Wednesday, 6 June 2018

AN EVENT IN THE SHADOW OF ITS PAST


It was pleasing to see the ITV racing coverage of Epsom acknowledge and pay respect to Sir Ivor, who had won Derby fifty years previous. Less favourable that they only show the finish of these great renewals when they go into the archive.

One can understand that there are time restraints, that full race replays would not be possible if they wanted to show Peaty Sandy winning the Eider Chase, but I'm sure they could have found time for full replays of some past runnings of the Epsom classic.

Sometimes you need to watch the race gradually unfold to fully put into perspective the merit of these performances. And if you take out all the ' filler ' time in these shows along with the unnecessary nonsense and customary jazzed up stuff to attract this imaginary new audience waiting to be won over, they would be able to find a few slots if there was a will to do so.

Let no one be fooled by this reported increase in the TV audience. The figures remain poor compared to the numbers watching as recently as a decade ago and the mini-spike up from the previous year was due to viewers beginning to settle down for the England football match which kicked off forty-five minutes after the race on the same channel.

It brings it home how the importance of a once great national sporting event and a once equally great nationwide sport has declined markedly when you hear Epsom based trainer Simon Down agree that many people living around Epsom high street would be unaware that what some still look upon as a worldwide renowned event, was approaching. No doubt they knew all about the upcoming England match though. It is a sad state of affairs.

Ten years on from Sir Ivor the event was still enormous compared with today. Still seventeen years away from the regretful moving of the event to a Saturday, the 1978 running looked wide open and twenty-five runners took their chance. Only Captain Ryan Price trained more than one runner, Obraztosovy and Whitshead, both owned by Harry Demetriou, the only owner with more than one runner.

The race famously went to Shirley Heights in the Lord Halifax colours, Greville Starkey storming up the inside of Bill Shoemaker, who was carrying the Robert Sangster silks on Hawaiian Sound, to win by a narrow margin. Incredibly, Reg Hollinshead trained the third home, Remainder Man. The horse's best contribution to the sport would be to go on and sire the celebrated steeplechaser One Man.

Like this year, the favourite would be Ballydoyle based, the Lester Piggott ridden Inkerman who arrived with far less solid foundations than Saxon Warrior. Other links with the present would be Michael Stoute having his first Derby runner with the William Hill owned Hill's Yankee.

With the Down's packed and the inside rail up the straight lined with those customary but nostalgic open buses, it was still very much an occasion to savour wherever you watched it from, read about it all, and had that ritual head-on photograph as the winner passed the post etched into your memory.

When we go into post-Epsom Derby reflection mode and prophesise whether this will be an ordinary, up to standard, or outstanding renewal, we do so by trying to single out winners from the past with similar profiles. This is one of the comforting attractions of this sport, bringing the past alive and making it relevant to the present.

What is disquieting though is when we have a winner that falls out of the main profile groups. It happened with Dr Devious. He had finished seventh in the Kentucky Derby a few weeks previous. A Churchill Down's also ran proving superior in our showcase event. Another aspect that made him unusual was that he was sired by a sprint handicapper come sprint Group horse.

Then Lammtara. One run as a juvenile in August 1994 for the late Alex Scott, then lining up at Epsom without any prep race. The unsettled feeling not helped by that being the first time the race had been moved to it's new Saturday slot. A mark of changing times for the worse.

Shaamit followed the trend a year later, winning without having a prep race in the current year. The race was taking a new course and felt less significant than it had done as we reached the middle of that decade.

Since the millennium the race has had a fair run. While in line with the declining importance of the sport it is a race that barely is noticed by anyone other than racing fans, with the indifferent including a high number of people who would label themselves as sports fans, it has thrown up some cracking winners, the still under appreciated Sea The Stars being the best of them.

Unfortunately, Masar is one that generates unease among the traditionalists. Masar ran in the UAE Derby earlier in the season. We have come to pigeonhole most of the three years olds that run over at that meeting as animals who are not going to be players in the events that truly matter.

True, Masar was well beaten on the synthetic surface over there unlike those who put up visually taking displays then prove wanting when pitted against the best back in Europe, but being 'hard fit' and looking more exposed than most, he looked a horse who had already fulfilled most of his potential.

Masar's  triumph marks an upturn in the fortunes of the Godolphin operation that has consistently been put in the shadow by the Ballydoyle/Coolmore operation, who despite dominating on a scale which cannot be good for the sport, keep their numbers limited and manageable, and operate at a profit in stark contrast to the middle eastern outfit who for many years were buying up readymade horses as they were unable to nurture most of their own into top class performers.

In fact, all of the other major, established operations such as Juddmonte, HRH Aga Khan, the Wildenstein family, and the Wertheimers, have always kept a manageable number with emphasis on quality.

Hamdan Al Maktoum exempted,  the whole Godolphin operation and its branches have bought and produced in mass numbers. Long gone are the days when they would acquire readymade horses, many of whom had looked to have just about realised all of their potential, then habitually manage to conjure up an extensive amount of improvement out of them.

Many of these animals had their whole profile changed into something that could not have been envisaged. Swain had looked found wanting for pace and destined as an Ascot Gold Cup horse but they got two King George's and an Irish Champion Stakes out of him. He also famously went close in a Breeders Cup Classic.

Daylami was previously a high class miler who looked fully exposed. They turned him into an outstanding 1m2f to 1m4f performer, one of the best of the last twenty five years.

The Maktoum's investment in the sport has given careers to many in all aspects of the sport as well as sustaining many a trainer's operation, but there is undoubtedly a downside. For it can be no coincidence that the past couple of decades has seen many long standing, successful owner breeder operations disappear.

Who knows how many of these had family members in waiting to take over at the helm but considered it insurmountable in light of the lopsided balance of power that exists.

That you don't bite the hand that feeds is an expression that comes to mind when many in the racing community acclaim the victory of Masar as being good for the sport and profess to be happy for connections.

Image in public domain

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