead. As hope of that faded, the focus then moved to whether the sport would resume by the first day of May.

Throughout this enforced sabbatical there has been spirited talk of how resilient racing is, that it possesses such a magnetic pull with audiences to be able to dust itself down and get back up and running while at the same time overcoming the inevitable short term funding problems that threaten to develop into a long term crisis.

Let it not be in any doubt that the restart cannot come soon enough but with hindsight the sport could of been up and running in late April when it would have been offered countless, sole attempts at auditioning to a potentially vast pool of viewers who were offered no other live sport to watch. 

Mind you, I would have priced it up strongly in favour of them repeatedly fluffing their lines. It's a crying shame how the presentation of the sport has  nosedived to basement level in which a casual viewer could be forgiven for believing that it's all about forced fun, false laughter, loud oscillating voices, females speaking the universal student language with raised intonations at the end of each sentence, males under thirty five obeying an unwritten law of sporting designer stubble or a trimmed beard, along with an overall agenda to simplify and devalue the sport that is meant to be holding court.

Many over a certain age remember how it was. And how the sport was presented to us in a gentle style that allowed the atmosphere of the build up to an important race to enter into the viewers living room. A healthy sport that did not require hype.

And thankfully for the many whose video collections accumulated over decades only to find them ruined by mould, the sterling work of those who have minded their collections better and transferred them to You Tube cannot be praised enough.

Two in particular, who come under the pseudonyms of espmadrid and Eddie Cr, have continued to give valuable service to the sport as they transfer their historic video archive for racing fans to enjoy free of charge.

We watch races that we sometimes have not seen since the actual day of the event but shamefully often forget to click on the thumbs up, so immersed we have been in  having memories stirred.

Which brings things back to the wonderful old style presentation. Wednesday July 29th 1981 is famous for a Royal Wedding; to racing fans it was leg three of the To Agori Mou v King's Lake grudge match in the Sussex Stakes.

Eddie Cr has added an uploaded extended version of the race on You Tube. It begins as the runners are leaving the paddock and going out on to the course. Jimmy Lindley, calm and controlled - he could be no other way - discusses the runners.

There is no attempt by Lindley to try to be cute and invent an angle into the race. Nor did he drum up cheap excitement by playing up the bad feeling between the connections of the two main protagonists -  King's Lake having beaten the Newmarket 2000 Guineas winner in the Irish equivalent, only to lose the race in the stewards room then be reinstated after an appeal, then to lose the rematch in the St James Palace Stakes when Greville Starkey gave Pat Eddery the two finger sign passing the line.

Though Lindley had strong links with the Guy Harwood yard from his riding days there was no bias towards To Agori Mou in the coverage. But he does makes some delightful horseman's observations about the colt, describing him as having, " nothing pretty about him, a real workman with a big, honest intelligent head."

We often use to hear them described as "common" heads and they have become much rarer, particularly in flat racing. Oddly enough, in that Henry Cecil book, this was the perceived changing trend that caused a controversial non ranking member of the team to experiment by altering the bridles on the inmates to fit a narrower head.

Apart from two betting shows read out off the stencil on screen, Lindley was in charge until John Hanmer took over when the runners reached the start, where he brought Lindley back in once or twice. Hanmer, while known to many in the general public for being part of the in running Grand National commentary for many years, was also Steve Cauthen's agent at the time in addition to being part of the team that do the 'close ups' for the official form book.

Similar to Lindley, he was not prone to outbursts of excitement, rather oozing calm, control and intelligence. One shudders to think how they would feel if required to fit in with a modern, presenting team. Having to hand over to the 'social stable' where no doubt on this day they would of found themselves surrounded by screaming attendees in mock wedding dresses and tiaras bought out of tat shops, along with others sporting rubber Prince Charles ears.

The field assembled was typical of a time when the jam was spread wider; nine runners, nine different owners, eight different trainers with the trainer of King's Lake, Vincent O'Brien, also running Last Fandango, who was there on his merits in the Sangster colours. The Maktoum's sole representative was Noalto in the Sheikh Mohammed  colours. Little did we know the rate at which their involvement would suddenly escalate.

And finally over to the voice of racing for a faultless no thrills commentary. To Agori Mou looked likely to confirm the Ascot form as he took up the running approaching the furlong marker under Starkey with his distinctive, rythmical bobbing style, elbows pointed outwards. Alas under a patient Eddery ride, King's Lake got up on the inside to lead close home and win by a head with, we later discovered, his rider voicing a few revengeful expletives towards Starkey.

It could be pointed out that if a certain French trained colt named Northjet had not been withdrawn from the race following a late setback, then we would have discovered earlier who the real boss of this division was. For while To Agori Mou came out marginally ahead of King's Lake when they clashed for a fourth and final time in the Prix Jaques le Marois, it was of little relevance as Northjet trounced the pair of them. Still, it was a final twist that took nothing away from the entertainment the miler's division gave us that summer.

But most poignant of all is realising just how coverage from the BBC racing team, fronted by the inimitable Julian Wilson, with a small but top notch team who realised that if the product was so good, you let it do the speaking itself. Now, resuming next week, we not only have an inferior product but one presented to the public in a painfully demeaning style.

image reproduced under CC BT - SA 2.0

AN ASTERISK RIDDLED SEASON

Anyone really believing that this flat season will be looked back at with any sort of fondness due to the unique close down, restart and...

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