Monday, 2 October 2017

MISERABLE UP NORTH


Many will still be in flat mode, still caught up by the ripples emanating from Chantilly, and looking ahead to more top class fare in the remaining few weeks of the proper flat season.

But for those whose racing clock was set long before the needless messing around with the back end fixtures at home, and predated the introduction of the Breeders Cup abroad,we would be half switched to jumping mode,with just the Champion Stakes,Futurity and November Handicap left, to close the book on the Summer game for the year.

It would signal the time to open up the jumping form books, and we would be eagerly awaiting Free Handicap Hurdle day at Chepstow, which coincided with the publication of Timeform Chasers & Hurdlers, when that organisation was still a truly independent one,and not somewhat tainted as it now is.

We would also have our personal horses to follow lists compiled, a nice balance from both spheres, experienced campaigners and novices, two milers and the stayers.

There would also be a good spread of trainers. And sure as hell there would be plenty in the list from the northern based trainers.The list would include Dickinson family chasing built animals, both ex flat and stores with Peter Easterby, Greystoke based chasing types, a couple of Arthur Stephenson young novice chasers already trying their hand in handicaps who look far off their potential ceiling - looking for a Sea Merchant, or a Dusky Duke perhaps.We would drool over the names in the Jimmy Fitzgerald string. Proven high class animals supported by plenty who looked real plot types.

It's all a long time back now, but it feels even longer as it is hard to take stock of just how much the heart and soul has been teared out of the northern jumping scene. One For Arthur's success in the Grand National In Name Only Chase changes nothing.Though a success in this event, unrecognisable from the one existing no more, is the only way a trainer based in the North can reach a respectable position in the final trainers table, such is the relative lack of quality in even the 'top' northern based yards.

The trainers table at the end of the of the 1976/77 National Hunt season contained five northern handlers in the top ten. Admittedly, Donald McCain's eighth position was owed to the prize money haul from Red Rum's third Grand National, but Peter Easterby's second place, Arthur Stephenson's fourth spot, and Tony Dickinson and Gordon Richards sixth and ninth places respectively, came from solid season long performances.

Fred Winter topped the table with his rival Lambourn legend,Fulke Walwyn, in fifth, and another hall of famer, Fred Rimell, representing the Midlands in third.This was the typical balance of power in the jumping sphere at the time.

The tables five years later, at the end of 1981/82 season, had four northern representatives in the top ten. Michael Dickinson had won the championship comfortably. Peter Easterby, Gordon Richards, and Arthur Stephenson filled positions six, eight,and nine.Dickinson topped the table for the following two seasons.

Since then no northern trainer has been champion.

Gloomily, the general comedown extends beyond the trainers and horses.Two of the most notable venues have lost their character too.The Highways Agency put the boot into Wetherby,with the widening of the A1 as part of their Wetherby-Walshford scheme.

The Highways Agency produced a project evaluation report. Full of 'facts', figures, and meaningless statistics.Not too dissimilar to the nonsense concocted by projects and reports drawn up to Pacesetter standards in the civil service.

Reading through the report, the impact value on the locals has predictably been an adverse one. Increased noise,and a negative impact on heritage sites, with some completely left to perish.The fact that the character of one of the truly good jump arenas was tarnished, never received any comment, all of course consistent with how insignificant the sport has become.

When Wetherby reopened in 2007,that heart stopping open ditch,what was the fourth last, and first in the straight, had gone.In fact the whole nature of the course had changed ,and was much sharper in nature. Timeform use to describe the chasing course as ' ideal for the free running,long striding individual with plenty of jumping ability'. Those characteristics do not apply anymore.

Haydock Park's (paddock scene in picture) chasing course was one of the most revered in the country.When Aintree was under threat of closure its nearby counterpart was on the short list to host the Grand National.The drop fences  presented a real test.

Timeform once listed the fences here as, 'stiff,with steep drops on the landing side'. No coincidence that many of the Grand National types appeared here regularly. L'Escargot even won an Embassy Chase Final here in his early days. Red Rum was a regular.

That great course has now gone for good.The need to cater for the loiter at the bar attendees, and to empty the contents of their pockets into the course coffers saw to that.They needed a new flat course to run alongside the present one. More dross filled meetings.The abolition of the venue's biggest attraction meant nothing to them.

So they ripped up the chase course,replaced it with the new flat one, and wheeled portable fences onto the old hurdle course for the chase races. Admittedly, the venue has solid sponsorship with plenty of valuable events throughout the winter.But it's a different, less appealing one for those properly fond of the sport.

Sharper and less galloping in nature, neutered fences.Big money will always attract good horses but it's really all just cracks being papered over.When the old course was used for the last time during 2007, a spokesman for the course was unrepentant, stating that flat racing attracts bigger crowds as its mainly staged in the Summer, and added, 'because you're attracting more people it is more profitable, end of story' 

The Clerk of the Course, Kirkland Tellwright,was of similar stance. He brought up a scenario of a brand new racecourse installing drop fences, concluding that there would be an outcry as most would consider it cruel.

That the sport's future can be influenced by those who are able to be so dismissive about its traditions, confirms that it's travelling to a dead end where they might as well have motorbike races on a tarmacked over circuit, or a stock car mash up in the centre of the tracks.At least then they'll have little difficulty drawing in the audiences they are really out to target.





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