Sunday, 31 July 2022

TWO SPORTS ON SEPARATE PATHS SO FAR APART

Racing has fallen behind other sectors of the entertainment on several fronts - one is the handling of attendees and the rules prescribed for what is permissible and what reasonably breaches accepted codes of conduct.

Drawing comparisons with how a European Tour come D.P World Tour golf event is managed compared to a modern day race meeting is comparing chalk with cheese, such is the gulf in how the staff keep the show ticking over.

The difference is a stark one. I attended the Cazoo Classic at the delightful Hillside last week end, visiting on the Thursday and Sunday. The field did not quite boast the depth of the 2019 tournament staged at the venue but for those who would enjoy following around hardy European Tour regulars, some with struggling profiles, it was a gratifying experience, for a most reasonable cost of £20 for the opening day and £25 for the concluding day.

A notable aspect concerned the professionalism of the staff and volunteers, who all appeared to relish carrying out their tasks, completely opposite to the miserable sods that the racecourses somehow have a habit of employing.

And make no mistake, those staffing golf courses are busy throughout the whole day, opening and closing crossings as play develops, having to divert spectators from walking into line of sight spots, or are inadvertently crossing fairways that are in play or even following playing groups in the in play areas, all easily done in error -  the shepherding is applied in a firm when needed but friendly humorous manner by staff who are themselves golfing buffs.

The rules don't allow alcohol or picnic hampers to be brought in - understandable in the sense that an in play ball could fall literally anywhere out on the course requiring crowds to be moved aside speedily. But the common sense applied all round is something which racecourses could and should learn from.

On the Sunday I arrived with a soft cloth Puma shoulder bag containing a bottle of water, a banana and chicken cobs. I was waved through the baggage checking area, as it was clear I was not carrying a hamper and unlikely to have booze in my possession.

A refreshing change from being asked to show the contents of my pockets and told that even small home sandwiches could not be brought in by racecourse staff who without resorting to a Thesaurus, I am unable to find a more accurate alternative than ' arseholes' to describe them.

The pricing of drink and food was notably lower than for an Open Championship, which do admittedly and shamefully charge top dollar but in general the price of a pint around was  £1.50 lower than that charged at the Aintree Grand National fixture, though as I am always on the move (over eight miles on my Steps App) boozing was not the purpose of the day - just two alcoholic drinks all day on each day,

Trying to look for an area to allow racecourses some leeway in the debate is a difficult one other than the attendees at a racing event are now a different breed to times past. Back in the 1970's it was a common sight at the likes of Haydock Park on a Saturday to have large groups arriving in charabangs carrying in large amounts of the likes of Tetley, Skol, and Double Diamond into the venue, and finding a speck for the consignment on the steps in the stand - however, in addition to the daily newspapers they'd  have at least one Sporting Chronicle and Sporting Life amongst them.They were racing fans and they behaved as such.

Nowadays the large parties who alight from the coaches are generally almost all lukewarm to the sport, with the conversation being more Callum Wilson than Callum Shepherd, and players in the injury list taking more attention up than non runners.

I find that those attending modern day golf tournaments are extremely passionate and knowledgeable over their sport. It's something that the dwindling number of modern day racing fans should be envious over. In fact, it dawned on me that the present day Golf course spectators were in general similar to those who attended racecourses fifty or more years ago, such is how they conduct themselves along with the enthusiasm shown towards the sport on offer.

And how enjoyable it is to dip in and out of the various groups in play and watch the many characters going about their profession......... a lowly ranked Portuguese contestant having a mare on Thursday, missing fairways alternately left and right, going into bunkers, but greeting with a hand slap a probable relative following his group around.....an Englishman commentating  aloud on his shots to few friends or relatives tracking him around........a South African character who has definitely increased his waste size since I last saw him, both he and his caddy look to have addictive natures, regularly puffing away on vaping pipes..... an Italian regular who the last time he played I'd overheard him ask his caddy on one of the early holes if the passing train went to Chester, not something you could predict would enter the conversation with a thousand guesses and certainly not something that you'd find incorporated into a player/caddy conversation in one of those computer golfing games..... hardy local veterans locals attracting plenty of good mannered encouragement......a Frenchman constantly bearing a most angry expression on his face.... a  fellow countryman of his prone to angry let it all go self critical outbursts......while anothe, Julien Guerrier,  maybe should have let off some steam as he bottled his emotions while in the process of going into meltdown and throwing away a semingly unassailable lead with only half a dozen holes left, and while the Scotsman Richie Ramsay received slightly more vocal encouragement as he closed down the leader, the faltering leader was given hearty respectful, enthusiastic support..... 

It's now too late too put mechanisms into place that would return racecourses into locations for racing fans. The change that began to take hold the early 1990's is now too far gone which is why in desperation. gimmicky events are introduced by those with no real understanding of the real appeals of the game. 

Golfing crowds are a mirror of how racing spectators existed in the past, passionate fans coming along to immerse themselves in something they understand and relish. It's a sport that ticks all the boxes with regard to the future, environment friendly, no animals involved, reaching to all corners of the globe.......as for the present state of UK horse racing, well, in three words, it's in bits.

A track from a strong throughout album and one of Bowie's best. And as usual, returning to a time when racing in the UK stood high on the podium along the other truly major sports

Monday, 25 July 2022

A CRISIS INTENSIFYING

The once unthinkable is now becoming a distinct possibility. The uprooting of horse racing from the UK , possibly Ireland and France too, with the show relocating in the Middle East, shared predominantly between Saudi Arabia and Dubai. 

Saudi Arabia is now pressing the pedal on wanting a bigger portion of the top level sporting scene. Money is no object as demonstrated by the offer to Ronaldo, and more so by the setting up of the LIV Golf tour which has already pulled in household names and will only be able to be resisted by the remaining cream at the top of the game for a limited period- you can sense it in how opinions of those showcase players not yet involved are already being delicately rephrased as they look further into the future and size up their plans.

With UK racing being cash strapped, how many will be able to resist offers to relocate? Quality animals are being hoovered up at a rate higher than ever before and earlier in their careers than ever before. The temptation to cash in in such rocky times must be close to irresistible for many. If the rumoured Middle East plans come reality, it won’t just be the horses that go - it will be trainers and riders and it will be on a permanent basis - unlike the long established working winter holidays in the likes of Hong Kong and India.

Let's imagine for example Tom Dascombe receives an offer to relocate with the assurance that he'll have good quality animals to train and that he'll be getting his foot in and established before the avalanche truly begins with bigger and bigger names following.

Here is a trainer who originally had a most progressive profile training from Lambourn who made a questionable decision to move to an unfashionable part of the country as a part salaried part private trainer. And this is not being wise after the event - it raised many eyebrows at the time as his name kept cropping up as one who was on the cusp of attracting patronage from some of the games biggest owners.

One can only guess how things would have developed if Dascombe had stayed put but it would be more than reasonable to suggest that at the very least he would have equalled the success achieved at Manor House and without the shadow of worry always lurking in the background that a single person possessed the power to return him back to the very beginning.

Make no mistake, Dascombe is now a prime candidate for such an approach. And what of Marcus Tregonning who it seems only yesterday that he was training the winner of the Epsom Derby and had a large string of mainly Shadwell bluebloods in his care.Very much a candidate likely to be approached as too would be Peter Chapple-Hyam, who has a remarkable CV always being able to justify those spells he had when given quality stock.

In fact, you could quickly build an endless list because once the trickle began you would never say never about any licence holder. And there is a big difference as to how a sudden, large scale racing expansion in the Middle East would play out compared to what we'll see happening with the on the road LIV tour.

With racing the numbers are near unlimited - at least for the first few years because the quicker the fixture list is expanded and populated the more horses and personnel are needed, and vice versa. With LIV, those middling golfers who have signed up will find themselves with an increasing number of limited opportunities as more of the bigger names join the tour - though no doubt they've already worked this out and figured that if would still financially work out as the better move.

With these scenarios more than just fanciful it makes you wonder what will be left of the present racing scene. With this in mind it must be noted that if as is possible, Irish racing goes into a critical state, Coolmore will be prepared to react to limit the downside.

Rather than becoming involved with a Middle Eastern plan it's far more likely that the core of the Irish operation would be transferred and split between the States and Australia where that already have thriving, firmly established breeding operations. The move could be achieved pretty smoothly in a relatively short space of time.

But returning to what would be left - well, the worst case scenario would be a wilderness of mediocrity. It's not something that would be relished. Exposure of the sport would fall with a lack of both equine and human stars to tickle the interest of the emerging generations. 

Many are now making somber predictions that racing in the UK is following the path to nowhere that its once great contemporary, Greyhound racing, trod down some years back - yes, it still exists in the background on a reduced scale but is barely discussed. How many would be able to name this year's Greyhound Derby winner, or even where the once great race is now held?

Here was a sport which although was always going to be unable to maintain it's heady numbers of racegoers that attended at the peak in the demobbing period after WW2, it appeared a given that it would  reset at a prominent level. Even in the relatively recent 1980's it was overall a very popular sport with the likes of the incredible stayer Scurlogue Champ, the truly class act Ballyregan Bob, making themselves known icons outside of the  sport. The same decade also boasted a wonderful Derby winner in Whisper Wishes. 

Admittedl there were concerns for the future of the sport but no one seriously imagined it could fall off the edge of the cliff. It's a reality check of what may be around the corner for racing and that a blase wave of the  arms is a dangerous attitude to adopt because unlike the canine sport, there are plenty of interested parties in other parts of the globe who will assist in its dismantling, even if not intentional.

A great cover version of a Motown hit from an album released during the year that Sea Bird 11 took the racing world by storm. Very soon, delving into the past will be the only enjoyable hobby left for rzcing fans, so woeful the game will have become.

Wednesday, 13 July 2022

YET ANOTHER AVOIDABLE COG IN THE WHEEL

UK Racing is beset by so many pressing issues of concern that the planned restrictive whip regulations that are now almost certain to be introduced have come without the open public pre amble in the press that would at one time have taken place.

Getting to the heart of the issue is the unpalatable fact that this is all about image. In fact since the now established air cushioned whips were introduced all whip regulations are solely a move to make things cleaner on the eye for the spectator - particularly those looking in indifferently or viewers with just a passing interest in the sport.

Many years have passed since riders were permitted to freely rain down sky high ariel strikes Eddery and Piggott style, though with the present design of whips we could return to those days with those that don't like it just having to learn that today's modern instruments applied to the hind quarters won't be causing any pain to an eighty stone beast.

With the present crop of riders riders learning their profession knowing they can't resort to habitual above shoulder high strikes (just two such strikes resulting in a minimum two days suspension) a return to such days would be unnecessary but the aforementioned two legends would only resort to this ultra aggressive looking style if they were receiving a response from beneath - for they were equally at home gently coaxing one home.

And by comparison however fierce the images may have looked, there were riders in Australasia who were far more carefree with their whip use. Mal Johnston, rider of the legendary Kingston Town, was notorious for his enthusiastic use of the stick. He was over in the UK on a working holiday in 1977 and rode Royal Palace's half brother Owen Jones to victory for Henry Cecil in that valuable three year old handicap run at Haydock in May under various different names down the years.

Then there was Philip Losh who rode in the UK for a short period over forty years back, noted for a Mick Channon style windmill action with his whip. One thing the new rules will at least ensure is that diversity in this area will be non existent. 

If truth be told, racing's rulers have for many years now been willing for matters involving the whip to be discussed in the open. For the cynical amongst us we can see, even if not by design, how this suits a purpose by consolidating the long held belief of the general public that this is the chief  'welfare' issue within the sport and that by addressing it they are making the game appear more animal friendly while at the same time sweeping the real and disturbing wastage issue under the carpet.

The PJA website has a detailed section on whip use, and what is considered acceptable. Some of it borders on comical such as rule 3 of the guidance of what rider's should consider. The rule advises that they should be " showing the horse the whip and giving it time to respond before using it", a sentence suggesting that the whip is a weapon that instills fears and is one that needs rephrasing.

It's also one thing handing out fines or suspensions to riders for breaching whip regulations, but the proposed disqualifications would be taking things over the edge, particularly if raceday stewards were given this power.

The present rules regarding the category of riding offence required for raceday disqualification are in many ways beneficial for the sport. More certainty for the punters, less time taken over deliberations, and much more preferable to the days when horses winning on merit then losing them in the Stewards room were much more common place.

While these rules spark controversy in that they attract an army of critics on the basis they embrace a ' win at all costs'  mentality, increasing the danger to both horse and rider, they had no bearing on the highest profile riding incident in recent times, resulting in life changing injuries to Freddy Tylicki. It will always remain a highly dangerous sport.

It would be most unwelcome for horses to lose races on the day from so called whip offences and in a time that racing needs punters to bet on it more than ever before with more alternative sports to bet on than ever before, it would be unwise to go down this path.

In many ways it's a great shame that this area of the sport along with multiple other areas of critical concern  temper what normally would have been reasons to digest and enjoy a so far enjoyable Flat season at a time when the actual racing needs as much positive publicity as possible.

The first four English classics falling to four unconnected sets of owning connections, four different trainers and four different sires. This added to a relative good spread of where the prizes have fallen - at least when compared to the last two decades overall.

Admittedly this unfortunately is unlikely to become a permanent escape from the two and three party domination of modern day UK Flat racing and of course it's nothing as varied as the fields assembled for typical top level events in the 1970's and early years of the 1980's, but it has been an unexpected and welcoming development.

But alas it's in the main been passing by unnoticed and is no more than a backdrop to the head spinning mess that has gripped the sport with these new needless whip use recomendations yet another addition to the swirl.

A great cover version from a legendary band and a track Daltrey has on his set list on his present tour. And of course from a time when racing was in a much better place. 


Tuesday, 21 June 2022

A LOWPOINT IN RACING BROADCASTING

While we do have the choice of how to view our racing, with the option always available of pressing the mute button to avoid the inane filler often forced upon us between races, it is difficult to resist the temptation to take in the showcase meetings through the main terrestrial broadcaster, for we can judge how the casual viewers are targeted.

Since the long passed days of Wilson, Lindley, Hanmer and O'Sullivan covering the sport with polished professionalism, we have always had to endure the odd cringeworthy moments, many on the old C4 with Derek Thompson involved. 

However, this past week surpassed all for gooey, condescending presentation, most eminating from arguably the worst frontman ever to present the sport in this country.

That feigned look and sound of surprise when he turned to the viewers to repeat John Gosden's remarks on the inept Dettori ride on Stradavarius, his repeated praises for the so called present well being of a struggling sport in crisis, his repeating of co presenters statements with an added false wow factor emphasis, his reluctance to get involved on the subject of jockeys being jocked off, - in fact his reluctance to address anything remotely controversial.

Then there is the agenda which he and most of his co presenters willingly embrace for the programme, whereby all is well within the sport, that the sport is thriving, that there are no animal welfare issues to address within the sport - at every opportunity we are told how the horses receive five start treatment on and off the course, with the cameras used to support this view and with figures of officialdom interviewed to press this over to the audience.

I seem to remember that not so long ago the show promised that they would be returning to the wastage issue, vowing not to sweep it out if sight under the carpet - something precisely that they seem to have done such is the enthusiasm behind wall to wall upbeat themes.

If this latest renewal of the Ascot Gold Cup had been run during the 1970's or 1980's the aftermath would be covered in a no frills straight to the core style. The BBC viewers would be taken through a full replay of the race with Julian Wilson and Jimmy Lindley. It would of course be in Lindley's nature to show a degree of empathy to the rider, but not delivered blindly without criticism. Anything on the lenient side would be countered by Wilson and if Gosden had come up to the box and uttered the sentiments of last week, Wilson, on conclusion of the interview, would stonily faced turn to the viewing public and sum up by fully agreeing with the verdict.

Walsh picks out race changing moments from the box with what one would expect from a successful ex rider but, and probably due to too much time the directors put aside for trashy features, it's not a full replay alongside what  no doubt would be an apologetic frontman, something may be we can be thankful for.

What is so galling about all of this is that terrestrial TV, had in Nick Luck, the most professional and capable front man since the days of Wilson and Brough Scott yet discarded him in place of the master of smugness, they have made the grave mistake of choosing to present the sport to the mainstream television audience, never mind some of the others deployed alongside him.

It really is head scratching finding a single area of racing presentation that has improved since the end of the 1980's. The paddock coverage is very good now but so too was it excellent when carried out by Lindley. There wasn't the close up roving camera following the horses around but paddocks were not chokker like they are now on big days so perhaps not essential.

Nowadays a camera from outside the paddock area would be hindered by the masses inside - syndicates along with all sorts. The day Frankel ran in the Juddmonte, God only knows on what grounds so many gained access - even when Sea The Stars won the same event a couple of years earlier the paddock had licence holders in completely unconnected with any of the runners, such as Richard Fahey.

Chamberlain’s absence from his place in front of the cameras in the so-called ‘ Sunday Series’ is neither here or there as this is pretty unwatchable anyway - hyped up in the main poor fare and we even now have new additions to racing speak, including ‘ Sunday horse', to describe an animal placed to thrive in these mundane events -oh to return to the days when the Dianne would have been the whole focus of last Sunday, having the stage to itself.

And in contrast to what was an all time low week to the coverage of one of the jewel in the crown fixtures of the sport, we were treated to first rate coverage of the US Open Golf, showing how top level sport should be covered without any dumbing down  - anyone genuinely fond of a particular sport will find themselves fascinated by professionals speaking to professionals using in house language. In golf we are served full and detailed analysis of golf swings. They don't say, let's taylor to suit the casual viewer and simplify it all, or are prompted by a colleague to translate if they do.

One had to accept that a fashion element has to be covered at Royal Ascot, which along with Prix De Dianne day at Chantilly are the two long standing traditional ladies days - the majority of others only sprouting from the late 1980's onwards with relatively low standing Warwick Oaks day one of the first of the rest to push on on this area.

But while it would be too much to hope for the frontman link up with lead fashion presenter to return to the Julian Wilson - Eve Pollard, mode, there was no need to axe James Sherwood who ironically was arguably the last fully speak the mind character to form part of a horse racing presenting team.

The only temporary respite last week came from the class action on track but overall the five days confirmed that there is no question now that most areas of this sport are right up Shit Creek and it's sadly far, far too late to do anything about it. 

From a time when horse racing was a truly major sport in the UK. A wonderful tune from the original artists  -  a cover version of which topped the charts. Glad to see it regularly on the set list of the current tour - a gig from which I've had the pleasure of attending. Two hours ten minutes on stage working out at less than £25 per half hour, and that's not including a quality support band beforehand. How long are the cheesey acts that form after race entertainment on stage for, and with the hiked up entrance fee how much do the 'racegoers' pay for the act.

Sunday, 5 June 2022

NIL GROUNDS FOR OPTIMISM

It may have gone unnoticed by many as the days ticked down to Derby weekend, but arguably the most significant development in the racing world this week were the hard hitting, from the hip sentiments expressed by John Egan.

This is someone not burying his head in the sand and fully awake to the mess that UK horse racing had got itself into. Among his observations, Egan stated that felt sorry for his son in the sense that the young rider's promising career is going to evolve within a sport that increasingly lacks stability.

And his bleak views on the free for all fixture list are vindicated by glancing through the cards today. Look at Musselburgh for example -  decent prize money for racing that is basically underwhelming. 

The apprentice race has £25,000 added in prize money but almost half of the runners rated in the 60's. Admittedly there is a Listed race with £ 50,000 added but not a single runner fielded from a genuinely big name trainer.

While Irish racing is not free of pressing problems and perhaps an impending crisis too - the fixture list is better controlled and not head spinningly wall to wall. A similar event with the same level of prize money would be sure to attract  representatives from Ballydoyle, along with the other top Irish yards.

Although the Musselburgh cards have numbers, Egan was correct to highlight how the present UK fixture list affects the size and quality of the fields, with so many options for connections. Fields will begin to cut up more than ever before during the coming weeks and months. 

And there can never have been a time like this for lack of correlation between prize money and quality of animal. As an example, the five day entries for the concluding 4.40 at Haydock Park on Wednesday include three horses rated in the 90's, and a further seven rated 85 or over - the prize money, a pitiful £15,000 added. 

You can find numerous similar examples  which will become more prevalent. From August we will likewise have to bear the second staging of that ridiculous Racing League - the concept of retards. For a period of six weeks Saturday cards will have handicaps stripped of quality due to runners being diverted to the League, adding to the already depth lacking events due to the amount of racing.

No one wants mass job losses within the industry but the present system is unsustainable and planned trimming will have little effect - it needs tight control and the numbets cut in half. This will happen but not through planning, it will come when the whole stinking, greedy system collapses on itself.

Hopefully, what will be left will be a smaller industry but not one lacking too much in quality. One where you can get a grip on what is happening. One or two fixtures a day, a maximum of three on a Saturday. The five day entries would stir up interest and anticipation, fields with depth, numbers and quality. 

Of course,  this is only a best case scenario - the worst scenario would be a cut down to size industry but one were the quality too suffers too and cards similar to this coming Tuesday's card at Brighton commonplace - 3 x 0 - 50 's, 2 x 0- 55's and lo and behold a single 'classy' 0-60.

In reality though Brighton will be one of the venues that may go under in the near future. Most that fold will be predictable but there'll be a surprise or two as well.

Meanwhile, as for now, the courses will continue with their theme days, competing to pull in as many 'fans' as possible  with a business model built around hope of attendees who spend endlessly on overpriced drink and food. Unfortunately for most locations the crisis has already hit and crowd numbers are suffering - and this is without the further blow that will come when the Big Brother affordability checks on gambling are applied.

95 % of punters will rightly be shouting stuff off if asked by bookmaking firms to disclose copies of bank statements and presumably, rather than completely lose custom, firms will be forced by Government to impose a mandatory across the board monthly loss limit. 

With as little as £100 per month being mooted then racing will be crippled. Put it this way, £100 per month - are you going to be looking at cack run of the mill handicaps or save it for a Golf tournament, T - 20 cricket match, or even a Tennis tournament or Grand Prix. And what happens when the footy season starts again?

It's clear that it will be horse racing that will suffer. A shortfall in levy through punters, a shortfall in takings from drink and food spends on course. And this added to an already lack of engagement with the sport from the emerging generations. It's not good at all. It really isn't.

image taken from Wiki

This album was arguably a level below previous releases by this band but still listenable from start to finish. It went on sale the week before Troy won the Derby. Racing was in a very happy place at the time - a return to which will never happen again.

Monday, 30 May 2022

IT HAS BECOME A HOLLOW SPORT

It's eerie that the person who to most racing fans of a certain age was the most iconic figure of the sport, has passed at a time when this once great sport whose future seemed safe and assured is in a state of turmoil with no easy solutions on how the decline can be halted.

Make no mistake, when the sport was on a tier a couple of levels above now which it perilously sits, the true legend of Lester Piggott was a household name on the level of Ali, Roger Moore, Jackie Stewart and Joan Colllins. 

The aura emanating from him was not as hectic and coloured as some other household names, but he was wholly revered by racing fans, an idolisation that crossed over into non racing confines, similar to non tennis fans looking up to Bjorn Borg, or those who don't consider themselves golfing fans looking up to Jack Nicklaus as though he was a figure of worship.

A chapter ends as we are left with an emerging generation of ' racegoers' who call the horses by numbers, and talk of their 'accas' on the footy, never visit the paddock, drink themselves stupid and often snort white powder too. 

Ironic really when the great man fought against the scales for his whole riding career without becoming hooked on drink - a regressive habit that took hold of many other great riders who by no means should be criticised or thought less of for finding solace and comfort from the bottle.

Eddery, Cauthen and Swinburn junior amongst those falling under the spell of various alcoholic potions. In fact it's amazing how many work colleagues of both sexes that you will discover to your surprise are hiding a drinking habit and hiding it well, such is how well they function.

Testament after testament indicate beyond doubt that Piggott was  fervently self disciplined, and would restrict himself to a single glass, mainly of champagne, to accompany his cigars and classical music. A difference to those of us who without being alcoholics find comfort in a bottle of red or the odd long session on the beer, and who peruse offers from the wine club they belong to with the excitement they displayed as a child when watching the toy adverts on the telly as Christmas approached - come to think of it I never did get that Evel Knievel toy that was popular in its day.

Luckily, I've managed to gather a tiny collection of Piggott memorabilia which I cherish. From his library of form books, presumably sold off when he moved to Switzerland a decade back, I have his 1965 Raceform Annuals, which on opening, fittingly landed on the page recording Meadow Court's King George success.

Thousands of maturing racing fans may or may not be able to recall the first time they saw this icon in the flesh. I think I was first present at a meeting he was riding at some time during the summer of 1976, but what I'm more certain of was the first time I saw him ride a winner live was not until August 1977 on the Tuesday of the York Ebor meeting, quickening late on to seal the Harewood Handicap on the popular Derek Kent trained sprinter Epsom Imp.

Piggott had been turned over earlier in the day on the Mrs Getty owned Artaius in the Benson And Hedges   Gold Cup. His stable companion, the charismatic dual Derby and King George winner The Minstrel, had just been retired in order to beat an impending USA horse import ban in the face of an outbreak of equine gonnorhea  - by York week he would already have been in Kentucky in preparation for his first season at stud the following year.

Eclipse winner Artaius looked set up to take over the mantle of the top three year old but found the long priced previous year's Derby runner up Relkino too good for him. In another twist to the chapter, another Ballydoyle colt, a certain Alleged, took York by storm the following day when destroying his rivals in the Great Voltigeur. He would win the first of his two Arcs that autumn and topped the middle distance ratings in Europe.

But my most memorable day involving Piggott would be eight years on in 1985, when the master showed he had just as good a clock in his head as Cauthen when executing a wonderful ride from the front on Commanche Run ( in picture) to deny the Kentucky Kid aboard the mighty Oh So Sharp.

Other live moments from the top of my head would be another fine front running ride in the same race on Hawaiian Sound back in 1978. The Barry Hills trained colt had been narrowly beaten in both the Epsom and Irish Derbies under the miniature, stateside established racing icon Bill Shoemaker. Many were under the impression that the little man been jocked off but the truth was The Shoe was committed to riding at Saratoga that week, the nearest equivalent North America has to Royal Ascot.

Then two days later, in the William Hill Sprint Championship on Solinus, an animal who never really got the credit he deserved - he'd won the Kings Stand and July Cup in his previous two starts. 

And finally pulling up Miller's Mate and holding him and probably saving the animal's life in the 1985 Chester Vase after he broke down, meaning the Mill Reef colt could be saved for stud where though far from successful, would still achieve a small portion of fame by siring the dam of Best Mate. 

Then there was the time I experienced a most bizarre moment when a baby faced York native who claimed he was on friendly speaking terms with Piggott when he worked in Newmarket, and who would approach him at York fixtures for a chat, actually rang the legend up and spoke to him - one of the daughters initially answering the phone and handing over to her father,

I and one other person were in the phone box and we heard the legend's unmistakable nasal tones who advised that he thought Popsi's Joy would go well for him in the following day's Cesarewitch - he made the frame. During the brief conversation the York native, who could have been cast for a role in  'Kez', addressed Piggott as ' Less'. 

Fast forward to the present and I did not hear a single mention of the great man's name in the workplace today. That is testament to how far horse racing in this country has fallen. Hardly anyone has any respect or appreciation for the game or any of its participants. It's a game truly on the skids.

image taken by author

This track from a strong throughout album without any real filler, which was released less than a fortnight on from Sir Ivor's Derby triumph.

Wednesday, 18 May 2022

A TIME TO SIT BACK AND LAUGH

Hardly a day or two now passes without a negative report expressing concern for the immediate future of horse racing in the UK. Prize money, the impact of the pending affordibility checks, racecourse attendances - on all these fronts there is no bright sky far on the horizon.

Observing the Chester May meeting via  TV, it was clear from the paddock shots that the crowd looked down on what would normally be expected. I chuckled at this sight. And these visual impressions were backed up by the facts - the crowd for the whole three days was an eye popping third down compared to the corresponding three days in 2019, the last time it was staged pre covid.

Many of us maturing racing fans have fond memories of a Chester racecourse with a gentler atmosphere,  when the actual racing racing was the focus point. I first visited on the day Mr Bigmore won the Summer Handicap in 1976 and would never have believed that I would one day take delight at misfortunes suffered by this historic venue.

Attempting to pinpoint when Chester racecourse began to turn from class to trash involves some subjective guessing but the signs were there as you moved towards the late eighties. It was certainly evident in the nineties, the decade when there was an increasing trend up and down the country to target the party racegoers who'd pack the bars all day long. 

In the noughties the changes took hold at an increased tempo, all days being theme days, then soon after the likes of the Chester May meeting and York's Dante and Ebor fixtures moved forward a day to take advantage of the cult attendees increasing availability the closer to the weekend the race days fell.

Chester became too big for it's boots once the noughties arrived, becoming almost unbearable as recent time progressed.Tatts was no more the home of the normal racing fans who sought a day of visiting the paddock, placing a bet and watching the action. It had become a second club enclosure, for the suited and groomed, but with only a secondary interest in the racing, meaning a day watching the action from the centre field enclosure became more preferable - even though you have to endure that irritant, endless, waffling voice reverberating from the speakers. 

My last visit was on the day the hugely talented but ill fated Sir Dragonet stormed home in the Vase. I intended to go into Tatts, unaware they had seen fit to bring in, out of the blue, a strict dress code, no doubt having become pretentious enough to change the long established status of Tatts, a domain for keen racegoers who don't want to go in the club enclosure, are most comfortable in casual attire, and for the real genuine fans, having access to the paddock - something that had long been the norm at all courses.

I arrived well over an hour before the opener. The gates were quiet and as I pulled out the cash to purchase my ticket I was met by four gate staff, three male, one female, all in the 40 - 60 age group, none of them the most friendly looking individuals.

"Unbutton your jacket", one of them demanded. Surprised because this had never happened to me before entering Chester's Tattersalls enclosure, and despite appearing what I would class as smart casual quickly, I was not in the mood for protest thus made a quick decision to opt for the Dee Enclosure, the entrance conveniently being at the same location.

"Show me what's in your pockets", another of the four ordered. On producing a home made ham cob I was offered the choice of eating it right then on the spot or binning it - I chose the latter as it was meant for later to avoid being ripped off by the ' Carvery' or whatever fancy name they apply to the just average in quality food stands whose vendors admittedly pay trumped up charges and would have been hit hard the other week.

Finally, as I entered through the gate the character handing me back my portion of the ticket, cautioned,     "make sure you keep hold of that because if you're asked to produce it inside and don't have it, you'll be told to leave." As I descended the steps, already befuddled, I heard the eldest of the four declare, "they think they can just turn up." 

Well, switch the clock forward just a few years and we have the same venue now on the verge of pleading with the masses to 'just turn up' as a third of their attendees have had their fill of ridiculous entry fees,       (particularly at the weekend meetings that host relatively mediocre cards), overpriced drink and food, arrogant staff, and an overall trashy ambience.

What is so tickling about this recent development is that these falling numbers are made up predominantly of the cult attendees whom Chester and numerous other courses went out if their way to court, happy for them to replace the traditional racing fans

Those racing fans will not be returning in any meaningful number. Moreover, the prioritised cult attendee numbers won't be on the increase again. In fact their numbers will for sure continue to shrink. Remember, they fit the profile that other sectors of the entertainment industry will be seeking to entice. And as the actual racing is not the core interest of these attendees, then the likes of an outdoor beer festival  would be capable of diverting many away from the course as a venue such as Chester could not compete on a cost level, and even it's cheapest spot, the course enclosure, would offer little in rivalry.

The bubble has finally burst with little help on hand to ease the casualties. We can have a good guess which venues will sail through with limited damage, while also having a list of those who could be close to locking the gates for good. Chester will no doubt survive but will cease to be the Chester Race Company Ltd's cash cow it had become since the turn of the century. It's self inflicted and something to rejoice over.

This was high up in the charts in the week Sea Pigeon won the first of his two Chester Cups in 1977, when race days were designed primarily for racing fans. 

 



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