Monday, 7 May 2018


We often fail to forget that today's bank holiday was very much a Scottish affair, not being observed by the rest of the UK until 1978. The way in which this day was first utilised by the UK racing authorities, then allowed to decline, is something to consider when dwelling upon where the hell it all went wrong with the running of the sport.

There are some sports, Golf along with its impressively packaged and managed showcase PGA Tour for example, that when making comparisons with the past, taking all angles into account, you are left feeling that it's in better health than it's ever been.

The same cannot be said of horse racing in the UK.

May Day 1975, is a good starting point to consider the impact of May Day Monday in racing. Two days earlier, Pat Eddery had suffered a reversal when the apple of his eye, Grundy, had been beaten in the 2,000 Guineas by Bolkonski, with Gianfranco Dettori aboard. That had been the day when stable staff strike action famously reached it's highpoint, with Newmarket racetrack under siege.

Eddery was at Wolverhampton on the Monday where he guided the Gordon Smyth trained March Crusader home in the Midlands Spring Handicap. The only other fixture was Edinburgh, where Kevin Leason rode the winner of the feature race, Daveti from the Tommy Craig yard. Nothing unusual about the day except there would have been a larger than normal crowd at the Scottish venue to mark the Bank Holiday.

When the holiday went nationwide racing grabbed the opportunity the day presented to advertise what it had to offer with Haydock Park taking the grand initiative of introducing the Royal Doulton Hurdle in 1978, a race that was initially a spectacular success.

The following year, like today, May Day fell on Monday May 7th. The second running of the Royal Doulton saw Beacon Light, in the Jim Joel colours defeat the legendary Monksfield.

Kempton, Doncaster and Wolverhampton also had fixtures. The feature race at Kempton was the Jubilee Stakes Handicap, with a prize of over £11,800 to the winner, more than the winner of the Lincoln had received a few weeks earlier.

The Jubilee pulled in the quality turn out it deserved, with the race eventually being won by the John Winter trained Smartset, with the promising apprentice Philip Robinson aboard. The highly popular Baronet followed him home with the 1977 Dewhurst runner up Camden Town, who started favourite, in third with 9st 11 lb on his back. The top weight incidentally was the unplaced Crimson Beau, who would later give Troy a race in the  Benson and Hedges Gold Cup.

The feature race of the day at Doncaster was the Irish Sweeps Spring Handicap, also carrying more prize money than the Lincoln. That was won by the Brian Taylor ridden Harry Wragg trained Fluellen in the Oppenheimer colours.

So what did we have on May Day 2018? If anything, it typified how the sport has gone down the wrong track. Six mainland UK fixtures and all decidedly ordinary. The most valuable race being the 'Matchbook VIP Handicap Chase' with a first prize of £14,388, and a mildly interesting field, but evidence that the day in racing terms has taken a lamentable drop in importance in recent times.

This is brought home when you consider that the most valuable flat race in the UK on the day is a one mile handicap at Windsor with a first prize of £7,439, roughly a third less than that for the two feature flat races 39 years ago!  And that's not event putting into the equation the prize money available for the Royal Doulton.

To look at it another way, this years Lincoln carried first place prize money of over £62,000. So while in 1979 we had two flat handicaps on this day with a bigger monetary value than the celebrated Doncaster race, the 'feature'  flat race in the UK today has a value eight times less than that of the 2018 Lincoln.

What is so baffling about it all is that today would be a free shop window for the sport if it played its card right. Admittedly, there is competition from family commitments and the weather, but that is something that applies to every 'free' day.

We have smaller tracks putting on some pretty dreadful fare but chuffed at being able pull in some impressive crowds when the sun is shining. This is not necessarily to the sport's long term benefit, as it's lifeblood is money generated from people betting on it, not from purchasing overpriced beer and everyday Greggs quality food with a fancy name added.

Hopefully, the FOBTS maximum stakes will be cut to £2. If this results in reduced revenue for the sport then so be it. It will have to adjust, return to roots with a sensible fixture list with emphasis on quality and making the most of the days that it has the house to itself. Like today.

There was no competition today from what is, rightly or wrongly, the God that is Premiership Football. And likewise none from the now mini God that is Grand Prix qualifying, something that those who pull the strings in horse racing acknowledge as a 'rival' that they lose out in direct confrontations with.

The Saturday obsession shows that horse racing is picking a fight it cannot win. Long gone are the times when racing could take for granted television coverage free from the competition of rival sports as well as thriving in house daily newspapers.

Lost in a vibrant mix of sports that previously were not fortunate enough to enjoy the exposure they are now granted, we have a sport that is not widely acknowledged to be in the very top tier as it once was and a sport that cannot compete with the others on a level playing field.

And on a day like today it looks a gift horse in the mouth.

Image licensed under creative commons attribution - author Ralph Jenson

No comments:

Post a Comment


The controversy surrounding the move by Haydock Park to 'beef up' its chastised portable fences without consultation and forwarni...