Tuesday, 18 September 2018

PROMOTING IN THE MODERN WORLD


Monday, April  15th, 2019. It's 10am in the conference room of the Bedford Lodge Hotel in Newmarket where a well spoken well dressed lady, tablet in hand, walks on to the stage and makes a brief address to a small audience of journalists, two TV crews, and a bunch of onlookers from the local community.

"Good morning", she says." I will quickly run through the itinerary. Mr Gosden will be on shortly. He will discuss his sole runner at Windsor today, run through his plans for the Craven meeting, then finally give an updated bulletin and latest plans for the big names in the yard."

''After he's concluded you will be allowed to ask questions but we must be finished for twenty-five past. William Haggas will follow at 10.30, Sir Mark Prescott shortly after, though he 's already told me not much will be happening from his yard in the next couple of weeks; Michael Stoute will follow at 11am, then between 11.30 and noon, Hugo Palmer and Robert Cowell will give short briefs, followed by Roger Varian between noon and 12.30."

"There is a correction I need to make to the handouts which I left on your seats. At 1pm following the short recess, an as yet unnamed Godolphin representative will give a statement, and not as stated Charlie Appleby. Though I have it in good faith that Mr Appleby will appear himself at next week's conference."

John Gosden, casually dressed and sporting a Juddmonte baseball cap with 'Kingman' emblazoned across the top, takes a seat at the table on the stage, there are a couple of camera flashes. He nods to acknowledge someone in the front row.

Then, bearing a grimace he opens with a quip about an article written in the racing section of a regional newspaper then proceeds to offer thoughts on the handful of runners from the yard in the past week, going into some details about those that ran at the Newbury Greenham meeting, expressing that he is satisfied with the health of the yard despite not having had a winner since the 5th April at Leicester, then goes on to detail the fast pieces of work some of his showcase performers have had.

"I was pleased how Too Darn Hot quickened up to finish upside his lead horse on the Long Hill Polytrack on Saturday morning, he'll go to the Guineas without a prep but I am happy with him and he will not be wanting on the fitness side come the day -  though I might add he's got a whole season of targets ahead of him if fingers crossed all goes well."

After revealing his plans and hopes for all of his runners at the Craven meeting, the open questions start.

"Sorry John, is it me being dozy or was it the intention not to give an update on Calyx in the bulletin. Last Monday you, to use your own words, 'guaranteed' that the negative rumors surrounding his well being were unfounded and that he would appear in the Greenham. Now, he's out until the Autumn,... I wanted to ask when will the horse's retirement announcement come? "

Silence bar a few sighs in the room. Gosden casts a contemptuous look at the reporter who resembles a young Milton Johns, and asks, "Are you insinuating that I would lie and confirm him a certain runner at Newbury knowing full well that he had already sustained another injury? What would be the point of that ? Maybe you should go back to the Cambridge Evening News reporting on the local rock band scene or whatever you did."

The atmosphere has turned sour. Gosden rises quickly to his feet, makes an inaudible comment in the direction of the compere, muttering something about the thanks he gets when trying to be helpful, then calls the offending reporter a ' nauseating dude,' before storming off through a side door to gasps, laughs and a wolf whistle from an unknown at the back of the room, the compere coming on stage appealing for the assemble to 'grow up.'

Of course, this is all fantasy, but if those who think that change is the way forward to keep racing on the tail of the other thriving sports that don't rely on betting levy for their survival, then such a press conference merry go round should be considered.

It's something that works well in the hyped world of Premiership Football, with all the managers throwing those Friday press conferences. It drums home the importance of each coming weekend. The conferences are discussed in workplaces, with excerpts played on smart phones when something amusing has occurred.

Managers will lose their tempers and storm out, sometimes these conferences just turn into a farce - like when Jurgen Klopp faced questions before Liverpool's match in Russia last season when he had to explain to a female Russain journalist that Quincy Promes was a Spartak Moscow player, and even took a pen and spelled the name for her.

A similar occurrence could happen in racing, if for example, a representative of a local newspaper attended whose racing knowledge was found wanting.

It's baffling that many equate modernisation with simplifying. There is no evidence whatsoever that attempts at this have had any benefit. But weekly press conferences that are broadcast live on SIS and the specialist racing channels, and available to watch on the ITV racing website, with racing talk language used. It might just be an avenue worth exploring. Interesting titbits would be shown on Sky Sports News.

Monday morning would be ideal. Every Monday morning throughout the turf Flat season for the flat trainers, then the beginning of November through to the end of April for the National Hunt trainers.

They would be spread out across the country. For the flat they would occur in Newmarket, Lambourn,( or changing locations within the Swindon, Oxford, Reading triangle) and Middleham or Malton, which could alternate. For the jumps, Lambourn, a West Country location and Malton.

Of course, some trainers would be told that attendance was not compulsory. Where would Dan Skelton go ? And what about Donald McCain Junior and Lucinda Russell ? And that small pocket of trainers in the Welsh Valleys?

And just like in football where Premiership managers have the longest lasting and most frequent conferences, in racing the trainers at the top would be expected to be in the seat for up to thirty minuites. Similarly, as when a small team goes deep into a cup competition and the manager gives a full press brief, a Mark Tompkins, John Berry or George Margarson would only be expected to appear when they have a horse of significance in their care who is due to run, even a fancied one for one of the showcase handicaps.

It would relay the message to those who just watch the odd race from time to time that the Dubawi colt running in the Wood Ditton whose been backed for the Derby is something to generate far more interest than the photo finish to the 0-55 handicap on the sand at Southwell, that Sky Sports News have been showing on their loop.

It will leave many feeling the need to satisfy their curiosity. They may wonder why so many are interested in some horse running in a race called the Geoffrey Barling. They catch part of a sentence and wonder what the hell the trainer means when he says, " like most Invincible Spirits ". They might as well be talking in Spanish but by God, they need to find out more about this crazy world. 

Some trainers would be more willing participants than others. You would expect those with a progressive profile to be ultra keen. And in the spirit of out of flavor pop stars cynically using charity events, those who are beginning to wilt may just see it as an opportunity to talk themselves back into the mix of prospective patron's minds

It must, of course, be compulsory and subject to action by the BHA disciplinary committee for failing to show. Is it really that much harsher than trainers being fined when their horses enter the paddock late?  A representative would be allowed to appear providing that the excuses given were valid.

If the sport is not going to capitalise on a history richly unique when put aside the histories of the contemporary major tier sports, it should at least try and bring in the world of the press conference jamboree that serves those other sports so well.

image CCO creative commons

Sunday, 9 September 2018

DO I HAVE ONE MORE BID ? HAHA


A few decades back a prominent bloodstock agent, when asked how would someone come about becoming one, replied that you would need a minimum of twenty years working day to day amongst thoroughbreds on a stud farm. Only then could a person properly have developed an eye, feel and understanding as to how the horse develops.

For those of us on the outside, it is one of the most mysterious areas of the sport. To be honest, if we go to extremes we could all probably tell the difference between a Bungle Inthejungle juvenile lining up in the Brocklesby, and a strapping Fleminsfirth five year old appearing in a Carlisle bumper. Whether we could tell the difference between a two year old at the Goffs UK Breeze Up Sale in early April , and one making his racecourse appearance in the Convivial Maiden in August,.. hmmm I'm not so sure.

But what about the faces you see assessing yearlings at the sales who don't even look twenty yet alone have twenty years working day to day with developing thoroughbreds. Surely some then must pick up the skills and develop the eye quicker than others. Some perhaps very quickly, others may not ever pick it up at all.

As a starting point we would reasonably expect a sixty year old stud hand who has been in the industry all his life to be superior at assessing a yearling than a twenty five year old, though it's likely that the former will lack the flowery vocabulary and use of in vogue buzzwords that the younger generations are adept at using.

It's hard to find a comparison with other sports. Maybe there is one in the putting side of Golf. There are no physical demands in this sphere of the game so you would expect it to improve with practice and age, especially reading the greens.  However, it is this area of the game that starts to suffer first. Hand and eye co-ordination and all that. You could draw a similar comparison with darts, and snooker.

So do these bloodstock agent characters actually reach a peak at a relatively early age, then either stay at this level or deteriorate. Maybe some have beliefs so long built that they will never be able to accept changing wisdoms.

Apparently, when Anthony Stroud was Sheikh Mohammed's racing manager from the mid-1980's to the millennium, he was said to possess the ability to go out and assess a couple of hundred yearlings and be able to form a picture memory of each individual and provide a detailed description of their conformation at random.

Stroud achieved that position chiefly on the strength of his buying record in the National Hunt arena . I guess he talked a good game too.

Indeed, in the misty world of buying and selling bloodstock, there are those who consistently hit lucky above the norm and must possess a degree of innate ability to have the knack of picking up bargains from the maze. The Doyle family would be prime examples

The late Jack Doyle bought many of Ryan Price's best flat horses, including his most famous, the 1975 St Leger winner Bruni, and his highest rated by Timeform, Sandford Lad. He also bought Deep Run who would go on to be the perennial champion jumping sire, Champion Hurdle winner Another Flash and the mighty Mill House.

His son and grandson, Peter and Ross, have a long association with the Hannon's and have found most of both the Hannon's best horses for middle to lower level price ranges.

Pacemaker ran a three part series of feature articles on Jack Doyle from December 1981 to February 1982. Doyle was quoted saying, 'the Lord knows when it comes to this game just how little we know'. 

He was never put off by the bottom part of a pedigree producing animals that had done well in the National Hunt sphere. He termed these 'rough families' and reckoned that all the good two year olds he bought for Ryan Price and the Prendergasts contained this element.

 He also stated, 'the only thing that makes a horse expensive is pedigree. But there is no such thing as a bad pedigree. Some families are better than others because they have had more chance'.

What of the ones whose viewing skills are not as fine as others? It would depend on how much emphasis you attribute to this part of the exercise. Mark Johnston has revealed he begins with pedigrees as his starting point, whereby the dams must have achieved a certain level of form racing or have beared foals who have gone on and achieved a certain level of form. Once he has his short list Johnston will not examine any entrants outside of it.

It makes you wonder how much of an eye you need when a qualified vet puts more accent on what is showing in print. While you probably do need many years of experience to 'develop an eye', it's conceivable that anyone with the right connections could get through a crash course in pedigrees in a few weeks, then be able to compile their own short list, set of rules, and then just hit lucky.

If setting up with a leaning towards the pedigree side I suppose you would be best advised to play down the physical assessment and intuitive part, to sully those who claim to have a 'feel' and spot a 'presence' in one after a live viewing, to play up the pedigree assessment angle and to claim that it takes years of studying pedigrees to effectively assess a catalogue page.

The sport is full of famous horses with ' defects' or who 'weren't correct', as they like to say. Mummy's Pet a great progenitor of speed apparently had dreadful hind legs, while we are told it is not uncommon for Northern Dancer male line horses to have parrot mouths, with Dancing Brave being a prime example. Championing such examples helps those who put the main emphasis on pedigree.

It's certainly not a business where you would excel with any self doubt. Most would also caution that it's one to tread carefully if you are an outsider with bulging pockets.

Every so often a story will break away from the inside of this clique and will shed an appalling light on the industry. The sale of the Tale Quale gelding eventually named Pru's Profile springs readily to mind.

It is a well-documented story involving collusive bidding involving trainer Paul Webber who then worked for the Curragh Bloodstock Agency, and Oliver Sherwood. It was found that the animal in question had it's price falsely inflated and the episode ended with the High Court awarding the buyer over £50,000 in damages against the bloodstock agency.

One of the most disturbing aspects of this to an outsider was that both Webber and Sherwood received a good deal of support and sympathy from within the business. The general consensus seemed to be that it is a practice that is common and that Webber and Sherwood were unfortunate to be made scapegoats.

We are now approaching the height of the sales season.  Doublespeak and doublecrossing, corrective surgery, rumours that some consignors have means and ways of nurturing eye-catching but temporary physiques in their stock, the loss-leading buys to hype up stallions. We'll see the sales reports and results not knowing half of what is really happening.

image Auctioneer and assistants, Cheviot,Ohio, 2004 by Rick Dikeman CC BY-SA 3.0

Friday, 31 August 2018

AT THE CREST


The time arrives for a change of the guard in all sports. It's mostly a gradual but predictable process which ends when you step back and acknowledge the new order. In some cases the transition can happen in a surprisingly short time period.

Tiger Woods took grip of the golfing world very quickly, turning pro then beating Davis Love III in a play off weeks later to secure his first top level event, then straight to the number one ranking the following summer.

Sebastian Vettel took a few years of successive world championships to be accepted at the pinnacle of the pyramid, same with Lewis Hamilton who stepped into a competitive car at the start of his career and took a while to be accepted by the multitude of cynics. Ultimately the day would arrive when observers would quit with their ' pound for pound Alonso is the best'  claim and accept that the younger pair were now at the summit of their sport ability wise.

In football the change in the pecking order at the top often coincides when a player moves to one of the showcase clubs giving him the platform to perform at the highest level.  Being acclaimed pound for pound as the next coming is conjecture without stonewall solid evidence.

For racehorse trainers an Epsom Derby or  Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe victory will not get you there alone. The big races have to come from several horses, the success sustained.

In the British Isles there have been several candidates who have threatened to make the step up to the very highest stage but have been unable to secure their place. They hover in what could be termed the 'Barry Hills tier'.

Hills was a consistent high-class trainer from the days of Rheingold all the way through to his final classic winner Ghanaati. He held a trainer's licence for over forty years but he was never right at the very peak of the pyramid, though lasted longer than most who were. He saw many go past him and take the step up on to the highest table, then pass him again on their way down several years later.

A Barry Hills juvenile winning a back end two-year-old maiden would not get the publicity and hype than one hailing from the three or four showcase yards would receive. And while Robert Sangster was a great supporter and friend, the very best prospects would go to Vincent O'Brien, then later to Peter Chapple-Hyam. Just like in the early 1980's when Dunlop would have a better quality Maktoum family intake, and Jeremy Tree a better quality Khalid Abdullah intake. Still, after the Michael Dickinson Manton episode, it was his trusted pal Hills who Sangster brought in to clear up the mess.

Michael Stoute has held his seat in the highest room for many years. More recently he has on more than one occasion looked on his way down to the floor below only to confound the doubters.

In his first year with a licence in 1973, Stoute took the Ayr Gold Cup with Blue Cashmere. The numbers and quality began to increase. By the beginning of the 1977 season the owners included Gordon White of Ever Ready fame, Sir Charles Clore, Bob McCreery,  Baroness Oppenheim, Captain McDonald - Buchanan, the Duke of Devonshire and the William Hill organisation.

There was also Sven Hanson who owned a two-year-old filly he had purchased for 13,000 guineas at the Houghton Yearling Sales. By Petingo, she was named Fair Salinia and would go on to win the following years Epsom Oaks, the pivotal moment that made people sit up and take notice.

Going into the following year the Wigan family had a talented, game juvenile in the yard named Final Straw, who would train on to be involved in the big mile races as a three-year-old. The Loder family had the Mill Reef Stakes winner Lord Seymour, who raced in the colours that his famous full sister Marwell would soon carry. Lord Seymour had a big reputation but eventually fell short of expectations. Gordon White owned Hardgreen who ran in Troy's Derby. And there was Vaigly Great, one of the best sprinters in training during that year.

Shortly after it was announced that the Aga Khan was sending yearlings over to England to go into training. The trainers selected were Fulke Johnston-Houghton and Stoute. Amongst the first batch that Stoute inherited was a colt named Shergar.

So it was in 1981, led by Shergar and Marwell and supported by numerous other smart animals that Stoute reached the ceiling alongside M V O'Brien, Henry Cecil, Dick Hern, and Guy Harwood who had stepped up to the very top tier in tandem with Stoute. John Dunlop was close behind.

From this 'big four, Stoute is the only one to remain. Only A P O'Brien and John Gosden sit alongside. Charlie Appleby cannot be counted amongst the group yet. He is an in-house trainer for an organisation that those of us on the outside understand too little to decide where the credit lies for the upsurge in fortunes.

We must also remember that Gosden joined the high table later than many would be led to believe. For so long he was performing to no more of what would be expected given the quality of animal he was receiving. Even when Benny The Dip won the Derby, Gosden remained in that group directly below the top of the pyramid. And further on, when he guided the wonderful Oasis Dream to champion sprint honours in 2003, there were no other individual Group 1 winners for the yard during that season.

Having been successfully established in the States, Gosden came to Stanley House with a readymade yard, the core of which were Sheikh Mohamed owned. There was a steady drip of success but he was very much on the Barry Hill's level until as recently as the past half dozen years where everything has taken off up to a new level, star after star after star, the biggest prizes regularly plundered, something only the smug back fitters would say was to be expected.

Room at the pinnacle will be available soon. We have to take note of the ages of Gosden and Stoute, and how long they are going to go on for. Gosden is 67 years of age, Stoute approaching his 73rd birthday.

Luca Cumani had had one foot on the summit but despite training two Derby winners never truly had both feet in. Richard Hannon junior inherited his father's strongest ever team and was champion trainer, but overall he belongs on that floor one down. So does Roger Charlton. When he took over at Beckhampton, he was left the Epsom Derby winner that JeremyTree must have wished he stayed on for. In addition to Quest for Fame there was Sanglamore who would win the French Derby in the same year. Charlton operates consistently on a high class level just below that superclass bubble.

Andrew Balding kept Kingsclere ticking along at the level his father had in his final dozen or so years with high-grade animals appearing in turn but is having a terrific time of it this summer. Maybe he just has the inmates bouncing, but this is lasting for long enough to make you wonder if things are about to go up another level, particularly considering some of the youngsters are highly promising individuals.

William Haggas promised to go to the elite sphere after Shaamit had won the Derby relatively early in his training career but is rooted on the step below, while the one caution over Motivator's prospects going into 2005 was whether Michael Bell could be trusted to handle such a high quality colt. He came through with flying colours but the trainer's career has returned to the norm since.

David Loder was flirting with breaking through, both when 'Indie', and when being under full Maktoum family control. But Loder did not have the application. The support was always there but the words silver spoon in mouth and spoilt rotten come to mind when before one sabbatical he expressed that he wanted time to travel and explore the world.

The late Alec Stewart was a contender to reach the highest echelons. Just a few years in with a licence, he built a following with his handling of the magnificent  Mtoto. I can recall being at Haydock Park on a Friday evening in June 1986, Stewart and Sheik Ahmed Al Maktoum had made the journey. Mtoto obliged in the classily named Chipmobile Stakes. In his remaining races of that year, he looked between handicaps and Group class, and one who would be hard to place.

Then to the Brigadier Gerard the following season. A completely different beast with an electric turn of pace. That was the beginning of a heady spell at the top level for Mtoto, two Eclipse's, two Prince of Wales's, a King George, and so unlucky not to cap it off with a Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe success. All the time his emerging trainer's name was on the ascent

Starting the 1989 season with Mtoto retired,his Clarehaven yard numbered eighty six and he looked set to kick on upwards but despite being a thinking more than a scattergun placer of his horses, Stewart never even got near the Barry Hills tier, turning out an average of twenty or so winners in his final dozen years with a licence . Admittedly there were still some fleeting big races successes but the horses often did not seem right. It's not as if the numbers of inmates dropped dramatically, for example in his penultimate year when he trained twenty six winners, he had a yard of sixty five horses. He was of course very ill by this time.

Marcus Tregoning is another who looked set to kick on. Taking over the seat at Kingwood House Stables after the retirement of Dick Hern, he made an early impression with Nayef and Mubtaker. It was taken for granted that he would be playing at the top tier for years to come.

In 2004 and 2005, he started the season with over one hundred and thirty inmates, Danehills, Kingmambos, Danzigs, Sadlers Well's, they were all there. To say that his patrons had faith in him would be an understatement. It cannot be doubted that he was given the platform to showcase his talents, and despite hitting the heights with the 2006 Epsom Derby winner Sir Percy, failed to take advantage and has not trained a winner at the highest level since.

Mark Johnston is your flat equivalent of W.A Stephenson. Just like when you use to open a fresh copy of Horses In Training and would peruse the strings of at least half a dozen fellow jumping trainers before turning to Stephenson's entry, the Kingsley House team will never be the first you'd want to scan.

It is unlikely the Johnston modus operandi will ever change and he will forever be comfortable in his own unique niche.

Out of Hugo Palmer, Roger Varian, Ralph Beckett and Clive Cox,  we could put Varian in his old guvnor Michael Jarvis's mould. A seamless transition but it looks an operation that will remain just off the pinnacle for the foreseeable future.

The other three have all had Group one successes but the most curious fact is that out of the quartet Clive Cox, who has upgraded himself to this group from the basement and trained amongst others a Prince Of Wales Stakes winner who had started his career with Donald McCain jnr, is the only one without an Epsom Derby entrant for 2019.

He is wrongly being pigeonholed as a handler who can only excel with speedy types and needs that announcement that a big owner is sending him a number of yearlings with creme de la creme middle distance pedigrees. It would be the platform to show what he can really do, as it's nothing but pound for pound speculation at the moment.

Image - NASA/Josh Valcarcel and Bill Stafford

Wednesday, 22 August 2018

GOSSIP AND SPECULATION


That book, The Coup by Ken Payne, one that every racing fan over a certain age must have read. Triumphs, tragedies, highs and lows, a fictional like existence from a real person but one who at the end of the day will chiefly be linked to doping moderate horses with anabolic steroids to land gambles.

Come to think of it, whenever doping in racing was openly discussed in those days it invariably revolved around anabolic steroids. Some suggested the practice was nothing new and that in the 1960's, these drugs were rife in the sport and that a trainer needed them as part of his armory to ensure it was a level playing field for himself.

Things then evolved. We had Francois Boutin's Trepan winning the Prince Of Wales Stakes and Eclipse Stakes in 1976, then losing both after testing positive for the cocoa based theobromine. People linked the reduction in French raiders soon after to an assumption that they were 'all at it', with rumours that all sorts of drugs and illegal practices were common in the Gallic racing community.

Moving into the 1980's we became accustomed to the frequent discussions centred around the permitted used of Lasix and Bute in the USA, whether the European trainers should do a 'when in Rome' when sending horses over for the derogatory termed 'Bleeders Cup', and the long term effect these drugs may have on masking defects and weakening the breed.

Paul Haigh has written some excellent pieces on the subject of drugs in racing down the years. But it is a testament to how drug and chemical use has branched out when you read his feature on the subject in the August 1987 issue of Pacemaker, concentrating on Lasix and Bute, and compare it with the startling series of articles he did on the subject for the Racing Post in May 2005.

We were now talking of 'milkshaking' and 'blood doping'. Haigh quoted Richard Bomze, the president of the New York Horsemans Association, saying, " Only in racing do guys become superstars at the snap of a finger. It's chemicals and painkillers and we all know who the bums are."

The article highlighted a trend whereby many high ranking trainers first started to perform at the top level exactly at the same time as they employed the same vet. 

'Milkshaking' which would involve administering a bicarbonate mix to an animal through tubes fed through the nose, delays the development of lactic acid and the process of becoming tired during a race. Evidently, in a series of unannounced tests at Del Mar racecourse, 39 % of horses had abnormally high levels of bicarbonate in their system.

With the use of this particular booster being ideal for national hunt racing, tongues wag, and any handler who builds up a pattern of drawing improvement from acquisitions from other yards will be subject to accusatory whispers.

Blood doping has a more sinister feel altogether. Images of Peter Cushing, laboratories and bubbling  blood-filled test tubes. In fact, referring back to French racing circles in the 1970's, allegations were made at the time that horses were being given blood transfusions. 

Monica Dickinson was once quoted saying words to the effect that she had heard a certain trainer was using disturbing procedures to enhance racehorse performance. It was believed she was referring to blood doping. It was rumored to be happening but a leading vet within racing was of the opinion that it would be ineffective as a performance enhancer for racehorses as they carry a natural reserve of oxygen producing red blood cells.

The image of this process became less gory after scientists developed a drug called Epogen (EPO) in the 1980's to treat anemia, and this is what cyclists and athletes have been caught using, tennis players have been accused of using, and is what is alleged to have been in use in horse racing.

Trainer and qualified vet Mark Johnston is another to doubt whether this practice enhances racehorse performance. In his opinion, expressed again recently, blood doping would not give trainers an edge. Like other sceptics, Johnston cited the natural reserves that horses carry.

If you want to be cynical, you could point to the fact that Johnston is racing political savvy, and is of the opinion that punters will turn away from the sport the more they believe sinister forces are at work. A sort of, 'keep mum for the image of the sport'.

When vets and scientists offer a completely opposite view what on earth are the great majority of racing fans who have scant veterinary knowledge expected to make of it all?

In 2001 Charlie Mann came out and stated that EPO is being regularly used in British racing. The common retort was that his training abilities were limited and he was tarring others who were able to do the job better than himself.

On a winter morning in 2002, Jockey Club investigators carried out simultaneous raids on the yards of  Martin Pipe, Paul Nicholls, Venetia Williams, Lenny Lungo and Alan Jones. Tests were carried out for EPO but all came up negative.

Since the advent of the internet world or should I say the Betfair Forum, the accusations against racing people have been more blatant, many libelous whether containing any truth or not as this is an area where you have no hope of backing up your allegations.

There are posters on that forum who are adamant that they know that unofficial warnings are dished out in the sport. And that practices are unveiled that are kept secret from the public for fear of damaging the reputation of the sport even further.

With the Betfair Forum you often have no idea if the person you are conversing with is genuine or a Walter Mitty. There used to be a character who if offended would write,' If you knew who you were addressing you would not be talking to me like that'. He claimed that if he found out who the offending persons were, they would first beware of him then they looked out their window and saw a black car parked outside with darkened window screens.

Another regular poster was shot in the legs a few years back when taking a radiator out of his car boot on waste ground. It's a forum where you treat most with an open mind. It would be foolish to believe that all of the accusations against racing people are made without foundation.

Whenever one reads those appeals put out by the Police when old unsolved murder cases are subject to fresh investigation, the statements always include the bit about, ' allegiances may have changed in the time that has since passed'; the subject of skulduggery in racing comes to mind.

Let's say a trainer was administering the 'magic carrots', twenty, thirty or even forty years ago. Staff employed by the trainer will very likely have moved on, some still within the sport, many leaving it all together.

Admittedly, many will have been kept in the dark about practices occurring, they may have heard rumours but will probably have forgotten most of the details and the names of the substances and procedures involved. But there would have had to have been a small inside circle perhaps involving the trainer, a few owners and a handful of senior staff. Racing is a sport where allegiances can be fickle, where irretrievable fall outs are common.

So with so many allegiances changing, why have we not had a single red top exclusive where we are told about how a certain, highly successful trainer, gained a massive advantage on his rivals through the use of illicit methods?

There is a fear within racing that inward scrutiny with none of the findings hidden would damage the sport and result in punters turning their backs on it for good. The converse is that emerging punters are not much interested in the sport anyway and in the Dick Francis spirit of things, there is nothing like a bit of cheating and fixing to get people curious.

Truth is, the majority of people indifferent to the sport believe it's fixed anyway.

image - the cover of the August 1987 edition of Pacemaker International

Sunday, 12 August 2018

OVER FOR ANOTHER YEAR, THANK GOD


Yesterday was give racing a wide berth day. Those dipping in and out of the ITV coverage did not need to loiter on the channel for too long to confirm that the whole hullabaloo that is the Shergar Cup is a nonsense created by marketing men in collaboration with broadcasters and the modernisation nuisances.

What would someone belonging to the large majority who are indifferent to the sport make of the Rishi Pershad interview with Corey Brown (pictured) where the jockey was asked how the Shergar Cup compares with the great days around the racing world? The rider was composed and polite and played along with the gist intended.

Your indifferent viewer could have been left with the belief that this gimmicky race day can be put aside the grand showcase occasions such as the Cheltenham Festival, Grand National day and Epsom Derby day. At least Fran Berry half gave the game away during his interview when mentioning it was a 'once a year novelty'. And with all due respect to the Swedish rider Per-Anders Graberg, from what he normally experiences it probably was a fairly big occasion for him.

Racing fans with a feel for the sport, a love of its customs and traditions, plus a belief that a programme where change is, well at least up to recent times, done after much consideration which leaves a big race programme similar to that of fifty, seventy-five and even one hundred years ago, is a strength and something to boast of; these fans will cringe at the thought of the Shergar Cup and its stupid team concept.

Come to think of it, is the Shergar Cup complicating or simplifying the sport? It would be interesting to know how those that support the competition view it. For most who applaud these dreadful new innovations are modernists who also believe in binning in-house speak for a language understood by all.

Problem is the absurdity that is the Shergar Cup actually complicates matters. Once they get their heads around the scoring and familiarise themselves with the teams, the soul's who endear themselves to it, and God forbid there isn't many of them, will then have to re-adjust and learn about the sport in its normal format which those who invented the competition  considered was not dynamic enough to pull them in in the first place. I heard it mentioned that ' the girls took 22 pts from the first race', but had no wish to get to grips with the points distribution, so foreign it is to what makes the sport pleasurable.

During Glorious Goodwood ITV Racing did a piece on Charles Gordon-Lennox, who is the present Duke of Richmond, involving Ed Chamberlain visiting him at Goodwood House and asking for his thoughts on racing matters. Gordon-Lennox though ITV were providing an excellent service for the sport and he was happy, that like him, Chamberlain and the broadcasters supported a dumbing down of how the sport is presented to keep tabs on the other sports.

Truth is this, Gordon-Lennox may be business savvy and know how to utilise his estate and how to project the image of Goodwood racecourse whereby it pulls in fresh investment and corporate sponsorship, but it is an unchallengeable, agreed fact, that racing cannot fully function without its central lifeblood of money from punters. He will be clueless on how to attract a new generation of punters to the sport.

What is curious about this wish of many that the sport should be made less complicated to keep up with other sports is that all of the other major sports have been broadcasted with an extra, intricate depth, and have thrived as result.

For example, in the 1970's, 1980's, and the 1990's too, did you ever hear kids when talking about football mentioning ' assists '? You knew of the partnerships where a goalscorer would have a regular supplier who would be credited for his role, but no figures were available. Similarly, did you ever hear Grand Prix fanatics discussing 'third sector lap times' which they do so now to the hundredth of the second?

Today's all angle miss nothing coverage owes some gratitude  to Kerry Packers World Series initiative. Controversial at the time, we saw the introduction of gizmos we now take for granted. Screen graphics that were way ahead of their time for the era, floodlights, intrusive microphones.

Remember, this was a time when you'd watch a John Player Sunday League match and the camera would only be situated at one end, so you'd watch an over with the batsman's back to the screen and the bowler delivering towards the screen, then vice verse for the following over.

Like Cricket, Tennis is awash with Gizmo's measuring speeds and pinpointing exactly where a ball has landed. Every possible worthwhile stat is collated as a match progresses. And Grand Prix racing, from those days when during routine pit stops the crew appeared to be giving the car a lengthy MOT, to the present where a split second lost could cost a position or even the race.

In contrast, we have those watchable laid back parts where Ted Kravitz will wander through the Village past the team vans and walk over and randomly chat to any 'face' that he spots. Matt Chapman has done this on ATR, marching around the paddock pre-race. One of the few new ideas that come across OK.

The jockey cams have been an excellent innovation over the past few years, offering an insight which we could previously only imagine. Far more useful than that period during the final years of BBC's coverage of racing when they had the likes of Peter Scudamore or Norman Williamson tracking the field in the back of a car and giving a brief, mumbly jumbly report as how the race was developing. They were funny those.

The modernists realise that the other major sports have moved on and thrived. But it certainly has nothing to do with the false belief that they have dumbed down, quite the opposite in fact. Indeed, the appeal of racing would be enriched by the sport treading the same path. 

Why not a workshop on how to compile speed figures and the pitfalls of assessing the going allowance. Or handicapping in general. Or a stallion statistics focus. These things will make the viewers realise that there is a fascinating depth to the sport. Regrettably, the focus is shifting in the wrong direction and partially because of this, the sports share of the betting pie is continuing to dwindle.

Tuesday, 31 July 2018

THE FLOTSAM AND JETSAM OF THE DOCUMENTARY WORLD


'Searching for Shergar' did nothing except confirm that compared to the many excellent documentaries revolving around other spheres of the sporting world, those that cover horse racing invariably lack in factual accuracy and tend to be threaded together with crucial aspects missing.

We know those at the helm of making racing documentaries are mostly general film makers with no feel for the sport and no desire to maintain a long term involvement. After they've produced their botched piece of work, they nonchalantly move on to their next project .

This seemingly umpteenth documentary about the disappearance of Shergar shown on BBC 2 at the weekend was woeful and full of glaring omissions and errors. It was also a testament to how those who agree to partake can be made into caraciture like figures.

Stan Cosgrove, who was a driving force behind the Moyglare Stud operation was portrayed a dotty old eccentric with a propensity to drink and someone who would have slotted in well to an episode of the Vicar of Dibley or Father Ted, or even been a Harry Enfield character.

Cosgrove was also Shergar's vet which drew Alison Millar and her team to him. They must have left with a good few hours of live footage which they have gone through and put together with an emphasis on light hearted viewer entertainment over the subject matter.

IMDb's entry on Millar describes her as a 'critically acclaimed film maker with a reputation for making emotionally compelling films'.

Her work on Shergar would have attained more credibility if, for example, she had given the viewer a brief overview into the reality of racehorse breeding in the sense that the majority of top class horses do not make truly successful stallions

A passing viewer with little racing interest could have been forgiven for believing that Shergar was siring future champions all over the place. Despite Millar's assertion, the horse was never at any stage the most sought after or valuable stallion in the world.

Those of us who are racing fans will be able to recall that the one crop that saw the racecourse included an Irish Leger winner in Authaal, that grey thing of Paul Coles in the orange silks, Tisn't,  and Maysoon who was placed in the 1,000 Guineas and Oaks.

It was a fair if not spectacular beginning. Whether he was any sort of significant loss to the breeding world cannot be proven either way, though it's is unlikely that he was.

Other gripes with the documentary included no explanation being given why Lester Piggott was aboard in the Irish Derby. It was reported as though Swinburn was just randomly replaced, truth being of course that he had been suspended for a careless riding offence on Centurius in the King Edward at Royal Ascot.

And the documentary gave the impression that Shergar's career ended on a high, with no mention of the St Leger defeat which led the viewer into believing the horse had won on all of his three year old starts.

Finally, we were subjected to the often repeated anecdote,  this time by Clare Balding, that the rider of the runner up in the Derby, Glint of Gold, John Mathias, believed he had won, so far ahead of him Shergar was. By all accounts, Mathias did come out with these words but surely it was tongue in cheek and delivered to pay respect to the winner.

The good racing documentaries made by general film makers are few and far between. Back in the 1970's  there was one following a teenage lad who was going to Doncaster races to see his hero Lester Piggott and Nijinsky in their Triple Crown bid. It had a bit of the 'Kes' about it.

This was a time when the BBC seemed full of daytime documentaries about hippies in caravans with the Moon and various other celestial objects painted on them. The narrative was very restrained, the narrator speaking with the customary BBC accent.

I recall one in the late 1970's about Trevor Kersey's Rotherham yard. Not a lot happened but there was no attempt to jazz up the programme, though I doubt it would have been possible. Rather an insight into a small family run yard operating near the bottom of the ladder. Humble reality but enjoyable.

Then we have the pieces made for the specialist racing channels. Those start of the winter Lenny Lungo trainer talks, that Cash Asmussen piece that was shown one Christmas Day on Racing UK,  and that baffling one fronted by Miriam Francome where she was asking trainers who their favourite Paris Chef was!

But arguably, of all the programmes made about racing from outside the sport, the most eyebrow raising would be an episode of After Dark, which used to be broadcast on a Friday in the late 1980's.

After Dark was fronted by that cult legend Anthony H Wilson, and each week it focussed on a different subject. As its name suggests, the programme started around 11pm and went into the early hours of the morning.

When racing was chosen as the subject, those present were Barney Curley, journalist  Brian Radford, ex-jockey Duncan Keith, John McCririck, an anonymous problem gambler who sat in the dark throughout the broadcast, and a self-confessed Communist who stated he was an 'Aintree resident'.

It was entertaining stuff. Duncan Keith revealed that he used to stop horses by going too fast in front. McCririck thought it was a shame that a once great front-running jockey was now resorting to telling tales to earn some money. Wilson intervened and suggested to McCririck that what many of those rides he perceived to be attempted all the way successes, were, in fact, Keith stopping them. McCrickrick then repeated that it was a shame how Keith's life had panned out. Keith then retorted that he was doing fine, running a successful pub business.

The 'Aintree resident' believed that the Queen should be 'serving the auld fish and chips', and added that every year, when the Grand National meeting is staged, the traffic is held up by 'Hoorah Henrys' crossing the road. Curley interrupted, accusing him of having a chip on his shoulder.

Brian Radford revealed he was about to produce a story that would rock the racing world. He described that a well known successful trainer was putting slabs of lead beneath horse bandages on their legs to slow them down, even to hide their ability on the gallops. It was put to him that this sounded too ridiculous to be true and would damage the horse's tendons, and that there are far safer and less complicated ways of stopping horses. Needless to say no such story made it to print.

It would be a shame if the reel of this programme was no more. It's certainly not on You Tube. The broadcasting companies began transferring old reel to digital at some stage but plenty were discarded or lost, and being realistic After Dark would hardly have been high up on the must preserve list.  

image - Shergar prior to the Chester Vase - taken by author

Sunday, 22 July 2018

KEEPING REPUTATIONS INTACT


The withdrawal of Masar from the Eclipse followed on by the announcement that the colt's setback was sufficiently serious for him to miss the rest of the season sends out a message that the stumps may be ready to be drawn on his career.

Prior to Masar, there have been four Epsom Derby winners in Maktoum connected family ownership, with only High Rise racing on after three. And when you add to this that only Island Sands from their half a dozen Newmarket 2,000 Guineas winners have raced at four, the omens for seeing Masar next year are far from encouraging, despite the stated intention to keep him in training.

Masar had more races under his belt and suffered more defeats prior to Epsom than most winners of the race but to some, there is a feeling that it had all just clicked into place, that there was plenty more to find out about him over twelve furlongs, and that he could not be considered a complete warts and all case.

Still, he holds a completely opposite profile to the family's Lammtara who is an example of unbeaten records and hype fooling no one. After a single winning start as a juvenile, he raced three more times, winning the three most significant twelve furlong events in Europe. Yes, he was an above average Dery winner but many will go ahead of him who don't have the protected unbeaten record. Even in the last couple of years, Golden Horn would be a Derby winner looked upon as at least his equal.

There exists a belief that the shackles put on animals to protect their value are less tight than forty or fifty years ago. But the figures reveal, at least to the start of this current decade, that there has been no big change in direction by connections of those whose animals triumph in the races that are perceived to matter most to stallion values.

In the four completed decades from 1970 to 2010, the number of Epsom Derby winners remaining in training as four year olds have been, three, three, two and three, while the equivalent for the Newmarket race read, three, one, two, and three.

In the eight years of the present decade prior to Masar and Saxon Warrior, three Derby and three Guineas winners have stayed in training the following year, Camelot figuring in both. Admittedly, Wings of Eagles, being himself by a retired after the race Epsom Derby winner who is now seen as a dual purpose stallion, would probably have raced on too but for his injury after the Irish Derby. Not the most marketable, there was no aura to protect with him.

We cannot be sure that the figures for this present decade are just incidental rather than a sign that attitudes have changed. But it must be noted that in the cases of Workforce and Camelot, they had time and reputations to lose by going on at four.

Workforce being in that elusive clubs of Epsom Derby winners going on to win the Arc, while Camelot, though losing out in his Triple Crown bid and following up with a disappointing run in the Arc, was hardly damaged goods.

Both stayed in training at four without enhancing their reputations. Workforce is away in Japan as stallion but Camelot may just yet make it as a high grade sire. While we normally rejoice in the success stories of the Pivotals, Kodiacs, Acclamations and Dark Angels, the ones who the power bases would turn their noses up at until jumping belatedly on the bandwagons, Camelot becoming a hit at stud could be for the greater good as it would dwindle the belief that running in the St Leger carries a stigma.

Interviewed after US Navy Flags July Cup success, Aiden O'Brien mentioned that breeders nowadays like to see horses fully tested and are not so easily fooled by intact reputations.

This obsession with keeping horses profiles dent free reached its peak in the first part of the 1980's.  It was very much a European thing though. Even in that golden 1970's  period over in the USA,  Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed suffered defeats.

Secretariat did not stay in training at four but suffered a defeat two races after his incredible Belmont Stakes win, and still raced on. Seattle Slew was in training preparing to race on at four but suffered a setback, while Affirmed raced on at four.

Moving back to the Epsom Derby, 1982, 1983 and 1984 were the most eventful and ironic three years in recent times in relation to the do we race on or don't we dilemma.

Golden Fleece was a monster in physique, so many sure that he wouldn't act around Epsom in 1982. Barney Curley took a sabbatical away from punting after the race after reputedly losing a considerable amount backing the rest of the field so certain was he that this was no Derby winner.

For Golden Fleece, it was his fourth and would be his final racecourse appearance. Pat Eddery rounded Tattenham Corner with the backmarkers but got an incredible response from his mount who rapidly cut through the field, hit the front just before the furlong marker and won in the style of a vastly superior horse.

The visual impression left an overwhelming feeling of brilliance. Tony Stafford, writing in The Racehorse (see image above) who a year previous had announced that Shergar was the best horse he had ever seen, had now had a change of mind. It was now Golden Fleece who was the best he had ever seen !

The first indication that we may have seen the last of the Nijinsky colt came when it was announced that a nasal infection would rule him out of the Eclipse or Irish Derby. We were later told that this virus lasted for three weeks and when they got him back into training, he had a swelling which meant it would have taken another six weeks to get him ready so they decided to call it a day.

With hindsight, they might as well as persevered  with him as the future was a bleak one. The horse died young of cancer and from the progeny that saw a racecourse, it was clear that he would be a profound failure as a stallion.

When the 1983 winner Teenoso was kept in training as a four year old, only those inside the bloodstock world would have been privy to when the decision was made, the reasoning behind it, the figures involved, and the lack of availability of other options.

Certainly, the emphasis on the reports at the time gave the impression that sporting reasons were at the centre of the decision.

It was only by chance that what may have been the biggest influence in the decision came out in the open. And this was connected to the 1984 Derby. The fact that connections of the winner Secreto never allowed their colt onto a racecourse again only confirmed the general consensus that they had got lucky.

In the aftermath of the race, the forecasted 're-match' was priced up with El Gran Senor a warm favourite to attain his revenge. And when the O'Brien colt beat Rainbow Quest over a less testing twelve furlongs at the Curragh, that settled the issue in most minds, though of course, we can never know for sure.

El Gran Senor himself picked up an injury after the Curragh and was never seen again. We are told that the intention was to keep him in training.

In a revealing televised interview with Julian Wilson at an afternoon race meeting, Robert Sangster was asked to comment on the decision to retire El Gran Senor. He reiterated that the intention had been to keep him in training then was highly critical of an article in the Daily Telegraph penned by Lord Oaksey.

Sangster was of the opinion that Oaksey was talking ' rubbish'  by praising the Moller family for being sporting and keeping Teenoso in training. Sangster said the only reason he was in training at four was that after the Mollers sounded out that he was for sale as a stallion, no one was interested enough to match a price anywhere near what they wanted for him , so in the end, they had no choice.

As things turned out Teenoso had a terrific four year old career disproving those who had him marked down as a plodder who needed soft ground. The highlight of his year was beating Sadler's Wells , Tolomeo and Time Charter under an inspirational front running Piggott ride in the King George V1 and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes.

It would be pleasing to think owners now accept that breeders are not easily fooled anymore by polished records with barely any dents showing, but in the case of those few races that matter that little more, the jury is still deliberating.

PROMOTING IN THE MODERN WORLD

Monday, April  15th, 2019. It's 10am in the conference room of the Bedford Lodge Hotel in Newmarket where a well spoken well dressed ...

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