Monday, 8 January 2018

A PR DISASTER IN WAITING


Searching for the next big thing is something that is needed to keep the fire burning in all sports. Music too, Marc Bolan was reportedly baffled when his droves of obsessed fans were replacing him in their affections with Donny Osmond and David Cassidy.

The buzz of unearthing new talent is why on typical solid looking Friday Newbury card with a fairly valuable handicap hurdle and a good quality handicap chase, we might just shown a bit more interest in watching the replay of the novice hurdle or novice chase.

It is also why on a decent looking Thursday or Friday  Newmarket card with a couple of good handicaps and a listed race, we'd be wanting to see the replay of the two year old maiden first.

There is a different type of pleasure at the opposite end, age wise. A Further Flight, Yeats or Boldboy on the flat, a Mole Board, Willie Wumpkins or Take The Stand (pictured), in the proper winter game.

It is horses like this that spring to mind with the speculation this week about the possibility of a veterans chase at the Cheltenham Festival. A prospect which for now at least has been disowned by course director Ian Renton.

The enthusiasm for the introduction of such an event at the premium meeting was stirred up by a Racing Post twitter vote where 76% of those who voted were in favour .The prospect of what only can be described as an insincere button pressing campaign influencing decisions in the sport is a worrying one.

The never short of words Mick Fitzgerald has come out in support of this proposed new race, along with the irksome Simon Clare, who was prominent in a list of 'the most disliked person in racing' by posters on a popular forum thread.

There are two main issues to address when considering how wise it would be to introduce a race like this at the festival. Firstly, more dilution of a meeting already diluted beyond reason over the past decade. And secondly, image and welfare.

Let us look at Mac Vidi. He lined up as a fifteen year for the 1980 Cheltenham Gold on the back of a terrific season where he defied his age to win seven races. To some 1980 does not seem ancient but consider this. Mac Vidi was foaled in 1965. His sire, the Cesarewitch runner up Vidi Vici was foaled in 1947, his paternal grandsire in 1935. Now that does feel ancient.

As others dropped away Mac Vidi was chasing the relentless Tied Cottage and though he could not keep tabs on that rival passed the post in third place, with only Master Smudge, who would eventually be awarded the race after the winner failed a dope test, passing him in the later stages of the race.

The only equivalent that springs to mind in other sports is the mighty Tom Watson coming so close to winning the Open Championship at Turnberry in 2009.

Mac Vidi ran another cracker on his next outing at Sandown and finished the season with the rating of a good, solid handicapper. Presenting a talent like him with the opportunity to compete in a closed event against veterans would be disrespectful to the meeting and the horse.

Pam Neale did allow Mac Vidi to make fleeting appearances as a sixteen and seventeen year old. His ability now gone from? him but thankfully he did leave racing in one piece.

Tied Cottage himself was twelve years old at the time of his Gold Cup 'win' and a grand old campaigner. Three years later at the age of fifteen, he would finish fifth in the Christies Foxhunters, adding some embellishment to the event.

Of course, in a high risk sport these adventures can have sad conclusions. The popular and former top class Doran's Pride also lined up for the same event as a fourteen year old in 2003. He got as far as the second fence before falling with fatal consequences.

His trainer Michael Hourigan passed some realistic and sensible observations after the incident which hit the  nail on the head.

'When we tried to retire the old fellow ' said Hourigan, ' he would be at the gate watching us come in every day'. So here was an animal passed his best but yearning for the old routine and giving signs that he wanted the show to continue.

Perhaps the prime example of all in support of animals racing on until they ask the retirement question themselves, would be Fred Winter's glorious old campaigner Sonny Sommers, who won two of his last three starts during the 1979/80 season as an eighteen year old.

For those of the view that the racing's own media machine has itself a habit of broadcasting the dangers of the sport , there can be no doubt that dead horses in a veteran's only event at the festival would be an absolute disaster. It would be met with the, 'too old to race against healthy horses but never say no to the chance of a nice little pot' sort of claptrap rhetoric.

Of course, it's the fact that the misguided with media space and time in the sport spend too much time debating risk to the horse that catches the attention of the groups who otherwise are tuned into what they rightly see as issues of a higher priority unconnected to the sport.

Perhaps the worst reasoned argument put forward for a veteran's Cheltenham event is the assertion that older horses are all at the mercy of the handicapper and need a little help. This view fails to consider animals who have had a couple of quiet seasons, change yards, have a new zest for life and an attractive handicap mark to boot.

And what too of those that turned to fences as five year olds and reached their ceiling at a young age. These go through the season showing they retain their ability so are given no leeway and are hard to place. Are they to be given a special event to help them along ?

Being reasonable, the Cheltenham festival is already diluted to give two hoots about how many new additions are added - they are apparently looking at introducing a mares only chase next. But a field confined to elderly animals going a bit too quick on better ground that they'd been racing on through the winter, is a recipe for disaster.

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