Friday, 14 December 2018

A SPORT THAT HAS TOOK THE WRONG TURN


For those holding out hope that horse racing in the UK will play a prominent role in the years ahead by utilising its unique, rich and treasured history, the past couple of weeks will have been truly demoralising. It may have even tempted some to wash their hands of it altogether.

Stupid innovations planned by stupid people who have no feel for the sport and are therefore unable to grasp what makes the sport so fascinating. These are characters wearing business caps who have other sports as their true favourites, who would walk away from it all without looking back but who are set to  unleash festivals of nonsense that will serve to only confuse the onlooker.

City racing? What the hell is this term supposed to mean? We have plenty of locations within city boundaries or bordering them, or are in large catchment areas where those residing in the close by cities and towns can gain easy access too.

But some seem to think that bringing a makeshift, traveling racecourse to the streets as though it is some sort of circus, with low-grade animals displaying the sport in its most unappealing form, is a concept that will endear the sport to a fresh new audience. And having Peter Phillips at the helm is, putting it mildly, hardly likely to be a positive point

The only blessing with this idea, said to be close to fruition following  'successful' trial races when the 'mats' or whatever they are, were 'rolled out' at Aintree recently, is that it is destined for a short lifespan and certain failure that will be masked over by statements full of lies about how enjoyable, worthwhile and beneficial to the sport the whole exercise has been.

The other planned innovation, also close to becoming reality as early next year, is far more disturbing. It's the plan to have a mid Summer team competition which appears something of a cross between football and Grand Prix racing.

Let's get this straight. People with a feel for the sport will loom back through old copies of Horses In Training and reminisce about the time Fred Winter had Bula, Pendil and Lanzarote in training at the same time and compare the strength to the Dickinson's strong teams. Or to when Peter Easterby had Night Nurse, Sea Pigeon, Alverton, Little Owl and Major Thompson in the yard together, and discuss and measure with the Willy Mullins team of the present.

How about comparing the 1985 Cecil string showcased by Oh So Sharp and Slip Anchor, and weighing it up against Dick Hern's 1979 string containing Troy, with Henbit and Bireme amongst the juveniles. Or John Gosden's star-studded 2018 team put aside M V O'Brien's 1977 team which boasted The Minstrel, Alleged, Be My Guest, Artaius, with Try My Best amongst the juveniles, and a young Gosden as the assistant trainer.

A stable, variable fortunes, owners whose support cannot be taken for granted. Something that has existed for a couple of whole centuries. Who is on the up, who is on his way down? Something to natter over with a fellow racing fan for hours. There is nothing that needs fixing bar the tampering that is chipping away at the fabric of the sport.

Grand Prix racing and football thrive by their sports being broadcasted out in a comprehensive, in-depth style. Analysed from every statistical and visual angle, and in a way that tickles the interest buds of boffins, these are sports which have in a way been complicated rather than simplified and have grown to levels not previously imagined.

So why do these retards who scarily are able to control many of the power switches believe that simplification of horse racing will pull in a fresh, vibrant audience?

Teams of horses who race at their own 'home course' with a manager and who compete in races where a Grand Prix points style system is used. This stinks of racing throwing in the towel, a lost sport looking for inspiration from rival sports who are in a healthier state. It clearly shows that racing has developed an inferiority complex.

The concept of team competitions in racing was used in this country in 1980 when a team of North American riders came over to take on those based in the UK.

It was insightful but did not promise to be an addition to the calendar that would be permanent. The most memorable clash, and arguably the most memorable of any of these competitions to have taken place, came about at Ascot in 1982 under the sponsorship of Long John Whiskey.

This was when the wondrous Bill Shoemaker (in picture) won two of the races, a finely judged front-running ride on the Harry Thompson Jones trained Prince's Gate to beat the Lester Piggott ridden Spanish Pool, followed by a masterful hold-up ride on Jeremy Hindley's Rose Du Soir.

It was a day that the British audiences became a little less inward looking. Up to then Shoemaker may have had legendary status back in his homeland but was best known here for costing Hawaiin Sound the Epsom Derby by drifting off the rail and letting Greville Starkey up his inner on Shirley Heights.

On this day at Ascot, he wowed us.

Still, the team thing was still not something that was looked upon as suitable or viable for the sport. The Timeform organisation were overall not impressed. They commented in Racehorses of 1982 that, "it is difficult to measure the success on ventures on these lines in Great Britain ". They pointed to the fact that an identical event at Sandown failed to find a sponsor in 1982 and that its future looked in some doubt. They also added that the contests, "engendered publicity but neither provided much excitement ".

This latest proposal is far down the road from a novelty day where we at least got to see the big names from abroad. That was OK for a one-off but as a standing dish in the calendar does not justify its own day in the spotlight, as shown by the tepid Shergar Cup.

We can lambaste that for being a day that gets in the way. A lost Saturday for the sport. But this new competion is disturbing in that it appears as though it is taking itself seriously. Rather than just a one-off that some are indifferent to, some hate and one or two don't mind, this looks to be an attempt to add a whole new angle to the game.

We should be talking about the race taking place this weekend which many of us still refer fondly to as the 'Massey Ferguson'. Instead, we are left wondering what in God's name is happening to the sport.

image photograph by Mike Powell used under Fair Use

Friday, 30 November 2018

THE DAY THEY WENT TOO FAR


The controversy surrounding the move by Haydock Park to 'beef up' its chastised portable fences without consultation and forwarning for those who would be directly affected, evokes memories of that Charlie Hall meeting at Wetherby staged over thirty years ago.

In recent memory, Wetherby was the subject of examination by the authorities owing to a spike in the number of equine deaths at the track. This followed the reopening after the reconfiguration due to the widening of the A1 which runs past the final bend. But that was more the racing surface and less the obstacles.

For the older generation, Wetherby was about the demanding test of jumping the course provided. Throughout the 1970's and 1980's the West Yorkshire venue was known for having a steeplechase course with fences amongst the most testing in the country. It was a badge of honour that, allied with the good quality horses the course was able to reel in, made it one of the most applauded venues on the whole National Hunt circuit.

Prior to the 1987 Charlie Hall meeting, Wetherby hosted its traditional opening card of the campaign on Wednesday October 14th with three races over the steeplechase course. The first was a six-runner staying handicap won by Arthur Stephenson's Handy Trick. There was a sole faller in the Peter Easterby trained Jimbrook, who went at the first.

The second race over fences on the card was the Bobby Renton Memorial, a novice chase that at the time regularly attracted some useful prospects. This renewal was won by Josh Gifford's Yeoman Broker. Of the twelve runners, there were three fallers and an unseated. The fallers included G.W.Richards Supreme Novices Hurdle winner Tartan Tailor and Toby Balding's former Schweppes Gold Trophy winner Neblin.

It was nothing more than par for the course and when the final chase race on the card was run, a two and a half mile handicap that also had twelve runners with three falling and two unseating, it just confirmed that the fences were up to their customary testing standard.

Then on to the two day Charlie Hall meeting which began on Friday October 30th. This first day had three chase races. The first a three-mile handicap chase won by Arthur Stephenson's The Wilk who was piloted by the lanky 7 lb claimer Alan Merrigan who would later lose his life in tragic circumstances.

Of the fifteen runners, five fell individually and one unseated rider, an eyebrow-raising total given that these were experienced runners and the ground, as with the previous meeting, was described as 'Good'. The second of the three races over fences was a two-mile mares novices chase won by John Webber's very useful Auntie Dot. Six of the seventeen runners came to grief, and a seventh brought down.

The last chase on the card, a two-mile handicap, saw two of the seven runners fall and a further unseat its rider. The day closed with plenty of chatter over the bolstered obstacles. It seemed as though the course wanted to confirm a cult notoriety. A sort of,' we are Wetherby, ggrrr. '

The following day's card was staged on ground described as 'Good to Soft'. The opening race, the two and a half mile Philip Cornes Nickel Alloy Novices Chase was a calamity and is in folklore for the wrong reasons. The race eventually went to the Ken Oliver trained High Edge Grey but only four of the thirteen runners completed the course. There were eight individual fallers with one horse killed.

The stewards and jockeys met but the meeting continued. Jimmy Fitzgerald chose not to risk his 1985 Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Forgive N' Forget in the Charlie Hall. The trainer described the fences as, "built straight up like brick walls".

The race was won by Peter Easterby's Cheltenham Gold Cup runner-up Cybrandian by a distance from two other finishes who were hunted around from the beginning. The favourite Golden Friend was beaten in second when refusing at the last. Easterby described the fences as, " the worst I have ever seen."

Full recordings of both the aforementioned races are available on You Tube thanks to the tireless work of someone by the name of espmadrid who continues to build up a large online library on the channel which is a saviour for many of us whose collections of VHR's are mould ruined or similar.

It wasn't just the number of fallers, there is a visual impression of them taking some jumping with the horses landing steep. In the commentary on the novices chase Peter O'Sullivan casually refers to the trainers being anxious about some of the rebuilt fences. In the Charlie Hall, no reference at all is given.

The concluding race over fences on the day was a two and a half mile handicap won by the Arthur Stephenson trained Fergy Foster. There were three individual fallers in the eight-runner field

Imagine if this scenario had occurred now. Fences dolled off at the least, card maybe abandoned. Patronising television reporters repeatedly going on about the safety of horses. the commentator discussing the issue throughout the race. It's not to say the Wetherby fences at the start of that particular season created an issue that needed addressing, it's more to do with it being covered in proportion and with composure.

Wetherby clerk of the course Pat Firth promised to make adjustments to the fences by the next meeting in November. And for the remainder of the season, they continued to be a real test, claiming such as twice Grand National runner-up Durham Edition, along with Strands of Gold in the five-runner Rowland Meyrick, but the overall consensus was that they had been brought into the realms of acceptable risk.

Last Saturday's Haydock Park fences were clearly not in the range of severeness as the Wetherby obstacles at that infamous Charlie Hall meeting, but it was nonetheless a strange move by Tellwright whose language is normally in the modernist mode, typified by his observations when the old course was ripped up, when he said that if anyone in present times built a course and invented drop fences, it would be deemed outrageous.

Haydock Park made an embarrassing shambles of the race that already had taken three strong challengers away from the race formerly known as the Hennessey Gold Cup, including a previous winner. If they seek to revert to the times gone when the course was respected for providing a confronting but fair challenge, then they ought to look at returning it as near to as it once was instead of pulling some botched up job out of the hat without proper notice.

It appears though that they will play the percentages and return the portables back to nice and easy mode. It's the safe option for them, but one that quashes any revived hopes that traditionalists may have held.

image © Jonathan Hutchins - reused under creative commons licence

Wednesday, 21 November 2018

A REMINDER OF BETTER TIMES


They stay nothing stays the same and fortune and reversal turn full circle but as far as the state of National Hunt racing in the north is concerned, the omens do not bode any encouraging signs that the outlook will turn anytime soon.

Saturday will see the fourteenth running of the Betfair Chase, the highest class event in the top half of the country staged outside of the Aintree Festival. Of the runnings so far, twelve have gone to horses trained in the south of the country, and one to Wales. There will not even be a northern trained runner in the race this weekend.

Long gone are the times when the two races that morphed to form the Betfair Chase, the Edward Hammer and Tommy Whittle Chases, in their original formats, would turn out fields with the likes of Silver Buck, Night Nurse, Bregawn, Little Owl, then later Forgiven n' Forget and The Thinker.

The maturing long term racing fans will have our favourite renewals of those events. The 1981 running of the Edward Hanmer run on Wednesday November 25th was a memorable one.

Silver Buck, who would go on to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup the following spring, gave 13 lb and a length and a half beating to Sunset Cristo. With John Francome replacing the sidelined in-house regular partner of the horse Robert Earnshaw, Raceform's Alan Amies commented that Silver Buck was inclined to be lazy in front and had to be driven out all the way to the line. This, of course, was staged over that fearful and challenging chase course that has since been ripped up. It had a two-furlong run-in, longer than all the other courses bar Aintree. It was a true gem.

Back to the 1981 running, Night Nurse carrying top weight of twelve stone was a long way back in third after making a bad mistake two fences out. This made it a one, two, three for northern trained runners, the result affected when Arthur Moore's hardy chestnut Royal Bond hit the deck when Tommy Carberry was bringing him through to challenge at the last.

This at a time when the Irish economy deemed that they sold most of their best young animals, a situation which made Royal Bond something of a hero, one of only a handful carrying his country's flag at the top level in what was an uphill struggle at the time.

The race we now have is run on a course width inside the old course, with portable fences without the old traditional drop on the landing side, and a significantly shorter run in. To all intents and purposes, the Betfair Chase is run at a completely different venue. It is certainly underwhelming despite the prize money pulling in many of the top chasing stars.

However much you go through the northern handlers, looking at the strength at their disposal, you can't even twist things around to come out with even a faintly armed argument to build up hope for the years ahead.

Having three Aintree Grand National winners in the past ten years is not food for thought alone. The fact is that season in season out the top events in the jumping calendar consistently lack respectable northern representation. This is the true barometer.

Another area to consider is the depth of quality northern representatives in novice hurdles at northern venues. At one time a Wetherby, Haydock Park, Doncaster or Ayr novice hurdle might have representatives from the yards of Peter Easterby, Jimmy Fitzgerald, the Dickinsons, Arthur Stephenson, Neville Crump and Gordon  W. Richards, all trainers who could slowly nurture potential top class steeplechasers.

Fast forward to the present and those races now contain a mish-mash of all sorts, the only quality representatives coming from elsewhere in the country save the odd half promising Nicky Richards, Sue Smith or Donald McCain jnr runner.

It was a sign of the dire state of northern jump racing when Graham Wylie, the best supporter of jump racing in the region since the likes of Alex Stevenson and Peter Piller, moved his representatives away from the area when Howard Johnston fell foul of the laws and was in the process of having his trainer's licence revoked.

Remember, Wylie was a late convert to racing and was bitten by the bug with the success of Lord Transcend who he chose to put into training at Johnson's Crook base, as he wanted a trainer who was based in the region where he was born and brought up.

When he multiplied his investments after the success enjoyed with Lord Transcend, he kept faith with Johnston. Every time the yard had a lean spell whispers would go around that it was blind faith and that it would only be a matter of time before the string would be dispersed around other trainers but they remained together until the laws intervened.

In light of this many expected Wylie to remain committed to having a reduced but quality string of horses trained in the northern regions. The now late Alan Swinbank was a name bandied around with him being based just over twenty miles away from Johnson. When it transpired that the region was not going to be on the agenda it was a measure of just how restricted the quality of the game in this part of the country has become.

In complete contrast to the past, the horses remaining were placed with the horse racing equivalent of the Mercedes garage, with some going to the equivalent of the Ferrari camp. And curiously, as it stands, the successful times with Johnson have not been surpassed despite the owner still retaining a concentrated string of high-quality animals with Willie Mullins.

For every stated quality handler in the region who some claim do not receive the acclaim that he or she deserves, such as a Brian Ellison, John Quinn, Philip Kirkby, and even Grand National winning trainers Lucinda Russell and Sue Smith, a similar profile could be pulled from the past.

How about Ulverston based Roger Fisher of Ekbalko fame, whose Carl's Wager won the novice chase at Haydock on that aforementioned 1981 card, or Ted Carter who trained the likes of Megan's Boy and Eborneezersdouble, or Grand National winning trainers Stuart Leadbetter and Denys Smith.

However you look at it the region in its representation of National Hunt racing is a poor imitation of its past, not just for the equine quality housed there but also for the quality of its trainers, jockeys, owners, and Aintree apart, racecourses. That it plods along and cuts its cloth accordingly is no comfort to those who fondly remember the heady 1970's and 1980's, but accept they are days which are unlikely to ever return.

image - paddock scene prior to running of 2005 Betfair Chase, taken by author

Sunday, 11 November 2018

PROPAGANDA AND LIES ON BOTH SIDES


The close up comments returned by the Racing Post on Cliffs of Moher in Tuesday's Melbourne Cup read, ' ...went wrong and pulled up after three and a half furlongs.' And as testament to the trading on eggshell times we live in, the full race report on their site shone no light as to the fate of the former Epsom Derby runner-up.

As recently as twenty years ago the headline would have been similar to, ' Britain conquers the Melbourne Cup'  with the sub heading 'Cliffs of Moher suffers fatal injury'. Not dramatic, just truthful responsible reporting, all proportionate.

On the day after Desert Orchid famously rallied through the mud to regain the lead off Yahoo in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, the same paper mentioned in the second paragraph that Ten Plus had been killed.

When Charter Party won the Cheltenham race, the following day's  Sporting Life, in reference to Forgive 'N Forget losing his life in the race, carried the headline, ' Forgets death mars big race.'  And the Racing Post cited the tragedy in its very first paragraph.

And further back to the day after the emotive 1977 Cheltenham Gold Cup, the Sporting Chronicle (in picture) carried support headings of ' Lanzarote destroyed, Summerville looks winner, breaks down.'

The term 'destroyed' is now something that is absent from the form book. Not sure why as words like 'euthanised' seem to conjure up images of greedy, beady-eyed relatives encouraging a nurse to increase the morphine dosage past threshold levels to the wilting patient with treasures galore to leave in the will.

It was not until after it surfaced all over the national press and social media in Australia that the Ballydoyle colt had broken his shoulder and been 'euthanised' , that the Racing Post carried a piece by Tom Kerr with the distorted headline of, ' Tragic Melbourne Cup deaths threaten one of the world's great races'.

The content of the article does not support the extremity in the headline. The gist of the piece is that due to pressure from extreme animal liberation groups more deaths in the race threaten to divide rather than unite a nation, without pointing out that it would be a massively unequal divide.

Mind you, the anti racing lobby in Australia do appear to carry more clout than they do here. On the face of it they have shut down racing over obstacles in all states bar Victoria and South Australia, though in reality this sphere of racing was never particularly big there anyway despite the wider Antipodes area providing us with some excellent fodder for the winter game such as Crisp, Grand Canyon, Seagram, Navigation and Lord Gyllene.

There is an unrelenting campaign by the Australian RSPCA and other animal welfare support groups to close this branch of the sport down in those two states. The Animals Australia website carries a log of all the animals killed in action with some dramatic language used, such as ' Injured his leg during a race and was killed after finishing in last place'.

But to even accommodate the suggestion that flat racing could begin to be dismantled in such a racing mad nation in which the sport has a far bigger economic impact than it does here is nothing but ridiculous.

The advent of social media has made available a means by whereby anyone has the opportunity to dabble in propaganda, sometimes with great effect. Like a one man band performing in the street with his backpack, pedal keyboards and other weird looking attached gadgets, a single individual possessing enough knowledge on his subject allied to cunning craft, can allay the impression that his gripe is more important than it really is.

On one of the Australian websites the comments section contained a couple of observations that the ill- fated animal was sweating up and therefore distressed prior to the race. They asked why the horse was allowed to take his chance in the circumstances.

Thankfully there were an equal number of contributors better educated on the subject, who explained that the two issues were separate and that the sweating was not a precursor to the injury. 

Still, the initial reaction of the Racing Post was to deflect from the incident. The close up comment has still not been updated. The only conclusion one can draw is that they believe they can fool the scanning eyes of animal lib group members who go through the returns totting up the casualties.

It's all very silly in the light of the real welfare issue of wastage that these groups tend not to focus on with any amount of clarity. All they would need to do is gather data on the number of foals born, how many make it to the sales or/and into training, then ask themselves what the hell has happened to the missing numbers? They are unlikely to be galloping happily around green meadows.

It's actually an issue that disturbs many genuine racing fans which is why it is highly annoying  that the racing media, albeit one with significantly less influence than ever before, will pander to the concerns of those whose intention it is to neuter the sport on the basis of the perceived cruelties that occur on the track while at the same time colluding in hiding the real welfare issue.

Those under the illusion that the masses out there spend even a minute of their days musing over the safety of racehorses have lost contact with normal everyday society. Anyone who works among large numbers of people will know that as well as these people not being interested in racehorse well-being matters, they are not interested in horse racing per se.

There will be a small handful who still bet on horses along with their main betting on other sports. Most of these will not have any interest in the nitty gritty of it all. They'll have a jockey or trainer they will follow.

There will be more who pay a visit to one of the racecourses that pull in the cult crowds but who will not bet on horses at all away from the racecourse and indeed have no enthusiasm for the sport, rather the day out, getting dressed up, becoming inebriated, and the carrying on into the evening away from the racecourse.

You could market a day at the 'races' for these racegoers without having to stage any horse racing or carrying out any euthanising. Done correctly, the theme day at the races with no horse racing but instead hosting less complicated events has all the hallmarks of being a resounding success.

image from authors scrapbook

Thursday, 1 November 2018

A ROLLING ROSTER FOR THE FESTIVAL


One Man, Sixties Icon, Westerner, and Michelozzo, all share a rarity in common, being that they have all won a major, historic horse race in the British calendar over the past thirty years when it was run away from its rooted home venue.

In the case of the St Leger winners, Doncaster had undergone drainage repairs resulting in a false ground which was cited as the reason for a horse falling and bringing down two other in the Portland Handicap. The St Leger was postponed and transferred to Ayr when Michelozzo won with plenty to spare in testing ground.

In the case of Sixties Icon, a new stand was under construction at Town Moor and this time York was the benefactor. As the venue was when the present stand was built at Ascot and Westerner showed himself a much better than average Ascot Gold Cup winner.

As the alternative venues for the transferred St Legers were both left-handed and galloping you had to conclude that the temporary homes of the famous race had no bearing on the type of horse required for the test.

In the case of One Man, even though the grey would still have won the race at Kempton and indeed did so the following year, Sandown is a different kettle of fish and the race had a whole new feel to it. This even led to some people revelling at the prospect of the King George Chase being permanently run there when the Sunbury track was under threat of closure, a situation that for the time being has passed along.

Indeed there is a line of thinking that such a unique and fascinating venue like Sandown is wasted in the sense that its most famous National Hunt race formerly known as the Whitbread has declined markedly in recent years, the high class chasers having wider options to choose from in a spring programme crammed with rich pickings on both sides of the Irish Sea.

What irked traditionalists with the prospect of such a move was that while in comparison Kempton may be bland, it very much has its own requirements and demands and enables comparisons to be made on the same scale when discussing past champions with those of the present.

We are often told by trainers and jockeys that horses need to fully get the trip in the King George, which if true renders it inaccurate to describe Kempton as a venue where animals best at shorter trips have a chance of lasting home.

Mind you, Edredon Bleu's success did not support this professional view. It is also worth remembering that the headstrong top class Irish mare Analog's Daughter kept on gallantly while on empty to finish runner-up to Silver Buck in 1980. Moreover, Challenger Du Luc, Remittance Man and Bradbury Star were other animals who went close in the race, none of whom you would have expected to be in the mix at most other venues over the same trip.

The question of whether a racecourse has a right to 'own' a race in the sense that the ties between the racecourse and race create such a strong image that the race could never be the same staged elsewhere is an interesting one.

Over in France talk of whether the Prix de l' Arc de Triomphe should permanently alternate has been prevalent since two editions of the race were held at Chantilly while Longchamp was under modernisation.

But as we live in times were change happens fast, and where there have been more changes to the flat fixture list in the past twenty years than the previous fifty years, maybe we should at least consider what benefits such moves would bring.

The most fascinating area of the sport for rotating races in Great Britain would be in the National Hunt area. It would not work on the level. Using an extreme example, rotating the Epsom Derby would make it just another Group One. The race is part of the fabric of the sport and would not be the same run anywhere else. Owners, breeders, trainers, jockeys and traditional racing fans would not want any fancy rotations.

Jump racing is different. In the kingdom of staying top-class chasers, there is arguably no finer sight than one in a rhythm racing at Newbury. It's a spectacle that gives the race formerly known as the Hennessey a unique, stirring whir of its own.

Brown Chamberlin and Francome, hair down to the collar, the result looking ominous for their rivals from an early stage. Francome again on Burrough Hill Lad who was carrying twelve stone, one of the best performances on weights and measures since Arkle's day.

The marvelous One Man erupted duly on to the scene the day he won the Hennessey. Sunny Bay and Graham Bradley, a visually mouth-watering performance from a chaser who would be rated the best in the country but was never suited to Cheltenham.

Teeton Mill too, destroyed his opponents and followed up in the King George. Hard to believe that was twenty years ago as it feels all very modern. I wonder whether the mature generation were thinking the same about Mandarin winning the race when Captain Christy was beating Bula.

And more recently those two performances by Denman (pictured). Newbury was made for him despite winning and running well in four consecutive Cheltenham Gold Cups. And it's a race holding up well. Since Denman's second success three future Gold Cup winners won the race before taking the Blue Riband, not to mention Many Clouds one of the better Grand National winners of recent times.

Since the fourth day was added to the festival you feel it's a show that has been commercially moulded to please more people. More races, more Cheltenham heroes, a relentless hype machine building up to the meeting. That's not to say it does not still have many magical moments but the dilution has taken some of the edge off the show. And, it would seem, the expansion will continue with more new needless races made to please those able to pull strings.

The more that become increasingly frustrated by the path that the Festival has taken, the less there will be that would object to a rotation of festivals.

Just like in the Open Golf there would be a roster. Luck, of course, would play a massive part in the sense that when you had your potential Gold Cup winner at the peak of his career, the race may be at a venue that would not play to your charge's strengths.

What courses would be on the roster?  Cheltenham of course, Newbury for it being the fairest test in the country, Sandown for being a right-hand track with a character of its own,  Ascot, another for the right-handers, and perhaps Chepstow. Undulating like Cheltenham but with that long straight plus a tendency to produce ground on the testing side. Carvill's Hill would have had a field day in a Chepstow Gold Cup!

Nothing in the North could really be included. Haydock Park should not be entertained after destroying its old unique chase course, Wetherby was spoilt by the Government Compulsory Purchase order when the nearby A1 had an extra lane added, while Aintree has its own thriving festival despite its most famous event approaching a crossroads.

The Grand National course is a ghost of the original. They talk of further safety measures put into place at a time when the general public are less concerned about the welfare of racehorses that at any time in the last forty years. The course is backing itself into a wall and the time will come that they who promise they are striving for something near to a risk-free race will not be able to yield anymore.

All National Hunt racing carries a real degree of high risk and when the time inevitably comes when by ill fortune two, three or four horses will lose their lives in a Grand National they will not be able to justify its continuation. They would not be in this position if they had stood their ground in the first place.

And what of the Mildmay Course. People forget that the straight had a sloping elbow in it and that it was changed in 1989. Before the change was made a statement went out saying they wanted to make it more galloping like Newbury! The severity of the kink was removed, the sharpness is not as severe, but overall in nature it is still on the sharp side, perhaps the nearest to right-handed Kempton.

Aintree already has it's festival and no matter how much they tinker with the Grand National, even changing the name, the crowds will still flock, It's a true 'cult' course and racing fans or not, the place will continue to be packed out.

A rotating Cheltenham Festival should really be sacrilege in the mind of the long-term racing enthusiast, but as the remoulding of the traditional meeting has and continues to change its appearance so much, then maybe it is something that they would at least consider. How ironic would that be!

image taken by author

Tuesday, 23 October 2018

A WARNING SIGN


It's that time of year when most who follow racing are switching to jumps mode. For those who view the All -Weather scene as an unwelcome infringement into the winter months, all things surrounding the summer game will be of secondary importance as we become buzzed up in anticipation as the opening developments of the National Hunt season unfold.

Regrettably, one ingredient that had become part and parcel of this time of year is missing. This is that celebrated Ten to Follow competition that reached its crescendo around twenty years back. We all know the one. Interest in it bordered on fanatical, the prize money funds were huge but within reach of your average Joe, as just like when a single line could beat the syndicate entries in the Scoop 6, the Ten to Follow competition would sometimes be won by someone with a single entry.

Many people will look back and associate the competition with the Racing Post but it was originally run by Pacemaker in the 1970's and 80's. There was no razzmatazz attached to it then. It just ticked along nicely and felt quite homely.

Every October the likes of Tim Fitzgeorge -Parker, Noel Winstanley and Michael Clower would speak to the trainers on behalf of the magazine to ask for a couple of recommendations. They were looking less for dark horses than nailed on big race winners. And it's likely for this exercise they rang rather than visited.

At the start of the 1978/79 season Eddie O'Grady believed that Jack of Trumps should,  "certainly of captured the public's imagination by the end of the season." Fred Winter thought that Ten Dollars More would be a chaser to follow and Kilwarren, a decent handicap hurdler, while Peter Eatserby revealed that his 1976 Lloyds Bank Hurdle winner Town Ship was back in training after leg trouble.

For the beginning of the 1984/85 season it was Clower and Martin Julian contacting the handlers. This time Fred Winter mentioned a dozen names. Apparently, Hazy Sunset was the apple of his eye. His long-standing Lambourn rival Fulke Walwyn revealed that Everett " disappointed me so much in the Gold Cup that I had him tested." I'm guessing in the case of Julian he would have visited rather than just dialled their numbers.

The competition gained prestige and grew too big for its foundations. The Racing Post took control in conjunction with the Tote and the participants and prize funds multiplied. Other sports then followed. Their fantasy competitions remain healthy and continue to thrive.

I doubt the masses that participate will be aware or really care that the idea  originated from horse racing. Like when a famous band steals a rhythm for a track from a beneath the radar outfit, those other competitions pilfered their idea from the horse racing version. 

The horse racing one died a death a few years ago. It was not continued with soon after Betfred took control of the Tote but was on the slide in any case. In fact when the announcement was made in 2014 that the competition would cease, the reason cited was 'falling entry levels'.

Similar, smaller versions live on here and there but there does not exist the enthusiasm that the original one was met with at its peak.

This is most concerning for the true barometer for measuring the popularity of the sport in this country is to determine the following that National Hunt racing has once the cult racegoers are separated from the rest. And it is not unreasonable to conclude that when an event that was the domain of the enthusiastic followers perishes owing to lack of interest, then genuine engagement with the sport has fallen.

No matter how much we endear ourselves to the Sea The Stars and Frankels of the horse racing world, they do not draw in the same level of public engagement as a Bula, Night Nurse, Desert Orchid or Denman.

What it boils down to is that if the popularity of the jumping greats is declining, then there is a hell of a lot to be worried about. It is this sphere of the sport that first cements an individual following.  As an example, if someone took an interest in the sport after watching the Grundy versus Bustino duel, they would then have that interest locked in by the likes of Lanzarote, Captain Christy and Collingwood.

A disturbing aspect of this to consider is the likely average age of the enthusiasts who took part in the competition two decades back as the suspicion is that many have passed away and not been replaced.

In truth, given the current climate where the rival sports receive competent wall to wall coverage, it should not be a surprise that the emerging generations have not become smitten by the sport.

The welfare issue is often cited in the wrong context by individuals within the sport who don't think before making cliched comments. The general public do not ponder over issues involving horse racing and those who may in a different climate have actively been involved in anti-racing campaigns are quite rightly directing their angst towards matters involving pollution and climate change.

As an example, some may have heard about the petition started by Animal Aid in which they called for the running of the sport to be taken from the hands of the BHA and put under the control of an independent body. The petition reached 105,000 signatures, passing the 100,000 mark required to be considered for parliamentary debate, but when you consider that Animal Aid has a clique following, with over 80,000 followers on Twitter alone, the number supporting the petition is not particularly high given that followers of the organisation almost certainly put their name to all the petitions.

Maybe we should take more notice of a change.org  Petition opened seven months ago to ' ban horse racing in the UK and Ireland before more horses purposelessly die.' To date, this has been signed by just short of 1,800 individuals. Hardly alarming.

And what of the one with similar aims opened by an individual through gov.com which was closed yesterday. It had run its course of six months and required ten thousand signatures to take the issue to Parliamentary debate. The number of individuals who signed? A magnificent 47!

If anyone listened to the views of everyday people that don't frequent university campuses or loiter in anarchist bookshops, they will find that apart from the 'cult' tracks being used now and again as the location for a works day out, the nitty-gritty of the sport neither concerns or appetises them.

If the generation that fervently followed the sport as adults during the 1970's have now almost gone, what of their successors who have failed to endear themselves to the sport in the same numbers and who have children of their own?

From whatever angle you view it and however much they paper over the cracks, this is a sport whose future is far from secure. No reasonably minded person could possibly think otherwise. It is a pressing concern.


Sunday, 14 October 2018

THE INSANE WAITING GAME


To many long-term racing fans the biggest appeal the sport holds is that it can be broken down into several components that individually all have a considerable and fascinating depth. It would not be wrong to say that if the sport came to a halt and was disbanded, there would still be enough material to disect, reassess and reflect over for many lifetimes.

As time races away, people we are acquainted with in our own age groups become ill more frequently and die more frequently. In racing, developments take longer to unfold than in most other sports and you tend to feel it will be somewhat futile to take an interest in areas of the sport in which you may not live to see the end result.

National Hunt breeding, in particular, is one such area. Sometimes, stallion masters or individual breeders who on looks appear to be nearer the mark of ninety-five years of age than past the point of sixty-five years of age will express the hopes they have for their new stallion becoming a success in the National Hunt arena.

To appreciate the length of time span involved, if you made an upbeat announcement now about your new dual-purpose stallion that would start covering next season, it would be 2028 when the first crop reached eight years of age, a point at which you could reasonably start to give a fair progress report in the sense that the chasing types would be in their second or third year over the larger obstacles.

Why do so many who look so ancient be so enthusiastic over a development they realistically may not live to see ? Even those a couple of decades younger would also consider that there is some doubt that they too could look so far ahead?

In this sense, it makes you respect the environmentalist freaks who selflessly strive to improve the health of the environment but accept that if their efforts are successful they will not be here to enjoy the results.

What is absurd about breeding for the National Hunt game is that the merit of many stallions is not realised until it is too late. In contrast to the Flat where the turnaround process is quicker and stallions whose progeny have not sold well and have been sent packing to some lower tier racing nation can still have their careers reversed when their offspring defy expectations and perform well on the track,  time will often have ran out in the winter game.

For every one of the Coolmore National Hunt stallions who are afforded slick marketing resulting in massive initial books and more than a fair crack of the whip, there are those covering small books at the smaller studs and who are not presented with the opportunities their credentials deserve.

Look at Tamure. He was the colt who looked to have the 1995 Epsom Derby in the bag until Lammtara came out of the clouds to steal the glory from him. Ironically enough, another Gosden colt, Presenting, who would be destined to make waves in the National Hunt breeding arena filled the next place behind him.

Tamure performed credibly in his three remaining races that season, which included beating Spectrum in a Group 3 in  France but after the season finished was not seen again until running down the field in Helissio's 1996 Prix de l' Arc de Triomphe.

After five mixed performances in 1997 he was put in the Horses In Training Sales and purchased by the prominent Italian owners Scuderia Rencati for incredulously no more than it would cost for an average household to install a new bathroom and kitchen along with windows and modernised central heating.

Having acquired their Derby runner-up with a stallion's pedigree, they transferred their purchase to Luca Cumani for the 1998 season where two disappointing runs came on either side of winning a Listed race at Haydock Park.

Although Tamure had now blotted his profile since the end of his three-year-old year, he looked an interesting proposition as a National Hunt stallion. He should have also been marketable.

As things turned out he stood for several seasons at the Beech Tree Stud in Somerset, at a fee of £2,000 from 1999 to 2004, reduced to £1,500 thereafter which he continued to be advertised at to his final season of 2014.

There was little demand for his services. Nineteen individual runners on the flat, and eighty-seven over jumps  - a small amount when broken down into the sixteen years that his stud career lasted. His winning runners to progeny representing him ratio in both spheres was over 40% which is acceptable if not outstanding, but too small sample a sample to draw conclusions. Irrespective, there are still reasons for believing that he may have been one they let get away.

The small number to represent him include last season's Rowland Meyrick winner Get On the Yager, prolific point to point winner Ask The Weatherman, Grade 1 novice hurdle winner Bitpofapuzzle, and Greatwood Gold Cup winner Thomas Crapper.

We can never know what would have happened if he'd been marketed like, for example, Phardante, a horse that had over seven hundred representatives on the course but with Trucker's Tavern the nearest thing to a star to boast of. And his winners to runners rate was relatively moderate even allowing for the large number of representatives he had.

It's a very peculiar area of the sport. For some, like Gunner B, errors of judgement have been picked up on early and resultant decisions reversed. In his case, he was packed off to Germany when unable to attract a supportable number of mares only to be brought back and stood at the Shade Oak Stud after his progeny began to sparkle.

As it turned out, he was undoubtedly one of the best National Hunt sires of his generation. Despite not having the numerical representation of many of his contemporaries he sired amongst others Iris's Gift, Red Marauder, Bobby Grant, Swingit Gunner. and not least the Champion Hurdle and Ascot Gold Cup winner Royal Gait, the animal chiefly responsible for his return to this country.

He was a horse I had a soft spot for having seen him winning the Cecil Frail Handicap at Haydock Park in 1976 by a wide margin. He had on his previous run been placed in the Mecca Dante. Now figure that path out, it's not a race to race 'progression' you'd see now.

He was then under the care of  Beverley handler Geoff Toft. The next time I saw him he was with Henry Cecil two years later, coming off second best to Hawaiin Sound in the Benson and Hedges Gold Cup, this after winning the Eclipse. He must have been some cert at Haydock that day !

So at a time when we are switching to jumps mode, building our mental lists of horses, yards and stallions to keep on the right side of, I think I'll pay attention to Schiaparelli (pictured).

In 2007 I saw him in his pre-Godolphin days winning both the Deutschlandpreis at Dusseldorf and the Preis Von Europa at Cologne, both Group 1 events. Even an untrained eye could appreciate that he had size and depth. Moreover, he is by Monsun whose sons are building a highly successful profile in jump racing.

Just like you could have forsaken the bathroom, kitchen and new central heating to buy Tamure, the fee for a visit to Schiaparelli is presently two grand, the cost of a long travel holiday. Of course, you'll need a mare and though he's standing at the Overbury Stud, his books are not large enough yet for them to be picky.

There is insufficient evidence to assess Schiaparelli in his new career, that will take a few years yet. However, he already has a  few promising types in training and plenty more to come and with it the size of his books should increase.

Mind you, by the time you've moved from house to flat to give a little kitty and reduce living costs, then secured regular overtime in the day job, then gone about being able to secure a mare on the cheap with reasonable boarding costs, found a couple of partners if you plan to put the animal into training, you then have to look at that time span from booking the stallion to when the progeny reach their estimated peak, assuming the animal in question is lucky enough to be born free of disability, to stay sound, and run at least fast enough to keep itself warm

You then wonder whether you'll still be alive and if so whether you'll be healthy enough to understand and care. Faith and dedication will guarantee nothing.

image - prior to the 2007 running of the Deutschlandpreis - taken by author

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