Wednesday, 20 June 2018

A SYSTEM IN DISARRAY

You sometimes wonder whether it would be best to discontinue 'the Pattern', so amok and out of control it now is. Erratically mismanaged, it has morphed into something which clearly had not been intended when it was first introduced in 1971.

The original concept was to grade the races at the top end of the spectrum with the Group 1 events being given the seal of approval as the creme de la creme of the thoroughbred world, being the races that would be globally recognised as such and the ones which would go some way to deciding on what level a stallion would begin his new career.

For it to work though, checks and balances would have to be put in place whereby the races would be continually scrutinised and reassessed when necessary. The intention of this was that, for example, if a Group 2 race continually produced winners that were rated above average for the level of contest, then the race would be considered for elevation in grade.

Likewise, a Group 1 event that was being won routinely by horses who were otherwise not cutting the mustard at that level would be considered for downgrade. It was intended that the numbers were kept manageable and a balance sought in the number of upgraded and downgraded events. Changes were not to be made too hastily.

For a short while, the races were governed as planned, though there was one change that raised many eyebrows. This being the decision to move the King's Stand Stakes down a notch to Group 2 in 1988, while the race known then as the Vernon's Sprint Cup went the other way. It was seen in some quarters as a move to give flat racing in the North a boost, but there was no justification for downgrading the Ascot event.

The King's Stand Stakes probably generated more of a buzz than even the July Cup and Nunthorpe. It would be the first opportunity for the three-year-olds to take on the older sprinters. Some like Godswalk and Solinus where dyed in the wool sprinters who were never considered as Guineas prospects. Others, like Marwell, had failed to last home at Newmarket and were reverting back down in trip. In Marwell's case, who had been beaten in Fairy Footstep's Guineas, she had dropped down successfully in trip in the Gus Demmy at Haydock before lining up at Ascot.

Taking a look at the preceding ten years leading up to the Ascot event being demoted, the roll of honour, in addition to Marwell, included Solinus, Double Form, Habibti, Never So Bold and Last Tycoon.

For the same period, the Haydock race could also boast Habibti and Double Form, in addition to Moorestyle, Green Desert and Ajdal. There wasn't much in it. The Ascot race was showing no signs of fading, the Haydock event was producing winners of a similar quality. 

Mindful of the cautious spirit of which the whole system was intended, here was a rare case where there was a solid foundation to upgrade the Vernons without demoting any of the other three Group 1 sprints.

Fast forward the clock to this week and you see how it has all gone pear-shaped. Blue Point's King Stand victory yesterday was helped by the fact that Equilateral and Sioux Nation have the Commonwealth Cup to run in, while if Blue Point runs again in the Diamond Jubilee on Saturday, he will face amongst others, Harry Angel, Redkirk Warrior and Merchant Navy who were not in the King's Stand.

Admittedly, this is not a wholly fair argument. The fact that there are now three Group 1 sprints at Royal Ascot ( the King's Stand reverted to the highest grade in 2008) helps entice the foreign raiders. But a fair appraisal of the changes would have to arrive at the conclusion that the original King's Stand generated more anticipation, a better field and with it a superior winner on average than what the race produces now allied with the other two events.

The Golden Jubilee was originally the Cork and Orrey, an event that may have suited Equilateral if connections did not want to take on the field in what could have been a  King's Stand brimming with quality. The Commonwealth Cup lays on relatively easy Group One pickings for three year olds and delays the generation clash in the sprinting division, which was one of the most interesting aspects of the meeting.

Globally, the Pattern system has gone out of control on a larger scale than here. Australia a prime example where it's nothing short of chaos. There are also many soft Grade 1 turf events in the States. In fact, when they upgraded the likes of the Sun Chariot and Falmouth Stakes, and the Gilltown come Matron Stakes, and Pretty Polly Stakes in Ireland, they cited that the older fillies and mares were being prised away Stateside by their generous programme of Grade 1 Mares and Fillies events.

Another area to consider when looking at some dubious upgradings are the races that were originally used as seasonal debut events, stepping stones to the first big challenge of the season. The Lockinge Stakes and Ballymoss Stakes come Tattersall Rogers Gold Cup, are prime examples of this and still very much emit a feel of being prep events as opposed to the real thing. It matters not the names of the winners, more so the circumstances of the victories. A few fit and ready Group 2 or 3 performers, against a not fully wound up top-notch performer.

Supporters of the new relaxed approach would point out that old way was frugal. For example, the Prince of Wales like the Tattersalls Rogers, was more of a trial for the Eclipse and King George V1 Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes, not receiving top status until 2000. Another point to bear in mind was that the Coronation Cup was already in the top status, but emanated the feeling, and still does, as more of a trial for the mid-summer events.

And for the three-year-olds who had been competitive in the English and Irish Guineas but who were true milers, the St James Palace Stakes, like the Coronation Stakes, did not become a Group 1 until 1988. Hard to believe that when Brigadier Gerard won it in the first season of the Pattern, that when Kris beat Young Generation in 1979, and when To Agori Mou beat King's Like their first grudge rematch when Greville Starkey gave the two finger sign to Pat Eddery, it was still a Group 2.

Finally, no matter how much the original intention was to keep to a strict monitoring of the races and re-asses only when sure, there are some events that would never have and never will be downgraded. The Ascot Gold Cup and St Leger are two prime examples. They've both had many winners that fall below genuine performers of the highest level but are untouchable. 

If you want to be cynical you can cite the Goodwood Cup, upgraded mainly to reward the sponsors prize money boost, a consideration not in the original 'handbook', is also a buffer in the sense that if in the unlikely circumstances they changed direction and began to prune these races, the Goodwood Cup would be there to be demoted before the Ascot event.

Perhaps the biggest sufferer of the free for all Group One world is the King GeorgeV1 and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes which was the mid-summer jewel in the crown but is a race that has lost its edge for those over a certain age.

In reality, there is no going back now as too many powerful worldwide factions in the breeding industry would simply not permit it to happen. But one still can't help take much of this grading with a pinch of salt. 

For just like when the football stats crunchers compare the Champions League with the old European Cup and announce that so and so has broken his club's record for the number of appearances in the competition, we can give little credence to tallies of Group 1 successes, whether it be from horses, owners, trainers or jockeys.


Thursday, 14 June 2018

THEY NEVER SAW IT COMING


" Bookmakers- Do They Owe Us A Living ?" was the headline on the cover page of the June 1988 edition of Pacemaker International, also billed as the Royal Ascot issue.

For the timeworn who were bitten by the racing bug during the dizzy 1970's, 1988 does not feel like thirty years ago, which is a big dent in most lifetimes. Yet when you digest the article relating to the headline, you are left feeling pretty glum on realising how the racing landscape has changed for the worse.

The article was penned by Geoffrey Wheatcroft, known mostly as a political journalist. He takes the reader through the legalisation and development of off-course betting, suggesting that an opportunity of an off-course Tote Monopoly, which had been called for by many within the sport, had been missed.

At the time, the then 'big four' controlled 56% of turnover from the off-course market. Wheatcroft argued that the LBO cash betting industry was not suitable for privatisation and called for full Tote control but ends his piece  with,"So obvious, so rational is this answer that you can be sure it will never happen."

What is so eerie about the article is that there is no mention of any lurking threat from the betting habits of punters switching to other sports. In fact, so cocksure were all that Horse Racing would continue to be the truly dominant sport for betting, no one had any real notion of the scale in which changes would happen.

During this time racing held 85% of the betting market. Football fixed odds still had an open long list of a minimum of five selections. There was a short list of a minimum three but that was made up of the tricky fixtures. On the long list, it was customary to have Aberdeen and Liverpool as banker homes but that still left you with three or four to find.

In Tennis and Golf there were no betting markets outside of the majors. The cricket markets too were far away from the crazy amounts now wagered on the shorter formats of the game along with any England home test series. All very understandable when you consider that the wall to wall Sky Sports coverage was a few years off its birth.

The struggle racing now faces compared to 1988 is mass, with threats from more angles and in an era where we have a generation of young fathers who themselves have not been weaned on racing and view Football as the main betting sport which it undoubtedly now is for the under 35's.

Compare the blase approach of those that pulled the strings in racing in the 1980's with the leaders in the modern-day US Golf industry, which is the heartland for that sport.

They've been panicking! Nike's decision to stop making golf clubs was viewed by some as a shot across the bows for the sport, allied with a trend of less of the public playing the game.

But look closer and you will see that it is a sport holding its ground well in the tier of major sports. The number of youths playing the sport has increased and many people across the whole age spectrum who have yet to play the sport proper are using the indoor chain of Topgolf facilities, which suit working families whose luxury time is limited.

In addition to this, crowd attendance figures on the PGA Tour have increased, and the introduction of Golf to the Olympics is helping develop the game in the likes of China, India and Brazil, the first two named countries having already shown they can produce winning players on the main two tours.

So in Golf, we have a sport looking inwardly and fretting, seeking to reverse possible trends that could be bad for the sport before they take hold. Compare this to racing in the 1980's. An attitude of we are all fine and dandy apart from being able to arrive at a long term compromise of how much each sector of the industry should receive of the punter's money.

With FOBTS soon to be neutered and significant LBO closures certain, the most telling statistics going forward are from remote gaming. This method of betting will eventually take over as the main source, being the method used almost exclusively by the emerging generations. At the latest count this form of betting accounted for over a third of all gross gambling yield.

Breaking down the gross gaming yield from remote gambling into the different sports, Football has gone into a clear lead over Horse Racing and is opening up a gap. True, there is then some distance back to the rest but soon, that group clubbed together will catch up with racing.

Unlike these other sports, racing relies on betting to survive. It cannot continue on its present scale without the punter's money. That is an agreed fact.

Trainer George Baker was the other day bemoaning that racing has been left behind by clinging to tradition, no doubt not taking time to think that maybe the chipping away at the old customs and traditions of the sport are actually demeaning it and slowly taking away one of its unique attractions.

Baker commented that new racegoers see people in trilby's and feel they are back in Victorian times. Regrettably, such quaint sights are rarer than in the past.

Such a spectacle would be the norm in the 1970's. There were far more 'Majors' and 'Captains' amongst the training ranks. They prefered to be addressed as such. There were more grumpy looking trainers, even more with ruddy complexions and drink problems, and of course, the customary nicotine stained hands to go with the chain smoking.

Now, the archetypal trainer will be called by his first name, does not smoke or drink excessively, eats lots of fruit and has his cholesterol checked.

Well, in this depressing modern day existence where an increasing number of young people speak to one another in silly MTV presenter style tones and ridiculously call each other 'bro', first time visitors to a racecourse would hopefully be fascinated by the sight of the licence holders who still adhere to the old fashioned dress codes.

They may even take time out between visits to find out who these people are and what horses they are connected to. There still exists an attraction of going back into a time warp, away from the quick fix banality of the present.

When you contemplate some of the ideas put forward to increase the popularity of the sport it provides scant hope for the future and makes people of a certain age feel sure that they have seen the best of it.

And from now on it's all a downhill journey save the odd blip.

image - attribution not required

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

AN EVENT IN THE SHADOW OF ITS PAST


It was pleasing to see the ITV racing coverage of Epsom acknowledge and pay respect to Sir Ivor, who had won Derby fifty years previous. Less favourable that they only show the finish of these great renewals when they go into the archive.

One can understand that there are time restraints, that full race replays would not be possible if they wanted to show Peaty Sandy winning the Eider Chase, but I'm sure they could have found time for full replays of some past runnings of the Epsom classic.

Sometimes you need to watch the race gradually unfold to fully put into perspective the merit of these performances. And if you take out all the ' filler ' time in these shows along with the unnecessary nonsense and customary jazzed up stuff to attract this imaginary new audience waiting to be won over, they would be able to find a few slots if there was a will to do so.

Let no one be fooled by this reported increase in the TV audience. The figures remain poor compared to the numbers watching as recently as a decade ago and the mini-spike up from the previous year was due to viewers beginning to settle down for the England football match which kicked off forty-five minutes after the race on the same channel.

It brings it home how the importance of a once great national sporting event and a once equally great nationwide sport has declined markedly when you hear Epsom based trainer Simon Down agree that many people living around Epsom high street would be unaware that what some still look upon as a worldwide renowned event, was approaching. No doubt they knew all about the upcoming England match though. It is a sad state of affairs.

Ten years on from Sir Ivor the event was still enormous compared with today. Still seventeen years away from the regretful moving of the event to a Saturday, the 1978 running looked wide open and twenty-five runners took their chance. Only Captain Ryan Price trained more than one runner, Obraztosovy and Whitshead, both owned by Harry Demetriou, the only owner with more than one runner.

The race famously went to Shirley Heights in the Lord Halifax colours, Greville Starkey storming up the inside of Bill Shoemaker, who was carrying the Robert Sangster silks on Hawaiian Sound, to win by a narrow margin. Incredibly, Reg Hollinshead trained the third home, Remainder Man. The horse's best contribution to the sport would be to go on and sire the celebrated steeplechaser One Man.

Like this year, the favourite would be Ballydoyle based, the Lester Piggott ridden Inkerman who arrived with far less solid foundations than Saxon Warrior. Other links with the present would be Michael Stoute having his first Derby runner with the William Hill owned Hill's Yankee.

With the Down's packed and the inside rail up the straight lined with those customary but nostalgic open buses, it was still very much an occasion to savour wherever you watched it from, read about it all, and had that ritual head-on photograph as the winner passed the post etched into your memory.

When we go into post-Epsom Derby reflection mode and prophesise whether this will be an ordinary, up to standard, or outstanding renewal, we do so by trying to single out winners from the past with similar profiles. This is one of the comforting attractions of this sport, bringing the past alive and making it relevant to the present.

What is disquieting though is when we have a winner that falls out of the main profile groups. It happened with Dr Devious. He had finished seventh in the Kentucky Derby a few weeks previous. A Churchill Down's also ran proving superior in our showcase event. Another aspect that made him unusual was that he was sired by a sprint handicapper come sprint Group horse.

Then Lammtara. One run as a juvenile in August 1994 for the late Alex Scott, then lining up at Epsom without any prep race. The unsettled feeling not helped by that being the first time the race had been moved to it's new Saturday slot. A mark of changing times for the worse.

Shaamit followed the trend a year later, winning without having a prep race in the current year. The race was taking a new course and felt less significant than it had done as we reached the middle of that decade.

Since the millennium the race has had a fair run. While in line with the declining importance of the sport it is a race that barely is noticed by anyone other than racing fans, with the indifferent including a high number of people who would label themselves as sports fans, it has thrown up some cracking winners, the still under appreciated Sea The Stars being the best of them.

Unfortunately, Masar is one that generates unease among the traditionalists. Masar ran in the UAE Derby earlier in the season. We have come to pigeonhole most of the three years olds that run over at that meeting as animals who are not going to be players in the events that truly matter.

True, Masar was well beaten on the synthetic surface over there unlike those who put up visually taking displays then prove wanting when pitted against the best back in Europe, but being 'hard fit' and looking more exposed than most, he looked a horse who had already fulfilled most of his potential.

Masar's  triumph marks an upturn in the fortunes of the Godolphin operation that has consistently been put in the shadow by the Ballydoyle/Coolmore operation, who despite dominating on a scale which cannot be good for the sport, keep their numbers limited and manageable, and operate at a profit in stark contrast to the middle eastern outfit who for many years were buying up readymade horses as they were unable to nurture most of their own into top class performers.

In fact, all of the other major, established operations such as Juddmonte, HRH Aga Khan, the Wildenstein family, and the Wertheimers, have always kept a manageable number with emphasis on quality.

Hamdan Al Maktoum exempted,  the whole Godolphin operation and its branches have bought and produced in mass numbers. Long gone are the days when they would acquire readymade horses, many of whom had looked to have just about realised all of their potential, then habitually manage to conjure up an extensive amount of improvement out of them.

Many of these animals had their whole profile changed into something that could not have been envisaged. Swain had looked found wanting for pace and destined as an Ascot Gold Cup horse but they got two King George's and an Irish Champion Stakes out of him. He also famously went close in a Breeders Cup Classic.

Daylami was previously a high class miler who looked fully exposed. They turned him into an outstanding 1m2f to 1m4f performer, one of the best of the last twenty five years.

The Maktoum's investment in the sport has given careers to many in all aspects of the sport as well as sustaining many a trainer's operation, but there is undoubtedly a downside. For it can be no coincidence that the past couple of decades has seen many long standing, successful owner breeder operations disappear.

Who knows how many of these had family members in waiting to take over at the helm but considered it insurmountable in light of the lopsided balance of power that exists.

That you don't bite the hand that feeds is an expression that comes to mind when many in the racing community acclaim the victory of Masar as being good for the sport and profess to be happy for connections.

Image in public domain

Monday, 28 May 2018

A MOUNTAIN OUT OF A MOLEHILL


The 'Rooney Rule'  has been the subject of topical discussions over the past few weeks. Named after an NFL owner, the 'Rooney Rule' requires that a quota of applicants from ethnic minority backgrounds are interviewed for certain positions within that particular sport. 

Detractors claim it results in many of these candidates being pure 'token' ones who are, knowingly or not, assisting in a box-ticking exercise though supporters of the rule and variations of it can cite a notable increase in the number of NFL coaches stateside from an ethnic minority background.

The chief reason it has resurfaced in the UK stems from that Patrick Vierra statement regarding Arsenal's public interest in him for the vacant manager's position as being, in his words, 'token'. It's left open to interpretation but it is hard not to be drawn to the obvious conclusion as to what he was inferring.

Whatever an individual's regard for Arsenal FC, no one can deny that they can be considered along with other major football clubs of long standing, an international institution and one which has to consider its business model in every action and statement it makes.

In short, in order to look after this business model in all corners of the world, being inclusive is not enough, they need to be seen to be inclusive in what is a very delicate PC environment where you tread on hot coals.

Surely, as with players, if a manager or prospective manager is considered suitable enough then his race will be no bar to his prospects of being offered the position. The name Frank Rijkaard is proof in the pudding that in all of the modern, stable nations, skin colour will be no barrier to progression for management positions at the highest level.

What's this got to do with racing? Well, it's a topical issue in light of Sean Levy's recent classic success. In what is a colour blind sport, there has been an unjustified level of discussion about the perceived lack of coloured faces in racing.

Sadly, it may only be a matter of time before racing to has its own 'Rooney Rule'

Last September the BHA set up a Diversity in Racing Steering Group (DirSG) containing sixteen members from the racing industry. One of the considerations of the group was to look at bringing in policies that have been adopted in other sports which are claimed to have  ' led to real improvement in diversity and inclusivity metrics.'

It would be appalling if racing had to go down this path of making statements that don't have a clear meaning but give a general gist that there exists institutionalised racism within the sport.

Anyone with common sense knows that any talented kid, good hands and all that stuff, with a hunger for success and reliable in character, will get a chance if he looks after himself.

The UK's present champion jockey is Brazilian and in racial terms one who many would class as being from an ethnic minority background. The ranks of stable staff, not least amongst the big yards that pay the best wages, have a global representation amongst their workforce, many Asian and Black.

As long ago as the 1970's we had the Guyanese born Compton Rodrigues among the jockey ranks. It was two decades later when Royston Ffrench appeared. He made a considerable impression as a stylish apprentice, adopting that streamlined posture that apprentices were now preferring over the Pat Eddery style.

Ffrench was the most sought after claimer during a terrific 1997 season and promised to go to the top ranks. But like all dynamic apprentices, it gets tougher once the claim goes. Still, unlike many others, Ffrench established himself successfully in the jockey ranks, partnering winners of some of the major handicaps and winning Group One events in mainland Europe.

Whatever, there is no evidence that his heritage has had any impact, positive or negative on his career. The only reason you would raise his skin colour would be describing him to someone asking who he was, who was new to the sport.

This is a sport where the jockey ranks stateside are an array of most of the races on the globe. And in Europe, Germany has the dark skinned Panamanian Eduardo Pedroza ( in picture) still going strong in its jockey ranks over there. He won a Group 3 race earlier this month.

Surprisingly, the UK has always lacked oriental representations amongst the jockey ranks. Perhaps even more surprising when this race had more than its fair share of persons small in stature.

There was Neil Pollard who has part Chinese ancestry.  A real stylish apprentice, another with a low seat, he was trusted with the job of David Elsworth's stable jockey on losing his claim but things did not work out. One or two owners lost faith in him, others followed, rides were lost and the confidence evaporated.

Another point to touch upon with budding riders is that while you have some successful flat jockeys who have not sat upon a horse until leaving school, nearly all national hunt riders have been involved at an early age, most jumping poles on ponies. And the image of pony clubs is a white one, accurate or not.

Still, I can think of two mixed-race riders who competed in and won races in the national hunt sphere, Josh Apiafi, one of the DirSG members, and Marvin Mello.

Mind you, the wider subject of inclusivity can throw up some potentially amusing scenarios. When these theme days began to expand, Brighton held a 'Gay Day' and encouraged attendees to 'get into the spirit of things'.

Racing Post journalist mused over whether John Gosden would turn up dressed as Boy George, or Michael Stoute as one of the Village People. Unfortunately, the way all this overprotective nonsense has escalated in very recent times, I doubt such comments would now be published, even allowing for the fact that they were made in levity. That is a shame.

From past experiences or misconceived but long rooted beliefs, all of us will not view all religions, nationalities, races, and various identities and leanings, with equal consideration. But thankfully, at the end of the day, the PC brigade have not found a way of forcing individuals to think as their doctrine would prescribe. 

Horse racing has no racist stigma attached to it. If a  'Rooney Rule' variation was applied, those who pour scorn on the sport, whether for political reasons, ie 'class war' and all that, or animal welfare issues, would then have the option of another angle of attack.

The sport has more pressing matters concerning its immediate future to deal with and should not be making an issue of what is a non-issue.

Image by author

Saturday, 19 May 2018

GOOD RIDDANCE !


Most of us just don't get the appeal of FOBTS. Just like when we see those videos taken in public places in broad daylight of those characters standing stone still holding an unnatural gait debilitated by the drug Spice, we cannot spot anything that remotely tempts us into joining them.

It a makes a mockery of the arguments put forward by some downright liars that most FOBTS players enjoy this pastime and play the machines responsibly. All sorts of figures have been given airtime to throw in their two bob's worth over the past few days.

On one news item, they interviewed someone called Christopher Snowdon, who is the ' Head of Lifestyle Economics' at the Institute of Economic Affairs. With a rather smug persona, reminiscent of a member of the Howards Way cast, he casually remarked that playing the FOBTS did not differ from other forms of gambling.

Let's consider it comparatively with racing.

You go the races, you return light in pocket. As you recount how that one missed the break, how another was cruising on the snaff with nowhere to go, how you had narrowed the wide open handicap down to three, spit stakes on two of them and deserted the one that eventually won. How different it could have been if you had the rub of the green.

Then you'll probably add that apart from nothing going right on the punting front it was a decent day. You may even wonder whether you have seen a future star in that one that won the two year old maiden.

What do FOBTS players do when they return home? How do they recount and assess their day? Did they learn anything to take forward for their next session? Is there an equivalent for them to a horse racing punter noting a tenderly handled one for the future. In fact, is there any form of enjoyment at all that can be had from these cancerous machines.

We know that in addition to being an LBO's biggest and most assured earner, they provide a fix for people who are so addicted to them that they are bordering on being mentally unwell.

Consider again, you're a punter who has had a bad run on horses, footy, cricket, golf or other sports that are real and not computer simulations.

You take a sabbatical to reassess, take stock and get some funds back together. You may want to get stuck into something in the Ebor ante-post market, or plan to turn the year around on Oosthuizen at Carnoustie. It's aimed, considered and measured.

There is no equivalent on FOBTS, they just get straight back playing and keep on playing. One wonders where they get their supply of money from.

FOBTS have played their part in taking the traditional punters away from LBO 's. What at one time would be a losing slip scrunched up and thrown to the floor in disgust accompanied by, " that Mercer is a bin man ! ", then a stomping exit, does not emit the uneasiness created around the premises by a zombie continually sat at the machine for hours on end, gradually starting to show outward signs of agitation but concealing the furore of the volcano building up inside, with the unpredictability as to what may come next.

I've been inside an LBO less than ten times in the past five years. But I've witnessed someone freaking out on a FOBT and have been asked by a  manager whether I'd like a free spin voucher. Only doing what his superiors have ordered him to do but it's enough to make you not really care if he does lose his job when the changes finally take effect, which is not soon enough.

Hard to believe it now, but there was a time when many standing in an LBO would have their own copy of the Sporting Chronicle or Sporting Life - and it was not completely rare to spot someone with a Timeform Black Book or the bright red coloured Raceform Note Book.

And before racing started it was an everyday sight to see a punter carefully take the drawing pins out of the front page of the LBO's Sporting Life, turn it inside out, and note down the Dick Whitford ratings, then pin the page back as it was.

Many of those have either passed on, lost their enthusiasm or like many, conduct their betting via online accounts. These establishments are completely unrecognisable than those of thirty or forty years ago. They may be cleaner, smell nicer, but they can be very intimidating. If horse racing suddenly ceased to exist you would barely notice the difference from its final day to the first day without.

It was absolutely shocking on the televised ATR forum two weekends back when  David Williams was not challenged when he spouted some falsehood about FOBTS being a precursor to betting on the horses in the sense that all these zombies who step inside to play the FOBTS will eventually graduate to betting on horse racing. 

We know it's the other way round, that those with the finger in the high street bookmaking pie would dearly love the regular horse punters to migrate over to the machines hence the free vouchers from characters that Robert Helpmann would portray well.

Finally, despite all the warning shots fired by the bookmaking fraternity, and the noises made by some inside horseracing proper who convey the impression that the lives ruined by FOBTS are acceptable wastage for the greater good of racing, it's coming to an end on the scale we know it.

This means that all those who shamefully towed the line so as not to bite the hand that feeds, such as that infamous Alastair Down piece in the Racing Post where he played the FOBTS in an LBO, would look silly doing a U-turn and supporting the new legislation.

Just like all those MP's who supported the invasion of Iraq but now pretend they were against it all along, they have to either stand with their original published thoughts or be principled, hold their hands up and concede they were all along put under pressure by their employers deceive their audience.

If jobs go in LBO's then its not a great loss in the sense that the demands of working in such an environment will make these workers employable in other areas dealing with the public where they will most likely be better rewarded and work in a safer environment.

As for a shortfall in levy which further down the line may cause racecourses to shut, a reduction in prize money in the middle to lower tiers, and trainers to go out of business -  there is too much bland fare that is impossible to keep tabs on and makes the overall sport less appealing than it was years ago which has been one of the main reasons why the sport's share of the betting pie has been dwindling.

A culling of the fixture list would be fantastic news, racecourse closures less so. If trainers are forced out of business; well no one has a right to make a living out of a hobby. Many are barely keeping their heads above the sand anyway.

To be involved as outright owners or trainers, you need deep pockets and it is still very much the Sport Of Kings in that sense. We can at least come along and enjoy it, and can buy a ticket in where the outcome of a race has a bearing on our direct finances.

We can even turn it into a situation where say, for instance, the progress of Clive Cox's 2018 juveniles, or Nicky Richard's 2018/19 season novice chasers has a bearing on our standard of life. Something like that makes us feel very much a part of it all.

image by EdwardX attribution  creative commons


Monday, 7 May 2018

A WASTED OPPORTUNITY


We often fail to forget that today's bank holiday was very much a Scottish affair, not being observed by the rest of the UK until 1978. The way in which this day was first utilised by the UK racing authorities, then allowed to decline, is something to consider when dwelling upon where the hell it all went wrong with the running of the sport.

There are some sports, Golf along with its impressively packaged and managed showcase PGA Tour for example, that when making comparisons with the past, taking all angles into account, you are left feeling that it's in better health than it's ever been.

The same cannot be said of horse racing in the UK.

May Day 1975, is a good starting point to consider the impact of May Day Monday in racing. Two days earlier, Pat Eddery had suffered a reversal when the apple of his eye, Grundy, had been beaten in the 2,000 Guineas by Bolkonski, with Gianfranco Dettori aboard. That had been the day when stable staff strike action famously reached it's highpoint, with Newmarket racetrack under siege.

Eddery was at Wolverhampton on the Monday where he guided the Gordon Smyth trained March Crusader home in the Midlands Spring Handicap. The only other fixture was Edinburgh, where Kevin Leason rode the winner of the feature race, Daveti from the Tommy Craig yard. Nothing unusual about the day except there would have been a larger than normal crowd at the Scottish venue to mark the Bank Holiday.

When the holiday went nationwide racing grabbed the opportunity the day presented to advertise what it had to offer with Haydock Park taking the grand initiative of introducing the Royal Doulton Hurdle in 1978, a race that was initially a spectacular success.

The following year, like today, May Day fell on Monday May 7th. The second running of the Royal Doulton saw Beacon Light, in the Jim Joel colours defeat the legendary Monksfield.

Kempton, Doncaster and Wolverhampton also had fixtures. The feature race at Kempton was the Jubilee Stakes Handicap, with a prize of over £11,800 to the winner, more than the winner of the Lincoln had received a few weeks earlier.

The Jubilee pulled in the quality turn out it deserved, with the race eventually being won by the John Winter trained Smartset, with the promising apprentice Philip Robinson aboard. The highly popular Baronet followed him home with the 1977 Dewhurst runner up Camden Town, who started favourite, in third with 9st 11 lb on his back. The top weight incidentally was the unplaced Crimson Beau, who would later give Troy a race in the  Benson and Hedges Gold Cup.

The feature race of the day at Doncaster was the Irish Sweeps Spring Handicap, also carrying more prize money than the Lincoln. That was won by the Brian Taylor ridden Harry Wragg trained Fluellen in the Oppenheimer colours.

So what did we have on May Day 2018? If anything, it typified how the sport has gone down the wrong track. Six mainland UK fixtures and all decidedly ordinary. The most valuable race being the 'Matchbook VIP Handicap Chase' with a first prize of £14,388, and a mildly interesting field, but evidence that the day in racing terms has taken a lamentable drop in importance in recent times.

This is brought home when you consider that the most valuable flat race in the UK on the day is a one mile handicap at Windsor with a first prize of £7,439, roughly a third less than that for the two feature flat races 39 years ago!  And that's not event putting into the equation the prize money available for the Royal Doulton.

To look at it another way, this years Lincoln carried first place prize money of over £62,000. So while in 1979 we had two flat handicaps on this day with a bigger monetary value than the celebrated Doncaster race, the 'feature'  flat race in the UK today has a value eight times less than that of the 2018 Lincoln.

What is so baffling about it all is that today would be a free shop window for the sport if it played its card right. Admittedly, there is competition from family commitments and the weather, but that is something that applies to every 'free' day.

We have smaller tracks putting on some pretty dreadful fare but chuffed at being able pull in some impressive crowds when the sun is shining. This is not necessarily to the sport's long term benefit, as it's lifeblood is money generated from people betting on it, not from purchasing overpriced beer and everyday Greggs quality food with a fancy name added.

Hopefully, the FOBTS maximum stakes will be cut to £2. If this results in reduced revenue for the sport then so be it. It will have to adjust, return to roots with a sensible fixture list with emphasis on quality and making the most of the days that it has the house to itself. Like today.

There was no competition today from what is, rightly or wrongly, the God that is Premiership Football. And likewise none from the now mini God that is Grand Prix qualifying, something that those who pull the strings in horse racing acknowledge as a 'rival' that they lose out in direct confrontations with.

The Saturday obsession shows that horse racing is picking a fight it cannot win. Long gone are the times when racing could take for granted television coverage free from the competition of rival sports as well as thriving in house daily newspapers.

Lost in a vibrant mix of sports that previously were not fortunate enough to enjoy the exposure they are now granted, we have a sport that is not widely acknowledged to be in the very top tier as it once was and a sport that cannot compete with the others on a level playing field.

And on a day like today it looks a gift horse in the mouth.

Image licensed under creative commons attribution - author Ralph Jenson

Friday, 27 April 2018

SITUATIONS VACANT


There remains an insistence on blaming the staff shortage crisis in racing yards on the so called unsociable working patterns. The issue, one that is receiving growing publicity in the written press,  was covered in The Daily Telegraph earlier this week.

Whenever this is under the spotlight very little thought is given to the consideration that for healthy energetic youngsters, being a stable lad or whatever they are called now, provides a livelier, happier working day than being a gimp in a call centre with grim evening shifts, the bullying atmosphere of being a robot in an Amazon warehouse, or even being conditioned for laziness by studying for some odd named and probably worthless degree.

And while the overall employment situation is brighter and offers more opportunities than in the 1970's which reduces the number of staff obtained due to limited openings elsewhere, at the centre of the staffing crisis lies a growing indifference to the sport in general.

It is a sport which simply fails to get the adrenalin pumping in the younger generations.

Nowadays there is no regular method of feeding interest in the sport to youngsters. If you grow up equating betting with football and live in a household with, as is commonly the case now, no printed newspapers lying around, you are not really going to be aware of its everyday existence.

If there is a racing fan residing under the roof there will be a possibility that a copy of Horses in Training is within sight, inviting to be picked up, even out of curiosity, even for someone who doubts they will ever have much time for the sport. A youngster will not conduct an internet search on a subject he or she holds no regard for.

Even allowing for the overall decrease in the sales of printed publications, it would be fascinating if sales figures were available for the Horses in Training publication down the decades.This was a publication that opened the world up to a young racing fan. Trainers strings with pedigrees, trainers phone numbers and addresses.Wow, imagine looking after a Vulgan store, or a Sir Ivor two year old.

This appeal would be driven beneath by the image of the sport being attractive. It was still a major tier sport then. Horse pastimes themselves would be high up on the consideration list for someone fancying an outdoor sport to get involved with.

With the function of the horse in modern society disappearing just like coal bunkers, Subutteo and Chopper bicycles, those inclined to find a hobby away from computerised fantasy games now have modern trendy pastimes on offer to contend with all the traditional ones.

Hang Gliding, Skydiving, Segwaying, and not to forget that sport where those giant kites lift you off the ground. There is also this increasingly popular lark of 'flying' across valleys attached to overhead zip wires. A pastime strongly opposed to by those who term this oddity as 'sound violence'.

I was chatting to someone who is a member of a rambling club and who was incensed at the so far defeated proposal to install one of these functions in Thirlmere, in his beloved Lake District.

"I'd still go the Lakes if it ever went ahead, " he told me, "I'd just keep away from the particular valley that will have these morons passing above".

Truth is, these 'morons' might in another era have been inclined to join a riding school where they may have got bitten and wanted to take it a step further and work amongst horses, with the racing world being one of the most open gateways for them.

And this would have been at a time when there was no racing industry structure as there is now, such as schools where the kids learn to ride, strap horses and learn all the required stable duties. They are also coached how to conduct themselves properly.

No doubt there will be tomfoolery,  horseplay and initiation ceremonies but surely nothing like in times past.

Many years ago I was in conversation with someone who had a lifetime in the sport. He recalled when he worked for a famous trainer in the 1940's. If the lights were not switched off in the lad's dorm by a certain time, the trainer himself along with a couple of high ranking staff would enter the dorm and beat the boys with long toms.

Someone who worked for two well known northern national hunt yards in the 1970's recounted to me of how in one of the yards they would carry out mock hangings on new recruits which would involve taking them to a barn, standing them on a couple of bales of hay stacked up, placing a noose around their neck, throwing the rope over a beam and pushing the newcomer off the bale.

It would be surprising to find that settled staff at Asda, John Lewis, or B &Q,  thrash young boys with whips or place real nooses around the necks of new starters

However, this should not mask the issue that in Newmarket there has existed for many years a serious drug problem, higher than the national average, in addition, a higher than normal suicide rate. Though no link between the two has been proven it would be no surprise if one existed.

Trying to move forward, the appeal of working in racing could form television advertisements in the style of those army ones.

A montage beginning with a mucking out scene on a dark morning, then riding out on a snow covered landscape, feed buckets, gatherings in the tack room, travelling to the races in the horsebox, racecourse stables, leading up a winner, a late return to the yard with darkness having fallen, then ending with lots of beaming faces in a homely pub.

It is a sport that must once more be made attractive again from its soul.

For the real dilemma is that the appeal of horse racing itself has never been so low. The liars who equate racecourse crowds with the popularity of the actual sport are spinning a myth. A sport that a lower percentage of the betting public than ever before wish to bet on, a sport that nobody wants to work in, and one that has too many key figures outwardly in denial of the crisis it is enduring.

image in Public Domain

A SYSTEM IN DISARRAY

You sometimes wonder whether it would be best to discontinue 'the Pattern', so amok and out of control it now is. Erratically m...

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