Saturday, 13 July 2019

A DAY TO YAWN OVER


Even without any distraction from the modern day God of football, we are now immersed in what is arguably the busiest and most important sporting weekend of 2019 in Great Britain. Horse racing is involved but the drawback is that the few quality events are lost in a maze of endless handicaps after handicaps.

The race many of us still fondly refer to as the Magnet Cup has terrific prize money on offer but this produces what is now the norm in valuable handicaps; a compact weighed field that renders it unlikely for a progressive three year old brimming with potential to get into the race.

It is not only the unexposed maiden or conditions winner from a showcase yard that will not make the cut; even the progressive handicappers from the classic crop tend not to have attained a rating high enough at this stage of their careers. And anything that fits that rare but pulse racing category of one who has shown themself a different beast since the weights were framed, would be just as unlikely to have the rating to get a run.

These events yearn for the extra angles they once offered. A  runner in the Medicean mould would have had today's event buzzing. After the framing of the weights for this race back in 2000, he showed himself a high class colt to finish a close third third behind Giant's Causeway in the St James Palace Stakes.

We know he ran disappointingly, never getting into the thick of things from an outside draw, but his presence was the talking point on the run up to the race. It grabbed the attention. Side with him or against him. A poser that may have endeared a few new people to the game.

Medician did eventually win two Group One events. The rating he raced off at York, a 102 on the strength of successes in conditions events, would have gained him access on the 2019 final line up but that is generally not the norm now.

The pattern changes in the heart of Autumn with most of the slow maturing three year olds who are potentially Group class showing a tangible level of form by this stage to make the cut in these events. As an example, even Halling would have got in by the skin of his teeth in last year's Cambridgeshire.

What would benefit from addressing though is the fact that up to and including the Ebor meeting this is rarely the case, with most of the progressive three year olds now finding themselves rated out of these races.

This is not to say that the massive prize money injection into the Ebor itself is not welcome. The sight of Listed and Group class horses, some still on the upgrade with the potential to reach the top, racing in big field events run at a true pace is far preferable to a six runner, tactically run Group 3.

What would add a welcome arm to a race of this status would be a potential St Leger winner taking his place in the field. The chances of this would be secured by going with the spirit of the day and having quotas, whereby say for example three places are reserved for the three year old entrants with the three highest ratings.

Understandably, if you were connected to an older horse who under the present rules would have got in you would be raging by your place being stolen by a lower rated animal, but for the good of the game it would surely be worth it.

Some would say that the three year olds now have their own valuable Ebor in the Melrose, not to mention that the Great Voltigeur is there for the Leger horses. But the Voltigeur is hardly going to be damaged by probably no more than one entrant being diverted and adding oomph to the Ebor.

Come to think of it, when was the last time an Ebor winner was considered a serious St Leger  challenger?  Probably Mediterranian eighteen years back who was to be pulled up after sustaining an injury at Town Moor. But before then you have to go back to Guy Harwood 's grey Crazy after his York success under Walter Swinburn in 1984.

Three three year olds ran in that renewal, all winners in handicaps last time out and reappearing under penalties. Joining  Crazy, who had won at Newmarket, were two Epsom trained runners. The Geoff Lewis trained Rough Pearl was backed down to 3/1 favouritism after a comfortable success at the big Goodwood meeting. The other in the category was John Sutcliffe's Diabolical Liberty, another winner from the same festival.

The presence of these three added that something little extra to the race. It took little away from the following race on the card, the Great Voltigeur as nothing stood a chance with Rainbow Quest anyway.

Crazy next ran the race of his life in an above standard renewal of the final classic, finishing fourth, beaten less than two lengths by the superb Commanche Run.

And to hammer home the sparkle that those of classic age can add to a race like this, how about 1976, with Ryan Price's Sir Montagu, another arriving after a comfortable success at Goodwood, taking up the running before three furlongs out on the Knaveshmire and drawing clear under Willie Carson to win by eight lengths pulling up.

Another three year old, the Michael Stoute trained Shangamuzo finished third. He would win the 1978 Ascot Gold Cup. Oddly enough, the runner up at York was the future Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Alverton, then a six year old.

Returning to the Magnet Cup; it's thirty six years since the admirable and future top class Bedtime won the race off  7st 9lb. Since then, ten three year olds have taken this prestigious event but signficantly none since Wigmore Hall in 2010. This is unlikely to change today and this is to the detriment of these events.

It cannot be repeated enough that a love for the sport will result in lifetime punting. Apart from the July Cup it is mainly bland fare on offer today in which those looking into the sport are more likely to be put off than drawn in.

Fields of mainly exposed solid stalwarts are all good and well but these showcase handicaps need the conundrum of a runner that gets the fizz into the fans. We seem to remember these runners years after, far more so than your win in turn horses. Unfortunately, the valuable handicaps run today will pass by unoticed and soon forgotten, something that is becoming the norm on most weekends now.

image in public domain

Sunday, 30 June 2019

FEELS LIKE A CHORE


The season does not feel that far gone, yet when we get past Royal Ascot the truth is the pinnacle of it has already sailed by. It is the stage at which you step back and dread the come down. It's akin to coming to the end of a holiday and dreading returning to work the following week.

What is so important for racing is that the seasonal narrative leads on to the next big meeting in  which there will be an anticipated build up as the key races take shape. While it is a narrative that must be must be drummed home to those casually tuning in to the sport, it is now harder than ever before to generate a buzz from what follows.

A further downside is that it gives a window of opportunity for those very persistent supporters of some of the proposed daft innovations, such as team style racing based on a Grand Prix points system, to air their voices. Only two groups of people could possibly support such nonsense; those with their finger in the pie who will make a quick buck from it, and secondly those think it benefits to try any new idea sod the consequences. These have no traditional feel for the sport.

So, as we get the pulse back to norm after Ascot, we have to live with the new look Pitman's Derby, the nearest event we had to the Melbourne Cup but now a dreary spectacle run on sand. Yesterday's race was interesting to watch as the final stages unfolded but anyone claiming that the contest has not had some of its soul taken from it since it was taken off turf is either a liar with an agenda, an in vogue modernist, or a twenty something year old.

Then at teatime came the Irish Derby, a race that can range from an above average looking Epsom winner confirming his standing, or in a year such as this, a mumbly jumbly group reopposing from Epsom looking more like Leger and future Ascot Gold Cup sorts.

It turned out to be a ' what was that all about ?'  accompanied by baffled exhaling. No idea what casual viewers would make of it all. The winning jockey could be the subject of a comic strip. Leading the normal life in disguise, mowing the lawn, food shopping, painting the gate. Then the call comes in, he has been chosen for an assignment in a big race.His mission, to defy all odds and win. Off come the cap and dark shades, on go the silks.

In fact such little interest does the sport per se generate with the general public you could tell people that Padraig Beggy is kept fresh for the big occasions, and that whenever he is booked for a ride in a big race it means connections really fancy their horse. Keep a straight face and they will belive you.

 We know now that the one who came on by a ton from the English version was not in the line up. If Japan missed had Ascot and turned up yesterday the talk would have been of how he cut down and passed the runaway leaders having appeared to have given them too much leeway.

Looking to the near future the Eclipse can be a real buzz race, seeing the three year old classic crop taking on the elders, but following on the King George has partly lost its mojo down the years.It was once the duty of connections of a Derby winner to line up at Ascot if they considered their colt to have claims to being a champion.

Nijinsky, Mill Reef, Grundy, The Minstrel, Troy all succeeded on the 1970's, Shergar, Nashwan, plus Teenoso a year later in the 1980's, Generous and Lammtara in the 1990's, but none since Galileo in 2001. In fact no Epsom winner  has attempted to win the Ascot race since Workforce in 2010.

For racing fans it leaves a void. That final weekend in July, the weather generally agreeable, schools breaking up for holidays, and a Derby winner facing the cream of the older middle distance brigade. The race had now adopted a different shape and is not the must go for event it once was. As a result we don t count down the days as the race approaches anymore. Just another Group 1.

Maybe this year the field will include the the Eclipse winner, plus Japan, Masar, Crystal Ocean, Magical., Anthony Van Dycke, plus that group of solid true Group 2 performers who may have nicked a Group 1. They will provide some depth to the event. We live in hope.

The July Cup fixture once possessed an almost gentle quaintness, concluding on a Thursday. It's now another fixture that has lost its identity, the big race crammed into a hectic peak of summer Saturday with its importance diminished, along with it's presence diminishing the John Smith's Cup which had been long established as the focus of that mid -July Saturday.

Chester,of course,has its original and what was at one time it's only summer fixture on the same day. A visual gaudy mess of corporate tents, joined by the increasing number of solid fittings that are bars, along with the Pim's stands and theme bars such as the one that takes the shape of a traditional red bus.

The latest innovation is to be a brand new stand after the winning post, not the most viewer friendly location for those who would consider themselves racing fans. However, when it was stated that " the City of Chester needs a conference center", then we realise that the once enjoyable venue has a covering all options agenda.

Even in the eyes of the glass half full brigade, the first half of the 2019 flat season has not been a vintage one for both the fans of the sport, and the sport itself. We need some fireworks in the next few months to come from top class thoroughbreds, not trashy concert evenings.

image - used under creative commons license

Saturday, 22 June 2019

REALITY CHECKS NEEDED


Racing does not benefit from broadcasters misleading viewers over the sport's true popularity. As has long been the case with the Grand National, we are told people from all over the world were watching Royal Ascot live. Numbers are not given but it would be safe to guess that the claim is not the extraordinary one it may sound.

These are the days where we all have a thousand channels at our fingertips. We  can tune into nonsense like PaversShoestv whenever we choose. The Toe Post Show clashed with the Chesham. I doubt huge numbers from around the globe would have been tuning into The Toe Post Show but the same could be probably be said for the Chesham, even though it probably came out ahead in this clash.

Many believe that the sport would benefit from a bigger proportion of airtime put aside for historical perspectives. Some of us appreciated the part of the coverage from the day we still nostalgically refer to as Timeform Charity Day at York last Saturday when Richard Hoilles brought out a racecard from the corresponding day in 1971, 'Ford Cortina Day', assisted by a replay of the closing stages of the three year old sprint then known as the Ford Cortina Cup.

The race was won by Sir Mark Prescotts's lightly weighted Heave To, with the eye going straight to the Whitney colours on the top weight Swing Easy, who went and destroyed Mummy's Pet in a heavy ground King's Stand Stakes soon after.

Both Swing Easy and Mummy's Pet retired at the end of their three year old careers. Those of us who got obsessively bitten by the racing bug in 1975 witnessed their stud careers from the year when their juveniles first hit the track.

It's an angle that would only take a minuite or two to mention on TV, but it's one of racing's most alluring areas where fans are able to follow progeny of their favourites. It was more easily enjoyed then with a multitude of competing factions and a sizeable number of prominent owner breeders allowing fans to understand the concept of 'families' in the bottom half of pedigrees, and be engrossed with the likes of the Joel and Hollingsworth operations.

All the more surprising that in relation to the Royal connection this week there was no recounting of the Height Of Fashion saga, who was from the most successsful Royal Stud female line, and who ended up being sold before becoming one of the most successful broodmares of her era.

It cannot be repeated enough that though this sphere of the game is not connected to betting, those who begin to take a keen interest in it are very likely to become horse race punters for life.

It was likewise disappointing that they failed to put Bataash's achievements into proper perspective on the run up to the King's Stand Stakes. Being talked of as the best sprinter since Dayjur, or even the best ever was irresponsible and would have still been even if he had not fluffed his lines again.

Ratings need be supported by solid achievement and this is an animal who has been given the platform to show his worth at the very highest level on numerous occasions but has fallen short every time.

And what of those sprinters that graced the scene in the time between Dayjur and the present. Well, Mozart, Oasis Dream and Stravinsky were undoubtedly superior for starters, and you could throw in another half dozen who were arguably of similar ability. And no comparison of speedsters is ever complete without putting Abernant into the mix.

You could invent a name for all this attention given to Bataash. It could be called something like the 'Hawk Wing Syndrome'. Admittedly, the rating this hugely hyped colt received was in the Lockinge after it had been promoted to the highest level, but the circumstances allowed him to hugely flatter himself yet allow no leeway for the weights and measures brigades to downgrade the performance.We know he was not that good. High class, but not outstanding by any means.

Unfortunately Hawk Wing had an unfair burden put on his shoulders from his early days when it was reported that some of the long lived staff at Ballydoyle who had been there during M V O'Brien's last three decades at the helm, believed that this was the best horse they'd had in the yard since Nijinsky!

Bataash has been enveloped by this syndrome and if he appears next at Goodwood and steams home it will give the myth more mileage.

The narrative on Masur was put into a more realistic perspective. The emphasis on a Derby winner staying in training was righly given the high profile attention it deserved, along with it being questioned whether, if connections had been totally delighted with his preparation, they would have nominated the Prince Of Wales as the target for him last weekend. The post race analysis to the performance was likewise handled impressively.

The Lanfranco Dettori adulation over the four-timer was overstretched for the racing fan, but in the circumstances there was little choice for them to make it the lead narrative from the moment the third winner went in, to the close defeat in the Britannia.

It was however low down the pecking order in the general news and the racing broadcasters should have took their feet off the pedal after the bubble burst. Instead they choose to focus on this glitzy media personality when a serious and balanced discussion of his riding ability would have been more apt.

Jimmy Lindley would have been an asset here. He could have analysed Dettori's riding style with Julian, watching a video of him in the early 1990's, a video of him now, and looking at what become of the many young riders influenced by his style a quarter of a century back.

When Dettori springs from a box in one of those annoying 'LadsLads' adverts and utters something inaudible, it simplifies someone who is no doubt far from a clown of a person and does the image of the sport no favors -  though he was used for a Golf holiday commercial where he let out a silly laugh. The same of course applies to all the other jockey's involved in such adverts, with Richard Dunwoody appearing in someones's living room in a daft William Hill advert perhaps starting it all.

Jonjo jumped a fence at Wetherby and shouted 'lotta bottle' to the camera in an advert for milk. Kevin Keegan was the Green Cross Code Man, John McEnroe recomended Bic Razors. The truth is that nowadays racing is not popular enough with the general public for it's stars to be used in general advertising, many of whom under forty years of age could only name McCririck, McCoy and Dettori.
image in public domain

Monday, 10 June 2019

ROYAL ASCOT CAN'T COME SOON ENOUGH


It's not been the best start to a summer for horse racing. There just seems to be a prevailing feeling of resignation that the sport is taking stock, that it simply just has to make the best of what it has left. Many long term racing fans are moving the food about on their plates, trying to conjure up an appetite.

Those timeline pictures of the Epsom Downs on Derby day made depressing visuals. Looking like melted polar ice caps.They would not have been unduly worrying if they had been taken with a fifty year gap, but this was a mere decade.

In the mid 1970's the event was still spoken of as the biggest sporting gathering in the world. Some observed then that the crowd on the Downs was not what it has been in decades past. That it had fallen from one million to half a million. Still mighty though and far from the scattered about pockets the pictures show now.

Back in the mid 1970's the race was such an important fabric of British sport that both the BBC and ITV showed it live, that is two channels from the three available. You were able to switch back and forth. The first advert in the aftermath of Empery's triumph was a fast motion montage of a kitchen knife chopping through cucumbers, tomatoes, radishes and the like, accompanied by catchy symphonizer music. Was for some sort of salad cream. The event was so big that you remember such daft things.

You had the choice between the incomparable Juiian Wilson fronting a team that included John Hanmer, Jimmy Lindley, with the voice of racing commentating against a John Rickman led team that contained a boyish faced Brough Scott, John Oaksey, Ken Tyrell, with Raleigh Gilbert commentating.

We were an age away from microphones being stuck in winning jockey's faces. We were allowed to watch on as connections of the trimphant horse savoured their moment without pointless intrusion.

ITV did have a regular member of the team in the first half of the 1970's who would interpret to the viewer the type of exchange that he considered would be going on between the winning jockey and trainer in the aftermath of a race.

For example, if Joe Mercer was taking the saddle off a winning mount and talking to Dick Hern, we would be told that " Joe will be saying, he did it well boss, the Major will be asking, how much did he have left, plenty more to come boss, how further will he get, another two furlongs, could improve for it too. "  Probably a good job social media did not exist then but even so the comebacks could have been no harsher than what is directed at the present TV teams and their modus operandis.

It wasn't just that the Derby was better staged in its traditional Wednesday slot. As has been rightly bemoaned by many now everything is all too top heavy towards the dizzy sporting maze of Saturday.

Good grief,  even the Hilary Needler is now away from its midweek evening slot. In 1976 the race was won by the Ted Carr trained Bruce Raymond ridden 14/1 shot Feudal Wytch. Pat Eddery had travelled up and was on the beaten odds on favourite Be Satisfied for his boss Peter Walwyn, the pair winning the following three year old maiden with Forgotten Dreams.

Feudal Wytch was sired by Tribal Chief who would go on and be responsible for the following year's 1,000 Guineas winner Mrs McCardy. Coincidentally, over at Phoenix Park the same evening a filly called Cloonlara made a winning racecourse debut. Cloonlara was one of the most hyped up horses of the decade, not least because Vincent O'Brien considered her to be the best filly he had ever been involved with. She had an aversion to the stalls but got to Newmarket the following May and started favourite for the fillies classic, finishing fourth.

This is what is one of the biggest fascinations of the sport. A normal midweek day unveiling the start of a tale that goes into folklore. It can still happen now, but the concept of a normal midweek day has altered enormously with most of the quality aspects being pillaged and moved to the Saturday.

You will still see the odd early chapter of a story of a future equine star beginning on a Tuesday at Yarmouth or Nottingham, but they will happen with less frequency as things are all squashed into a Saturday where there is no room to anticipate, then digest it all.

We are told that the modern racing fan seeks more additional entertainment added on to the racing. It's a lie. It acts an excuse to cash in on the concert days. What they mean to say but won't say it
direct is that they want general members of the public to come to their premises for a booze up and concert without feeling that the racing is getting in  the way.

When you hear this spin you hope so much that it will all come back to haunt them. Someone soon will realise that there are thousands who will gather in the same setting and stay for hours with money to spend, without having no interest in the so called focal point of the venue - that's if, as the racing authorities will have us believe, the racing is the focal point on a concert day.

A rival attraction will then be set up for them to pilfer the audience. It happens in the United States where racetracks are located near main rivers. Riverboats with onboard casino's rig up nearby to tempt in those on the way to the races.

Here, there would not have to be an attraction with gambling facilities. Just the concert supported by a food and beer festival, best dressed prizes, karaoke, a few past it celebs handing out awards. Make no mistake, to these modern racegoers who are not over smitten with racing, such a rival event would result in a change of plan.

Thank heavens that Royal Ascot comes along next week. The sport needs a pick up and this week with regular World Cup Cricket matches, plus the US Open being stage at the showcase venue Pebble Beach, we have a summer where racing rarely can have had such little attention.

image in public domain

Monday, 27 May 2019

OH TO BE BACK IN 1979


Amazing that forty years has passed by since the two hundredth running of the Epsom Derby. And how the shape of the sport has changed since, for the threat of the betting public being weaned off horse racing could not even be spotted on the distant horizon back then, so ludicrous it would have sounded.

Having a look back at that pleasing renewal one factor that springs to mind and which cannot be emphasised enough is how the appearance of any sport is made more appealing by the jam being spread around, with more unrelated factions, cliques, call them dynasties even, in opposition.

Yes of course, one rare development for the better in the last two decades is the willingness of the powerhouses to field their in-house big guns against each other, increasing their hand but sometimes upsetting their own apple-cart, as for example when Wings Of Eagles, by a sire who had recently been downgraded to 'dual purpose', came out the clouds to beat Cliffs Of Moher.

In fact the one part of the sport that is now better than it was, is that we are long passed the height of the ridiculous hype period where there was an obsession with being involved with a colt with a near as to unbeaten record as possible.

Ironically, this at the very same time North America had recently endured a golden period full of equine superstars whose connections saw no shame in the odd defeat. All those great household names got beat now and again.

The Maktoums were not exempt from protecting some of their best. Lammtara was a cracking good top class colt but his unbeaten record did not turn him into an all time great. Similar with the molly coddling of Shareef Dancer after his explosive Curragh performance. And we never did ever get to see the Nashwan clash with Old Vic.

Ideally though, it would be immeasurably beneficial for the image of the sport if fate would deem the top cards were dealed as wide as they were during the 1970's. That however is not going to happen anytime soon. 

The 1979 Derby fielded twenty five runners. Only one owner was represented by more than one runner. Tony Shead's green and black stripes and green sleeves were carried by three horses all with Barry Hills.

Steve Cauthen was aboard the surprise  2,000 Guineas hero Tap On Wood. Fellow American legend Bill Shoemaker was on the Chester Vase winner Cracaval , while Ernie Johnson was on Two Of Diamonds, sired by Blakeney who Johnson himself had partnered to win the race.

Only one trainer apart from Hills had more than a single runner. Major Hern saddled the Queen's Lingfield Derby Trial winner Milford, along with Sir Michael Sobel's Guardian Classic Trial and Predominate  Stakes winner Troy.

It was originally believed that Milford was the more favoured of the two and some were surprised that Carson chose to ride Troy, with Lester picking up the ride on Milford.

Troy had been impressive at Goodwood but there was no substance to the form, although he had been one of the top juveniles so if he stayed, he was bang in there. Interesting though that the esteemed Tim Fitzgeorge-Parker ( is there a single journalist left in the sport that could command such a description now !) writing in the June edition of Pacemaker asked, " will a son of Petingo stay a true run Derby ?".

On the back of Hill's Yankee the previous year, Michael Stoute was represented by his second runner in the race with the Sir Gordon White owned Hardgreen. Henry Cecil was represented by the Dante winner Lyphard's Wish, Peter Walwyn and Pat Eddery , just four years on from Grundy, would be teaming up for the last time in the race with the Glasgow Stakes winner New Berry.

M.V. O'Brien was responsible for the long priced Accomplice, (who was linked to one of the memories of the race with that slapstick image of his jockey Yves St Martin bearing an unfurled toilet roll thrown from the crowd in the home straight), with Ireland also represented by the Curragh 2,000 Guineas winner Dicken's Hill, and Noelino who had won the race now called the Derrinstown.

In an open renewal the Guy Harwood trained Ela Mana Mou, who had been an impressive winner of the Heath Stakes, started favourite with Greville Starkey aboard. The Pulborough yard had been on a marked upward path in the past twelve months which would take it to the summit during the 1980's.

This memorable renewal, fitting for the race's double century anniversary, is all in the archives now ( and You Tube), and rarely can the form have worked out so well in the future.

But even those who like to stamp on rose tinted spectacles can hardly fail to grasp how much more absorbing the event was back in that relatively recent day with any number of trainers and owners having realistic hopes of taking the Blue Riband.

A further point, in the 1979 field twenty four different stallions were represented. Only Mount Hagen was represented by more than one runner in the shape of Dicken's Hill and Cracaval.

Massive stallion books were some way off being manageable and Northern Dancer had only the Francois Boutin trained Northern Baby to represent him. And forming a link with an age before, Michael Jarvis's Man Of Vision was sired by Lester's first Derby winner Never Say Die.

On the subject of Northern Dancer. These were the days of carefully selected stallion books where the there was difficulty in obtaining nominations. The big guns had to fight tooth and nail, often going past their original valuations to get hold of his progeny.

Going into 1979, Horses In Training listed M. V . O'Brien with seventy horses in training. Amongst the five older horses which included the Thatch colt Thatching, who would be the sprinting star of the season, there were no Northern Dancers. From the twenty six three year olds the great stallion had three representatives, and from the twenty seven two year olds, he was represented four times.

A universe away from the present scenario with a general picture of hordes of Galileo's in one corner, facing up against hordes of Dubawi's in the other.

Listen to the talk in the workplace's up and down the country. A Champion's League final, Europa League Final, the Joshua fight in Madison Square Gardens, and the Cricket World Cup, all creating a situation where the Epsom event can easily pass by unnoticed.

It's been like this for a long time now. Grand Prix practice has a bigger following than racing, and in the football is God world so to do programmes where they just sit and speak about transfer speculation and rumours.

There has been an increasing call for the Derby to be returned to it's original Wednesday slot. Problem is those supporting such a move have no clout and the mature racing fans will not be around to see it happen, if it ever does.

So we'll just have to stop moaning and try to enjoy the sport as best we can.

image June 1979 cover of Pacemaker International

Thursday, 16 May 2019

STUFF RACING, HOW ABOUT A DAY AT THE GOLF ?


The ambience was uncomplicated, basic, but enjoyable all the same. That was when Chester racecourse set a manageable fixture list that predated the corporate rot that has set in and ruined the rare delights of the venue.

For how times have changed. It is now arguably, in the wrong sense, the 'trendiest' venue in the sport whose race-days are set up to attract the cult crowds who are made up of a high percentage of dressed in their best characters who come for the social occasion as opposed to being drawn there by any feel for, or rooted interest in the sport.

It has for many years now been in chic to attend this racecourse. Sadly for those of us who remember the venue how it was in the mid 1970's, the whole day has now become an ordeal.

The ground level view, once amongst the most unrestricted in the country is now mostly obstructed by corporate fittings and ten a penny trashy structures.The racecourse staff are invariably brusque , giving the impression they are revelling in their role and on the lookout for easy targets.This is something that is noted by an increasing number of people.

In fact, one racing forum contained a report of a life long racegoer being questioned as to why he was carrying binoculars ! This is what it is actually coming to. If you don't fit the images of those photographed for the brochures then there is nothing down for you.

Ironic thing is, if an issue needs to be addressed involving individuals that visually look capable of being physically threatening, these guardians of the course will likely look the other way rather than do the job they are paid for. It makes a mockery of so many of them being employed and acting so intrusively on the grounds of public safety.

God help anyone nowadays walking around the course equipped with Raceform loose leaf, a Timeform Black Book, and  pair of large old fashioned bins. A pint in each hand and a swagger - no problem at all.

But we do weather the downside to have at least a day at the May meeting as the jigsaw puzzle to the classics is steadily assembled. Having Vase and the Oaks on the same card, with fields that looked as though they may impact on the Epsom races, was irresistible to keep away from and from a racing point of view quite fascinating.

There have been many memorable Chester Vase days. The day Shergar confirmed the impression he had created in the Guardian Classic Trial, when following up even more impressively. Earlier on that  card Piggott was seen at his best, forcing the Cecil trained Sacrilege ahead as four flashed across the line with a fast finishing Cauthen ridden animal just failing by inches to get up.

Sacrilege carried the Jim Joel colours having been purchased from David Oldrey and transferred from Peter Walwyn's yard to Warren Place, chiefly to act as a pacemaker for the previous year's St Leger winner Light Cavalry. He was only seen once more later in the month before sustaining an injury.

There was a link from this day to the King George V1 Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes later in the year when Piggott riding Light Cavalry, let out a trapped in Swinburn on Shergar.

The other Vase day that stands out is four years later when Law Society, with Vincent O'Brien present, beat the tank like Petoski. The hype beforehand was all about the Wood Ditton winner Miller's Mate. Swinburn was under suspension so Piggott stepped in for the ride on the Stoute trained colt as he had done on Shadeed in the 2,000 Guineas.

The colt was under pressure trying to close the gap on Law Society when he broke down entering the straight. The dreaded screens went up but they got him into the horse ambulance and he was eventually saved. Miller's Mate did go on to leave a legacy to the sport. In a low profile stud career he sired a lightly raced mare called Katday, who ended up being the dam of a certain Best Mate.

Fast forward to 2019, Vase and Oaks on the same day but renewals that could possibly contain big players for the months ahead. It was worth the ordeal of suffering the 'Chester experience' though there is little inclination to go again for the year.

The opening day of the British Masters Golf fell on the second day of Chester but there was only one place to be. Those of us who watch this sport week in week out on our screens love our rare visits to watch it live.

As some of us have never played this game there are aspects of the spectator experience that we don't pick up. Being able to spot the ball in air from the drive, either from standing by the player or from a ball approaching the green is a struggle.Your strike rate of zoning in on the ascending or descending ball is ten percent at best.

You invariably stand by knowledgeable fans who play the game themselves and who give a commentary of the path of the ball in flight and where the shot has gone right or wrong.You nod and hum and ha in agreement.

But being being amongst those who are die hard fans of the sport, who make up the vast majority of the on course audiences, opens your eyes to all what is wrong with horse racing. The attitude, understanding and enthusiasm for their sport is at complete loggerheads to the characters that form the majority of the attendees at the 'cult' racecourses.

For anyone who has never struck a golf ball, punting on the sport is your ticket in to a tournament. It makes you feel part of it. Most of the enthusiasts present at Hillside would look down scornfully at this approach. And rightly so too.

But racing followers who remember how the sport was in the days of the uncluttered fixture lists where the racing could be anticipated and digested, when betting was 95% about horse racing, and when the majority of those attending the racecourses actually cared about the sport; are a tad bit jealous of these golf fans.

Monday, 6 May 2019

CHERISH WHAT WE HAVE


Imagine the uproar if the editorial team of Motor Sport suggested that to spice up the Grand  Prix season they should have a race where the drivers have to swap cars with a rival team halfway through the race, or if Golf Digest called for a regular PGA Tour event to trial a rule where the players tee off by firing the ball from a catapult.

All stupidity and nonsense of course, which is why it is baffling that there has been no stir in response to the Racing Post piece last week where members of the staff came up with ideas for attracting a fresh betting audience to offset the hit the sport is predicted to take from the loss of FOBT revenue.

Leaving aside the long embedded idea of racing forming its own variations of being its own bookmaker, be it an exchange or tote, some of the suggestions were ludicrous and move the focus away from what makes the sport so attractive and which has played a part in maintaining its longevity.

The daftest one of all was to trial 'relay races' in the 'pass the baton' sense. The idea was that there would be no harm trying it, nothing gained nothing lost with no damage inflicted if it didn't prove popular.

This is forgetting that such nonsense actually demeans the sport. We already know that the on course crowd at the likes of Chester and Haydock would respond positively to this, but if none of them are going to be regular horse racing punters as a result of their day put in the sun then it's been a waste of time as well as risking forming the final straw for those who like racing for the right reasons and have been racing punters for life.

There seems to be a focus across society at the moment to consider and address the needs of the emerging generations who will be inheriting the world. What is rarely considered is that people change as they mature, and in general are slower growing up than ever before.

Those adults immersed into the hippy flower power cults who believed they would turn the world into some eternally peaceful oasis ended up finally growing up aged thirty five and becoming materialistic, returning to their often luxuriant lives. 

So too did those caught up in the punk revolution. Doing the pogo and spitting on the live bands and years later, when of grown up adult age, still believing that a revolution would be possible whereby the punks sporting anarchist symbols on the back of their jackets would inhabit 10 Downing Street- they now own houses, cars and holiday in America, Australia and the like.  

The point is, if twenty and thirty somethings mapped out the path horse racing should go, then there would be a risk of the sport being done irreparable damage by a succession of hair brained ideas, that those who engineered them would look back on one day and cringe with regret.

It is disturbing that there exists an increasing tendency within the sport to point the finger of blame at what many believe to be tradition holding back progress. Practical and realistic people know that the customs and traditions allied to a calendar that has many similarities to one hundred and fifty years ago, is something the sport should be shouting proudly from the rooftops.

Instead, many are shifting too much emphasis on the incorrect belief that racing is trapped in a time bubble, as a chief reason why the shortfall from FOBT revenue will not be met without radical change.

The sport is not trapped, rather there is not too much wrong with the way it is apart from some injudicious changes  for change sake, such as the switching around of some significant late season races like the Champion Stakes to Ascot, the Royal Lodge to Newmarket, with no notable benefit to the sport.

Too many people, some with influence and clout, fiddle impatiently wanting to trial out their ideas,  ill -thought or not, as they believe doing nothing is damaging the game.

It would be wiser to take stock and accept that racing has been on the decline for several years in the face of the  maintained popularity of rival sports, some of which are thriving on an unprecedented level due to television media coverage not previously seen before.

Moreover, betting opportunities on these sports exist on a daily and weekly basis. It does not seem like that long ago when you could not place a golf bet outside of the four majors. Same with Tennis. And we all remember the minimum five on the long list on the fixed odds, save the minimum three on a short list compiled of the most difficult matches.

It is surprising that newspaper editors still give as much page space to the sport on a daily basis. The Saturday pull outs relay a false impression. They are subsidised by bookmaker adverts and the sport is often lost in the mix of across the board general sports coverage on that day anyway. 

Horse racing will not in 2019 offer a sporting moment to match Tiger Woods's Masters triumph but we've had a fascinating national hunt period, topped off by an absorbing renewal of the Punchestown Gold Cup that would have delighted every connoisseur. For the time being the importance of the race was half deflected by Ruby Walsh announcing his retirement straight after, but as we switch to flat mode, this race was the parting memory and already wets the appetite for next season.

We are now fully switched on to the flat, are digesting all that happened at the Guineas meeting, hope that the tough brute of an animal that passed the post first in the Kentucky Derby has the reversal overturned, and look forward to the racing at Chester this week, though many of those going will dread being among the swathes of suited attendees whose demeanour accords more to a June or July Saturday rather than this jewel in the crown meeting for the course.

It's a marked out road, a turf racing calendar that follows the same route year in year out but with not much that needs fixing. It may have to downsize but that is a damn sight better than the prospect of self destruction through unnecessary change.

image by Redmond and Campbell - CC licence

A DAY TO YAWN OVER

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