Sunday, 17 March 2019

A RARE GOOD WEEK FOR THE SPORT


Even those of us who can see that horse racing on these isles is faced with an uphill battle to halt a further decline in its position alongside rival sports, it would be pretty mean not to take a time out and concede that it has been one hell of a good week for the sport.

To start by getting the negatives out of the way, we again are able to cite many examples of how many races at the festival, including key championship contests, were diluted by the choice on offer, not to mention the truly diabolical planned review of the future of the four miler, which was a tremendous, 'in the spirit of the game ' spectacle.

Many of us became bitten by the bug during the 1970's when it was not unusual to have mudbath festivals,  fields strung out with many unable to complete the course, horses with tails tied, and jockeys with unrecognisable silks. It makes a change from horses sprinting up the hill, a visual impression that defies the fact that festivals run on ground described as 'good' produce more fatalities.

But overall on the week, the pluses undoubtedly outnumbered the negatives.

Switch the clock back to November 1984 when Jayne Thompson suffered fatal injuries from a first flight fall in a hurdle race at Catterick. The future of female jockeys in National Hunt racing, put into gear properly by Lorna Vincent in the 1970's, was at a crossroads.

In response to Jayne Thompson's death John Francome was quoted saying he did not think that ladies should be allowed to participate in this sphere of the game. To support his argument he pointed out that while during a fall a male rider would naturally roll up to protect the crotch area, the girls do not make a shape and land like a rag doll. 

In the next few years Gee Armytage came on the scene and enjoyed success at the Cheltenham Festival. Since then the girls have become increasingly stylish and competitive to the point where their sex is now not an issue.

Furthermore, the modern day jockettes are in the main fine ambassadors for the game. Someone questioning the ins and outs of the sport, whether it be integrity or equine welfare would sit up, listen and respect what Bryony Frost is telling them far more so than a BHA spokesperson or smug TV presenter.

At present, many people with clout within the sport are imagining that there is a large world out there watching and monitoring the sport, seeking to put an end to it on account of perceived cruelty.

Those outside the bubble, who belong to the general populace, know this is entire nonsense. Considering that last year there were six fatalities at the festival, a higher than expected number considering the ground was soft, there was no notable outside resentment as this year's staging drew nearer, even accounting for the availability of social media which can make a grievance appear to have bigger support than is the case.

If this had been 1979 instead of 2019, there would have been a congregation of hippies outside the course carrying placards, blowing whistles, and in contrast to what they would claim they stand for, they would no doubt of been hoping for a few grim incidents on track to add weight to their cause.

Indeed, apart from the back stabbing BBC who may or may not wish they hadn't washed their hands of the sport, the life ending injury to Sir Erec did not receive the coverage it might have done in past times. Ted Walsh's ' Man up'  tweet, along with the general, ' it's a dangerous sport, this happens, we have get on with it '  response from the racing media was for once the correct approach to take and does not appear to have been met by any notable outcry.

And if in the unlikely circumstances there exists a vast number out there who are cynical of the sport on welfare issues, they may just reconsider their opinions after listening to the thoughts of the modern set of lady riders, most of whom are PR savvy with personable facades.

Racing has in the past thirty years picked up the habit of kowtowing to rival sports that have less depth, history and components, but which have been the benefactors of modern broadcasting and first class presentation.

Indeed, there is a woefully misguided drive to copycat aspects of these other sports with the already much discussed barmy ideas soon to become reality.

So another realisation from the present high standing of the lady riders in the British Isles that needs to be trumpeted aloud, is that out of the major sports, racing is the only one where the girls compete on equal terms. Only the other equine sports of show jumping and three day eventing are similar in this sense.

While watching a first class cricket match on television during the summer, I was a little miffed to hear a female commentator proclaim that a drive through the covers was ' Sarah Tayloresque '.It was made as though the girl's cricket game is comparable with the mens. Anyone who has tried to sit through a ladies cricket match can only come to the conclusion that it is a load of garbage.

Sky's cricket coverage is generally performed to the highest standard with a terrific team of presenters, some who are involved in those fascinating workshops that they show pre-match or during intervals.

However, lately there have been female presenters joining the team, many who have played the ladies game, and are placed on an equal pedestal to the men. Similar to the football coverage, the studio team now seems to always include a token female, often accompanied by a caption that they have won so many FA Cups and league titles.

As with the cricket, ladies football is dire to watch. Put it this way, if it was so popular why does it have to ride on the back of the men's sport to survive ? When we pay for Sky do we have the options of having our bill reduced for forsaking these sports ?

Of course not, they are forced on to us, being part of the cricket and football packages that we pay for. They would never be marketed individually as hardly anyone would pay for them. They are not popular enough to stand strong alone.

Of the ladies sports only athletics and tennis would be able to stand alongside the male versions. Both are immensely and universally popular, watchable, and there is that aura of glamour attached to the ladies tennis.

The only other ladies sport that enough people may one day be prepared to pay for alone would be the Golf. Speaking to people who play the sport, while they are unable to comprehend with the levels of performance that the men are able to achieve, they say they can share and relate to how the ladies play the game.

Thankfully, such arguments are not relevant to racing, as exemplified in no better way than ever before last week. It is a major plus point that should be utilised to the full. It also testament to why it is a sport that needs no interference from the diversity freaks. And that is something it should be very proud of.

image by 'Prayitno' CC license

Friday, 8 March 2019

THEY NEED TO GET REAL


There is no sport like racing where those on the inside are so out of touch to the realities in the real world outside their bubble, from where you have a fully focused view of the in house disputes and can spot the futility of some of the ideas proposed.

In a week that should have seen the countdown to Cheltenham without any unwelcome distractions, we are instead left rather baffled by exchangeable finger pointing at who is to blame over low prize money levels, militancy, refusals to tow the line, and back stabbing.

But most astounding of all is the fact that most of those within cannot spot the crux of the real problem.

For they can talk all they want in heated tones about Arc's initial refusal to put the level of funding in to release money from the levy, can criticise what they refer to as Government pandering to the sweeties by limiting the maximum stakes on FOBTS to £2 rather than some halfway house compromise, and can stamp their feet about getting the dirty end of the stick.

The core of the problem however, is that the popularity of racing is continuing to fall to such a level that many LBO's cannot exist from what was once their solid staple diet, and are in the process of going under once the staking per spin on the FOBTS is restricted.

That the show had come to rely on a short term, unsustainable method of funding, that was situated on unstable foundations, reveals the mess it is in. The emphasis should always have centred on a racing product promoted properly and able to draw in sustained levels of money from betting.

Instead, the show is at a crossroads where bookmakers have been paying increasing amounts for media rights, while at the same time horse race betting's proportion of the betting pie has been steadily falling.

The large bookmaking firms whose foundations for their empires were built from horse racing profits are at the point where they could survive without it.

Across the country, horse race betting now accounts for less than 50% of the total business, while for those who bet through android devices, football is now the most bet on sport indicating that this will be the case with the under thirties.

We know this is so without having to see any figures.

For some reason, the producers of the Morning Show thought it apt on Saturday morning to provide a platform for a deadly serious debate on the subject between Martin Cruddace and David Easterby.

As it was sandwiched between the usual dumbed down trivialities that make up most of the programme, it did not go down well and God knows what a casual viewer would have made of it all.

It was brief, tit for tat, without any flow. What was an eyebrow raiser though, was Easterby's analogy where he termed the trainers, owners and jockeys as ' the performers ', which is not the case in the normal sense.

Trainer's are self employed, owners are in indulging in a hobby in which a small minority are shrewd enough to be able to make it a profitable business, while the riders are sportsmen, and similar to other sports have made it on ability but are always susceptible to losing their jobs or being demoted in the face of more competent peers.

Then four days later we witnessed the latest industrial action day at Lingfield and Fontwell. Small fields in which Lingfield still saw more horses turning up than racegoers.

One attendee interviewed recalled how buoyant the Greyhound scene once was in the capital before it was completely decimated, and expressed his hope that racing would not be going in that direction. Just a humble racegoer but he was eerily on the ball.

Then the warts and all interview with trainer Jo Davis who by her own admission is struggling and been on the verge many times of winding up. She is one of the many holding on in the hope that she will stumble upon the horse that that will put her on the map.

Nevertheless, unlike many others, she accepts that she is not forced to train and that what she does could be viewed from the outside as an indulgence.The fact she ran horses at Fontwell, defying what she claims as intimidation and bullying shows the sport in a dreadful light.

Wildcat Strikes, Morning Stars, Red Army Faction T Shirts, do not sit comfortably with the conservative world of horse racing and many inward looking characters are making themselves look a bit silly.

We are often reminded that there exists a racing pyramid with the more populated, lower levels forming the base of the structure which is the vital component.

However, it's a vicinity that has become too populated with too many horses in training. The programme on the floor of the basement caters for horses so poor that they should really be racing on the ' flapping' circuit.

There is not enough money in the pot to preserve a fixture list with so many opportunities for this level of animal. And let's be truthful, they are hardly the stuff to make a show that would pull in new fans to the sport.

While many of us still look back in awe of the excitement generated in the 1970's in North America by those three Triple Crown winners followed by Spectacular Bid, the sport there is a different ball game, containing races run at full pelt at the start. The only similarity with our dull All Weather scene is that the surface is the same colour. It just ain't the same sport.

It had been suggested that the way profits are currently generated from the sport for the sport, a cut in fixtures would be suicidal. But there is only so much money to go around. So surely by having no more than two meetings on a weekday afternoon, with breathing space in between races and the lowest rated handicaps on the flat 0- 75's, there would if properly promoted, be something to digest and enjoy.

A new solid hardcore of regular punters may emerge in large numbers and the money generated be higher than that from double the meetings where races will fly pass in a flash leaving many to leave the game alone altogether.

After all, there is choice, with racing competing for it's share of the betting pie against sports that are better managed, more popular, and more professionally and shrewdly broadcast that they've left racing in it's wake.

The last couple of days we've had terrific coverage of the Arnold Palmer Invitational from 2pm, a choice of international cricket matches, plenty of live footy, along with other attractions. Just a normal midweek but it's testament that in all but the showcase racing weeks, the sport will be put on the back burner by an increasing number of punters.
image in public domain

Tuesday, 26 February 2019

THE CIRCUS IS COMING TO TOWN


When musing over the general theme of planned innovations and change, things can be put into a more realistic perspective by looking back at how the future was imagined a few decades back, then comparing the forecasts with how it all  eventually panned out. Take for example the following :

" We have looked at all manner of different things. Sunday markets, caravan  club sites, clay pigeons, squash courts and so on but most have been knocked -on the head for one reason or another.

"We are now looking really seriously at horse activities -such as an eventing course, a show jumping course, a dressage ring, additional stabling and even livery stables.We are getting experts to look at the problems involved. It must be viable and we  wouldn't risk upsetting the racing."

This is an extract from a Tim Fitzgeorge-Parker interview with the then Lingfield Clerk of the Course John  Hughes, published in the August 1975 edition of Pacemaker & The Horseman.

At the time Ladbrokes had recently purchased the Surrey venue. Hughes seemingly convinced the writer that a glowing future lay ahead.

Fitzgeorge-Parker wrote, " By 1980 Lingfield should be a Grade 1 Flat racecourse, staging important prestige events and providing large crowds with the highest level of entertainment that racing can offer."

It was clear then that Lingfield was chomping at the bit to be open to new ideas, so in a way it is not surprising that the track installed an all weather surface, then even replaced it with a more agreeable version. As it happens, this all occurred after Ladbrokes had released their tenure.

The old course gradings are now obsolete but you could say that in a roundabout way, just like when the people try to interpret Nostradamus by back-fitting to fit in with his dubious predictions, that Lingfield did become a top level track, if only for racing in the All Weather sphere, one that albeit still doesn't count for many of us.

The turf fixtures remain ordinary with the Lingfield Derby Trial, supported by the Oaks Trial, still standing out above the other contests. In the four and a half decades since the article was published four winners each of the Lingfield events have gone on to Epsom success, the last Blue Riband winner being High Rise in 1998. The Chester trials blow them out the water.

Thus for many of us who have no consideration ( and why should we ?) for the 'business model' of courses, and who believe that All Weather racing is a step backwards, the venue has made no progress down the years, with the Good Friday All Weather Champions Day being a day in the calendar to get racing out of the brain.

If only it was just the show jumping, Sunday markets, clay pigeons,Squash Courts, show jumping and dressage that had become reality. They have a gentle, considered feel about them that sits comfortable with those that once attended horse race meetings for the right reasons.

Somewhere down the line, starting as long ago as the 1980's , it all went wrong leaving many feeling that the ordeal of  attending many fixtures is not worth it.

A certain night fixture at Aintree, unbelievably now fifteen years ago, when the small core of genuine racegoers leaving before the final race found themselves walking into late arrivees who were fitted out for the Peter Andre concert and who would have been classed as racegoers for the statistical purposes. The pattern is repeated at fixtures up and down the country throughout the milder months.

And staying in the present, there can rarely have been a period in UK horse racing like the present for being made dizzy by innovations, plans, forecasts, and predictions made without any solid basis. The show now changes at a faster rate meaning that change occurs with less forethought and consideration.

Frighteningly, the daftest idea of all, and one which most racing fans who have a feel for the sport hoped would never come to fruition, is close to taking off -  if that's the right expression.

'City Racing' on 'pop up' courses, could be taking place as early as later this year. Anyone who cares for the future of the sport and believes that the only way to secure a new, long term audience is by learning about and respecting the sport's incredibly colourful history and how it is still important to the present, must hope and pray that the whole travelling circus is a disaster and that after one of the early fixtures, it's parts are packed away into a shed never to be seen again.

Hopefully, those who are investing in it and therefore just using the sport for their own planned gain with out any consideration for its long term health, will incur substantial losses and as a result show the sport more respect in future, preferably keeping their dabs of it all together.

A worrying aspect about the present state of the sport is that it is probably the only sport, that at certain fixtures, the course could get away with making an announcement informing all that , " there is a late change of schedule. We are unable to put on any horse racing, but rest assured, we have something better for you."

The step in sport would be motorbike racing with totalisator betting available. The riders, tanned with steriod assisted physiques , would introduce themselves pre-race to the crowd. Speaking into a microphone and letting out a few revs on their machines.

It would not go down well at a midweek jumping fixture at Wetherby or Kelso, but on certain days or evenings at the 'cult' tracks it would be accepted, the crowd made up mainly of inebriated woman accompanied by gangs of lads with no interest in racing.

 The culprit fixtures would include Chester on a balmy Friday Summer evening, Haydock on the Friday evening before the Old Newton Cup and Lancashire Oaks card, those new trashy fixtures they have put into the calendar at York; many others would be candidates.

There is no other sport in which you would even imagine such nonsense being accepted. Even the 20-20 cricket crowds do actually watch and immerse themselves in the game what is happening down on the pitch.

The prospect of 'City Racing' plus that other stupidly planned competition of a staggered midsummer team competition with teams having a manager and being award Grand Prix style points, is taking the focus off the more subtle changes in the calendar that need discussing.

A prime example would be the new races added to the former Sandown Whitbread programme in the foot and mouth season. Intended as a one off, they are still here and have an adverse affect on the longer standing fixtures.

Last season, the race formerly installed as a compensation opportunity for those who intended to line up for the 1999 Queen Mother Champion Chase, attracted Altior, taking him away from the Melling Chase , not to mention the strongly contested Champion Chase at Punchestown, that is run close to hand.

Wisely, Aintree have not given way to temptation to add an open two mile championship race to their main meeting. They let the Melling Chase sit alone, a carrot dangling some rich pickings for a Queen Mother winner taking a step in trip and have been rewarded with some terrific renewals down the years.

Hopefully they will be rewarded by having him take his place in this year's line up. If connections see the King George Chase as a target next season, then they can offer no excuse for a no showing.

In the grand scheme of things, it would be a happier place if this was high on the agenda of concerns. Unfortunately, with all the hullabaloo drawing closer and posing a real threat to the image of the sport, then such matters are trivial by comparison.
image - in public domain

Monday, 18 February 2019

THE OMENS ARE NOT GOOD


We are not through February yet already on the racing front there has been enough cheerless news to fit into a whole calendar year, invoking a gut feeling that there is more to come, in whatever shape and form it takes.

Recent events show that the BHA  cannot be taken for granted to handle Brexit related tinkering without making a balls up here and there, and on a separate note we also have to be prepared for the planned gimmicks picking up momentum which are set to be introduced in an ill judged attempt to freshen interest in the sport, along with anything else they may be throw into the ring.

The sudden decision to bring the sport to a standstill in the UK, made by people who knew no more about handling equine influenza and who were less in number than those who cast doubt on the wisdom of the verdict, was one which would not have been made a week before the Newmarket Guineas fixture.

You just wonder whether they were still in concealed panic mode after the decision, made evidently after a Godolphin spending review, to cease Darley sponsorship of the Yorkshire Oaks, a race in as healthy a state than its ever been, and one the sponsors had supported for thirty years.

There exists no precedent of the Maktoum family doing this in the UK. It has caught a few off balance and who knows whether this is to be the start of a cut down in interests here. And by pulling the plug on their Irish Oaks sponsorship, many with vested interests are undoubtedly worried.

There is a suspicion that the top priority for the BHA was to safeguard as much as possible against the risk of an epidemic running into the turf flat season. That would upset the people who have the power to damage the health of the sport by taking their custom elsewhere.

Unlike the parochial sport of National Hunt racing, which is only truly significant in Britain, Ireland and France, it's a big world out there in flat racing. The UK has increasing competition from nations, many far away, where the sport is better run, more appreciated, and more rewarding.

Many worldwide racing industries have always shown great respect, grudgingly or not, to the foundations of our Flat race structure, but you sense those in charge of our own programme care and respect our own roots much less.

Returning to our jam packed with garbage, top heavy on weekend for quality fixture list, the recent break from racing was a time to reflect, to pick up on events that can be missed with so much to keep tabs on, and a reminder of times gone when it all ran along at a gentler pace, with good quality fare spaced put more evenly, and when you would monitor the Gold Cup and Champion Chase markets unfolding without having to consider whether your fancy for any one of these races was a 'Ryanair horse'.

No wonder interest is waning with many long term fans.

I have a work colleague who likens what the administrators and stakeholders are doing to racing to what has occurred in his beloved sport of football. Up until this season, the only home league matches he had missed in the past forty odd years were either through holidays, weddings or funerals,.

He lives three miles from the stadium of the team he supports, who are famous worldwide. He however feels that his support is not appreciated and that the owners of the club would happily replace him with some far away based glory seeking fan.

"They don't care how much effort and money you have put into the club " he tells me. "It's now all about Jeremy from Surrey, Cecil from Woking, Michael from Dublin, Klaus from Stuttgart, Jan from Oslo, Blaine from Atlanta , and Ying Yang from Bangkok."

In fact he is so livid about the situation that despite his team flirting with returning to success at the very top level, he takes his seat at the match not really caring about the result.

At one recent match against another famous name team, he walked out at halftime when his team had gained control after an early reversal. For the past three matches he has sold his ticket back to the club at a loss calculated on what the price would be based on what he pays for his season ticket.

When the ticket is sold back there is space to cite the reason why you will not be attending, to which he writes, " I can't be bothered."

Bizarrely, as well as intending to retain his season ticket for next season, he is also in the verge of purchasing a season ticket for a thriving team in a rival city and will pick and choose his matches to attend, selling tickets back to the clubs for the matches he does not fancy.

His defence is that he now feels he is at the stage where he does not support any club at all, but likes to watch footy. He adds that no one can object to him attending matches at this other club because in similar vain outsiders have taken hold at his club.

There is one particular Forum for fans of his club that he has been on for over ten years, continually being banned for upsetting what he terms as the 'distantly challenged'. It appears the Forum does not now allow any new registrations. Whether it be just to stop him continually re-registering is anyone's guess.

He likens his situation to racing fans who feel the sport has been hijacked by commercial decisions to target the boozing crowds, who spend, watch concerts and drink and drink, with little  regard or respect for the sport. 

As with Haydock Park on Saturday, a venue that is now an accident in slow motion, we are now used to reading of these incidents this policy brings and have no faith in the doublespeak coming from the courses about not tolerating this and that.

So, should we turn on racing like my colleague has turned on his own club ? Should we be celebrate racing being halted when an epidemic spreads, should we shrug and mutter ''so what '', if a course closes down, or a long standing trainer hands in his licence, and do we digest the figures of falling attendances and a fall in racing's share of the betting pie and rub our hands with glee ?

No matter how cynical many of us have become in our attitude towards the sport, we are probably not at that stage just yet. However patience is wearing thin and if we reach the stage when we covet our weekly Golf, Footy or Cricket fixes more than our racing one, with their multitude of betting opportunities on cleaner sports , then we may wean ourselves off a sport that was once a full obsession.
image by Stephencdickson creative commons license

Thursday, 7 February 2019

A DIVISION IN NEED OF AN OVERHAUL


For the sponsors, trainers, owners, and riders, it was a course of progression that was welcomed. More races, more opportunities, the rival to avoid now avoidable, more winners, and who cares about the dilution in quality or whether some of the races deserve to be at the Festival.

 It's now fourteen years since the decision was made to introduce the additional day at the Cheltenham Festival. For those of us looking in from the outside we search hard without finding any benefit that the additional day has brought in.

 Some in the industry, no doubt in a roundabout way pushing for an extra day and Saturday finish, ask what is the point of being at Cheltenham, then finishing the week off at Uttoxeter.

 This is a weak argument. You get over the Festival finishing for another year, then things calm down with a fairly attractive Uttoxeter card amid Cheltenham postmortem talk with the anticipation beginning on the run up to Aintree. Nothing needs to be put right with that sequence.

Putting aside the clear issue of dilution , many questioned the wisdom in giving the Stayers Hurdle an elevated spot of having its own day as the star billing, along with the unnecessary jazzed up name change to the World Hurdle.

While for others it was not a hard decision given the healthy state that sphere was in. In fact it would be no exaggeration to say that the 2003 running, when the charismatic Baracouda showed a gritty side to his character in beating Iris's Gift and Limestone Lad to retain his title , was looked forward to with more relish than any other renewal in the event's history, even more so than that year's Champion Hurdle .

It certainly lived up to expectations and we had more of the same one year later with Iris's Gift getting even when prevailing after a long fought duel.

The staying hurdle division was enjoying a golden period . It had never before carried so much kudos and once the idea of a fourth day became a reality, it was deemed acceptable at the time for the leading race in this division to be the centre-point of the new look Thursday.

 In fact, after its first staging on the new day, those who made the decision must have felt justified when Baracouda ran another fine race but could not contain the rising star Inglis Drever, who stamped himself as another worthy champion and would be part of the race for another few years until the outstanding Big Bucks (in picture) began his long reign.

 That all now feels longer ago than it really is as the shape of the staying hurdle division has now returned to normality. We are without any crowd pullers and no one can say with any amount of confidence that the division will return to those brief glory years anytime soon. Even if Faugheen made the line up he, as an eleven year old, is a different model to the animal that  dazzled in the Champion Hurdle four years ago.

While it may now be easy to say with hindsight, it should have been apparent that the new day was ideal to have a handicap taking the leading role.

This concept had not harmed other major meetings. Even when the York Ebor meeting had three days, the Wednesday showpiece was always the big handicap. And not just in the1970's. The leading role of the event held steady, even when the Group One Yorkshire Oaks was moved forward a day.

Likewise, Wednesday at Royal Ascot is Royal Hunt Cup day, this before and after many of the pattern races were upgraded to the highest status, same with the Stewards Cup on the various days it's been staged at Goodwood down the years, even including now despite the Group One Nassau sharing the same card.

Returning to the new day at Cheltenham, the race many mature fans still know as the Joe Coral Golden Hurdle Final (not to be confused with the later installed Coral Cup) would have been an ideal candidate for a massive money injection and to be recognised as the big one for the Thursday.

 Some may argue that a turbo boosted County Hurdle would be more appropriate, but problem being here is that the money injection would be likely to attract one or two that would otherwise be live outsiders for the Champion Hurdle, a race that can ill afford to take another knock.

 No, the right thing would be an event to attract many of the quality staying hurdlers, eating right into the very top level. Thus if a race were to suffer it would be the Stayers Hurdle itself, which would be an intentional and acceptable consequence of the initiative.

 The now named Pertemps Final has had some memorable renewals, none more so than when in 1983 the Jimmy Fitzgerald trained, future Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Forgive 'N Forget, landed a monstrous gamble to beat Michael Dickinson's Brunton Park, his market rival.

 Proper promotion going hand in hand with a fiercely promoted and hopefully fiercely bet on ante-post market, which is one aspect of the Festival that has faded with the introduction of the extra day and races having a muddied shape in the build up due to a wider choice of targets.

 The fourth day is still a move backwards for many purists but as it's here to stay then why not try a tried and trusted method of staging a handicap that stands out from the rest. And now, with no racing in the immediate future and who knows, a possible threat hanging over this year's Festival being staged, there is maybe some time to reflect and consider if changes need to made to what is still the greatest fixture of them all.


image taken by author


Sunday, 27 January 2019

CONCENTRATING ON THE CORE QUALITIES


It's quite tickling to see concern expressed in the past week over those figures released that show the recent trend continues in racecourse attendances declining.

Put it this way, if the curve had been an upward one, the optimistic vibes that would been released would have been false as anyone reasonable and sound in mind would easily have seen through the number crunching and realised that the circumstances were due to the alternative category of racegoer packing the 'cult' venues as opposed to a fresh wave of enthusiasm for the sport.

That in some quarters the fact that the World Cup was partly attributed to the figures certainly points in the direction of those who attend them days designed to cater for the Summer booze ups.

It also confirms how fickle these attendees are, and how easily they could be tempted away to some other form of entertainment that would offer them an even more trashier form of enjoyment than what they receive at the racecourse.

While it may already be too late to attract a whole new generation of racing fans who would follow the sport for life, those that have not given up the ghost in striving to engage with the younger tribes fail to realise that the essential ingredient is instilling a love and respect for the game.

And though the cold truth is that racing cannot survive without punters, 95% of those who are enthusiastic about horse racing bet regularly on it, while in contrast a substantially smaller percentage of gamblers in general would be busiest in this area.

Tempting emerging generations to become attached to horse racing is the biggest battle and it is incredible that some common sense initiatives are not introduced.

Can you imagine if there was no requirement for top flight football clubs to release the names of players contracted to the club ?

Well it happens in horse racing. An increasing number of trainers decline to co-operate for the long standing Horses In Training publication by not listing their strings. Others release details of their older horses but decide they would rather not list their juveniles, the section of the yard that eyes first turn to when the book is opened and the strength of the large flat yards assessed.

The yards may see no obligation to assist a commercial publication but this was not the case in past times when even the infamously sharp edged trainers would consent to give full details of their armoury.

Moreover, why do they still continue to give Timeform photographers access to their premises to snap the posed portraits shots for the Racehorses annuals ?

For someone who had been betting on football and cricket, then decides to find out more about racing, they would reasonably expect there to be information in the public domain showing the names of every horse in each yard in lists that are regularly updated.

This is in the BHA's ball court and is a measure they should be implementing, ideally with reciprocal co-operation from their Irish and French counterparts.

Another angle that consolidates a newly discovered passion for the sport is the historical one with horse racing having a strong claim to owning the deepest, most fascinating and most controversial historical perspective out of all of the sports.

ITV racing show us clips from their vault. Many revive the nostalgic buds. In recent months they showed the late stages of a race from Teeside Park dated 1976, which involved the Tony Dickinson trained Broncho 11 in those Tysdale colours that were striking and memorable.

It would be welcoming and beneficial for the sport if the whole of the vault was freely accessible in a form where the full races were available to view. Copyright snobbery would have to be put aside.

At the moment someone with a new found taste for the sport who wishes to build knowledge from a historical perspective is likely to at some point be looking through the archive built by espmadrid on You Tube.

In other areas of life information comes on tap. I was telling work colleagues the other day that I must have spent around two grand buying music on I Tunes. I added that plenty of this stuff I'd originally had on vinyl, and some even on both vinyl and those soulless CD's.

I was asked why go to the expense?  I replied that pirate downloads are variable on quality and on a moral high horse added that it's not myth that they have put thousands out of employment in the working class, lower levels of the music industry.

I then had it explained to me that for a two pound odd payment each month I could have available a library of songs running  into millions on these Alexa boxes that they advertise all the time on TV.

Cynically, I said that there must be a catch, that it surely could not be allowed by the music industry, and that the quality of sound is probably mediocre.

I was assured that there are no catches, it's legal, and the sound quality is high. Apparently, you just shout out the name of an album or track, and it plays!

For those who don't feel they need every modern gadget and are ignorant to the tasks they are able to perform, something like Alexa is hard to comprehend and a tad frightening.

However, if such technology is available to all, then ITV racing could and should have their vault online for all to access.

The other week the presenters kept harping on about the likelihood of children being at Newbury who one day would tell their own children that they were there when Altior won.

What a load of tripe ! If the sport continues on the path it is treading there will be no National Hunt racing in existence by the time these kids are having kids of their own.

If it does survive into the near future, then none of them will be interested in it anyway, except perhaps for those whose families have racing connections.

Make the vault available, have a presenter giving an example of how to use it, explaining that often a whole race needs to be watched in order to appreciate the merit of a performance.

Carvil's Hill's Welsh National an ideal example, the presenter could say, "hmmm, so I'll watch this from the start. You think he is going to tire anytime soon but as it gradually unfolds there comes a realisation that he has it in the bag ".

Or for professionalism, and getting the job done, but only just, Lester's ride on The Minstrel in the 1977 King George V1 Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes.

The whole race has to be viewed to appreciate the ride. It was real pressure cooker stuff in the sense that they knew beforehand that this would be the colt's last race as he was soon on a plane to Kentucky to beat the looming equine transport ban after an outbreak of equine herpes over there.

While watching such material is not contributing via betting it plays its part in securing a possible lifetime following of the sport and if so, you can bet that a lifetimes regular punting will accompany this, which is after all what the sport needs from its followers most of all.

image in public domain - Von Kempelen's Speaking Machine

Monday, 21 January 2019

CHARITY, STICKY PLASTERS AND BEGGARS....


Go North Weekend, consisting of three consecutive days of racing at Musselburgh, Kelso, and Carlisle, set to take place on the penultimate weekend in March 2020, is testament to how far Jump racing has fallen in this part of the country.

Instead of recognising, then taking some innovative steps to reverse the crux of the problem, namely the lack of powerful owners willing to support the region, they treat it as a charity case,letting it drift aimlessly along with no light at the end of the tunnel.

The new 'event' is a carry on from the Northern Lights Series which culminated with finals day at Carlisle in December. Evidently, after consultation with trainers, it was decided to scrap this after just two stagings and move the rejigged one to March, beginning in the 2019/20 season.

As is obvious from the timing of the new event, scheduled to take place when we will all be engrossed in the post-mortem fall outs from Cheltenham and preparing ourselves for Aintree, Go North Weekend is more of a chance for ordinary to useful horses to pick up some nice money as opposed to being an attempt to attract any big names.

It certainly does not justify the description given to it on the BHA website of being an "exciting enhancement to the northern Jump racing season", and has the feel of a cutting the cloth accordingly  'initiative'.

There rarely can have been a period with such a dearth of big equine names in the region. Indeed the BHA had to pull a graph out of the hat to support its spurious claim that there has been a resurgence in the sport in the top half of the country.

The graph shows an increase in victories in black type events from northern trained Jumpers, something that will most likely be a blip, and a trend that will reverse next season. And added to this, the BHA Paul Johnston's boast that Definitely Red, Lady Buttons and Lake View Lad have all won major races is a statement which can be disputed and one that is dependent on how you decide a race is a 'major' one.

The Racing Post has attached its name to the Go North weekend and the new editor speaks of " the important work that has already been done to reinvigorate the sport in this part of the world."

In truth there is no solid basis from which you could give out any sort of hopeful message. If anyone really wants to appreciate how many tiers the quality of horses in training has fallen in the North, then you have to look no further than the success rates in the truly major events.

Beginning with the Cheltenham Gold Cup; in the ten runnings from 1976 to 1985, five winners were trained in the top half of the country. For the following ten years there were two, the last Jodami in 1994.

Since then the region has not had a winner of the Blue Riband. And just two have made the first three since the millennium, Truckers Tavern finishing runner up to Best Mate in 2003, and Turpin Green coming home in third behind Kauto Star in 2007.

Looking at the comparative figures for the Champion Hurdle, there were the two victories each from Night Nurse and Sea Pigeon in the first period, but the region has failed to take the title since the last named's victory in 1981.

And while it can be acknowledged that Donald McCain Jnr has had two individual runners-up in the race in the past seven years in Overturn and Peddler's Cross, it would not be harsh to question whether he is based in the North. His Cholmondeley base is at a more southern point on the map than Lincoln and Chesterfield, and is almost level with Nottingham, while his nearest racecourse, Bangor-On-Dee, is listed bu the BHA as being a racecourse situated in the Midlands.

To the Champion Chase, the North successful with Rathgorman and Badsworth Boy's treble in four consecutive years from 1982 to 1985, but drawing a blank since. The King George Chase, an impressive six victories from 1976 to 1985, one in the following ten years, then One Man in the next ten year period being the last winner. In fact the region rarely has a runner in this race anymore.

And so to the Grand National. For all its glory its not the most reliable barometer given its handicap status but One For Arthur, Aurora's Encore, and Red Marauder have all taken the event since the millennium, and depending on where you put the borderline, you could add the McCain pair of
Ballabriggs and Amberleigh House.

Still, its the the event that offers the region the best opportunity of success in the major events and an angle that should be utilised in striving to attract big gun owners to the area.

Has anyone asked Graham Wylie what it would take for him to have horses trained in his home region again ? Perhaps he just doesn't rate the trainers based up in his part of the world.

We can't rely on Trevor Hemmings forever who despite his strong support for the region has had two of his Aintree National winners trained elsewhere, the best two winners of the race in recent history. Maybe he too could be politely asked why Many Clouds was with Oliver Sherwood and Hedgehunter with Willy Mullins.

When Hemmings leaves the scene there do not appear to be any family members ready to step in and keep the operation ticking over. And that will be a major loss.

Another measure of how dire the scene has become is that in the early 1990's many were downhearted as to how the status of the sport had fallen in the region yet Peter Piller's colours still graced the scene along with Ashleybank Investments. Gordon Richards had the likes of Twin Oaks and Carrick Hill Lad in the yard, Arthur Stephenson housed Blazing Walker, Southern Minstrel and Durham Edition, while Jimmy Fitzgerald had the likes of Uncle Ernie, Sybillin, Meikleour and Boutzdaroff.

The region was past it's vintage era but would still have wiped the floor faced with today's equivalents.

Both Monica Dickinson and Neville Crump had retired in 1989, Peter Easterby's yard had become more flat orientated, while Jimmy Fitzgerald's fortunes would dip as the 1990's progressed and the yard was verging on empty when Tim Fitzgerald took over.

It is hard to believe that during the 1970's the West Country was geographically the weak arm of National Hunt racing. When the David Baron's trained Bootlaces won the Schweppes Gold Trophy in 1980 it was viewed as a big moment for the region. Little did they know what was around the corner.

Nowadays, we look at novice hurdle and novice chase events at Exeter with an eager eye, knowing that there cold be some showcase equine names of the future competing. Just like we once did with such events at the likes of Wetherby and Ayr.

The situation has now completely flipped around and looks likely to remain as it is. They can call it 'Northern Lights', 'Go North' or the next fancy name they think up, but like giving a handout to a street beggar, these 'initiatives' are merely sticky plasters and not a long term solution.

image by Roy Blumenthal shared under creative commons license

A RARE GOOD WEEK FOR THE SPORT

Even those of us who can see that horse racing on these isles is faced with an uphill battle to halt a further decline in its position al...

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