Monday 15 October 2012

Patricians, Partners, Plebs ..... and Marodima

What is the connection between Andrew Mitchell, the Government Chief Whip, and a £2.5m guineas Galileo colt out of the dam of Authorised, purchased at last week’s Tattersalls Book 1? Both illustrate the British obsession with aristocracy, superior breeding and the supposed differences between toffs and plebs. Indeed in racing it sometimes feels as though we are trapped inside the famous sketch involving John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett. “I am upper class, and naturally can afford the best. I own the best mares and stallions and go to the best trainers. Economic crisis – what crisis? I look down on other owners. They are plebs, and little people.” “I am middle class. I aspire to being a bigger owner, and buy the best I can afford. I envy the top owners and hope I find a Saturday horse one day. I go to mid-week race meetings but at least they are on turf. I look down on those who go to Wolverhampton and Southwell.” “I am a syndicate owner. I am lower class. I get what’s left over. I go to the all-weather and the gaff tracks. I know my place.”

The rarefied, platinum end of racing occupies a space that is completely disconnected with economic reality. It is a closed world where the top breeding interests and wealthiest people are increasingly appropriating all the real equine stars. This makes it exceptionally hard to compete. Indeed a friend of mine who had a Cheltenham Festival winner twenty years ago was lucky enough to find another star recently, but was offered a sum that was impossible to refuse, given the current economic climate and paucity of prize money in racing.

This goes right to the heart of what we are trying to do in Owners for Owners. Apart from the very privileged few, the rest of us need to link up with others and “join forces to buy better horses”. Unfortunately some of the largest syndicates are either far too expensive (with 60% + of the cost going into their overheads) or are buying low-quality “fun horses” with little probability of winning big races.

However, it can be done. I am lucky enough to be involved in Jamie Snowden’s nine-year-old warrior, Marodima. Many can remember his former exploits in the Arkle and Champion Chase. Alas, he then went into a decline with many physical problems, but has bounced back in the twilight of his career. From 12th January to 5th October this year, he has run nine times, winning five races and being placed in the other four. His rating has gone up from 112 to 143. We are now considering taking him further afield, possibly Auteuil where there is superb prize money and obstacles that suit his style of jumping. Partnering with ambitious young trainers, enthusiastic co-owners and courageous horses such as Marodima is a real privilege.

Tuesday 2 October 2012

Aintree – Stop Tinkering, Start Defending

Recently announced changes to the Grand National course appear to have been welcomed by most groups, although the RSPCA irritatingly gave Aintree a “yellow card”, which presumably means that any further casualties will lead to more protestations.

Lots of changes, most of them minor: start to be moved 90 yards further down the track, away from the noise of the stands; the no-go zone for jockeys to be increased to 30 yards from the starting tape; the starter’s rostrum to be placed alongside that zone; jockeys to be given a more detailed briefing before the race on both the rules and the need for co-operation with the starter; there will be a more consistent methodology (whatever that might mean) for the start; an additional catching pen will be trialled near fence 4 for loose horses; the landing areas for fences 4, 5 and 13 will be levelled out; a different central frame and core material for fences will be trialled at the Becher Chase meeting in December; and there will be an improvement in irrigation.

So, nothing too dramatic. Arguments had been put forward for a major reduction in field size, removing some fences, moving the start much nearer to the first fence and even changing the size and style of the fences. None of these have been acted upon.

The big issue is whether this is the end of the tinkering, or whether there are going to be endless changes after every National, depending on the casualties (which are, sadly, inevitable). No-one has problems with ongoing improvements and fine-tuning, but what shouldn’t be happening is for Aintree and racing to be permanently accommodating the views of lobby groups such as the RSPCA and World Horse Welfare. Indeed the risk is that the tinkering appears to be an implicit acceptance that in some way Aintree is ethically unacceptable from a horse welfare standpoint.

It really is about time that the racing industry embarked on a properly planned PR campaign of its own to defend Aintree, the National and, for that matter, National Hunt racing as a sport that is cherished by a large percentage of the population. In other words there is a line to be drawn here between risk and safety. Racing should not be afraid of standing up for the integrity of our sport.

On a different subject, everyone in racing was terribly upset by the recent death of a great supporter of the Grand National, Lord Oaksey. There was a lovely letter in the Racing Post recently which recalled his winning rides on Happy Medium in the Watney Mann Red Barrel Chase. Apparently part of the prize was a 36-gallon beer barrel and the noble lord, on the journey back home, opened it; with one of the happy drinkers being the horse himself, who swigged a bucket-full of beer. In the same race a year later, as the horse entered the home straight, he seemed to realise where he was. Oaksey reported that Happy Medium “pulled his way to the front like a thirsty man in a crowded bar, and won going away”. Doubtless they celebrated as before. RIP.