Wednesday, 18 April 2018

A BATTLE OF THE FESTIVALS


A tightly packed fixture run of Spring festivals, no time to reflect but plenty of action to digest whether from attending or watching from afar. Cheltenham is the lucky one, it gets the first bite and even allowing for the unwise decision to stretch it an extra day and dilute the quality, it is and will continue to be the strongest and most anticipated.

In the tussle that ensues amongst the rest to keep their rank in the pecking order, Aintree is the venue most disadvantaged in the sense that it has to contend with a Fairyhouse Irish Grand National meeting that is growing as a whole, a Punchestown Festival that is now on a higher summit than it ever has been, not to mention other fixtures with eyecatching prizes.

There are those surviving 'support' races at the old Sandown Whitbread meeting that were originally designed as a one off to give opportunities for some of those animals who missed their chances when Cheltenham was lost due to the foot and mouth epidemic.

They are still in the calendar and this year a certain Altior will be appearing in the two mile chase. Admittedly, there is no Champion Chase equivalent at Aintree but surely it is in the spirit of the sport to step up in trip in the Melling on a track that beckons specialist two milers giving them a chance of getting home over half a mile further - there have been some magnificent renewals of this.

One can also not help to notice some of the prizes on offer at Fairyhouse this week and some decent quality turning out. It's all competition to Aintree.

Fact is that despite the three big championship races at Cheltenham all falling to horses trained in the south of England, the pool of horses towards the top of the pyramid is top heavy with those trained in Ireland.

They have a programme of festivals, mini-festivals, plus the regular Sundays all have an attractive structure to them with good prize money on offer. In short, apart from Cheltenham or the King George or Grand National, there is enough booty in their backyard for them to stay at home.

Last week there were more notable names missing than normal from all quarters. Thank God we did have Might Bite (pictured) appearing, a wonderful animal of the highest class with character, quirks, good looks and probably the most popular national hunt horse in training at the moment.

It was regrettable that Native River did not face him again but still an acceptable field. It is debatable whether the same could be said of the juvenile hurdle, which those with long memories will remember as the Weetabix Hurdle in the late 1970's.

This year none of the first three home in the Triumph Hurdle appeared in the race. Even the winner of the Fred Winter, Veneer of Charm, chose the Fairyhouse Grand National meeting , and for good measure also ran again at the same venue this week finishing fourth, one place behind the animal who finished fifth in the Triumph. 

Other notable absentees from the meeting were Footpad, Sandro, Presenting Percy and Shattered Love, who was another who ran at the Easter Fairyhouse  fixture. There was a time when the last two named would possibly have lined up in the staying novice chase at Liverpool

Each year you can go through the Aintree programme and note by their absence, the horses 'claimed' by rival fixtures.

In lazy mind mode it is easy to consider the fact that Aintree as a racecourse went from being lost nearly twice to becoming a modern renovated arena with terrific facilities, an expansion in fixtures, and attracting massive crowds for its showcase meeting; then to link this with a belief that the meeting as a whole attracts better quality horses than in the past.

The two issues exist side by side but are separate from one another. While again this year the meeting went down as an unqualified overall success, we must accept that the large majority of those swarming the enclosures are increasingly becoming a separate entity from the racing fan attendees, something that we would expect less in the jumping game.

A fair summary of the racecards would be that they are standing up fairly well but on the whole the quality of the three days bears some dents. Does anyone really believe Dawn Run, if she existed now, would have been appearing at Liverpool the same number of times that she did in her short career?

After finishing second in the 1983 Sun Alliance Novices Hurdle at Cheltenham, she reappeared on the Friday of Aintree to win the Page Three Handicap Hurdle; this at a time when The Sun sponsored the Grand National.The very next day she lined up in the Templegate Hurdle and ran the reigning champion hurdler Gaye Brief to a length, in receipt of only 6 lb.

The following year after winning the Champion Hurdle, she followed up at Aintree in what was now the Sandeman Aintree Hurdle. Then, after her famous Gold Cup victory in 1986, she lined up at Aintree for the race Might Bite won last week, getting no further than the first fence.

As it was down to injury why Buveur D'Air did not take his place in the Aintree Hurdle it would be unfair to cite the below par turnout for this year's renewal. Still, long gone are the times when the likes of Night Nurse, Monksfield and Sea Pigeon would line up, connections leaving the impression that it was their duty to do so.

Away from the essence of what the sport is about, there is now a growing tendency for groups of ladies to book the day off work for Aintree ladies day, dress up, meet, then spend the day in a pub.

And the following is even more concerning; I was talking to a lad in his early twenties who had gone on Thursday. There was around eight lads and girls who had gone together and booked expensive seats in one of the stands. They had not been before.

As it turned out, they felt that the atmosphere in their stand was not up to their expectations, so after a couple of races they promptly left their comfy specks behind and spent the rest of the afternoon in the marquee in Tatts, where live music played all day to a packed audience.

The racing per se was not high up on their agenda and there must be serious doubts whether any of this young party will ever be racing fans. Aintree racecourse as a business would be happy knowing they will probably return, but as the whole structure of racing needs people like these to place bets on the sport when away from the course, then they are merely wallpaper to cover cracks.

I enjoyed my Thursday with a full house of a gang of four. Two of us lifelong fans, the other two not particularly stirred at all, just content to stand with a beer and waffle about anything but racing. But no doubt God willing they'll return again next year and the year after which will of course please those doing the wallpapering.

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