Friday 15 March 2013

Jumping for Joy ..... but for Cheltenham 2014

Although in this blog I’ve been very critical of Cheltenham in terms of its very poor customer service and dreadful facilities, no-one can deny that as a racing festival there is nowhere that the National Hunt enthusiast would rather be in the second week of March. Knowing from bitter experience the toll that the Festival takes – total immersion in betting, Guinness and red wine, and that’s only during the day, never mind the evenings – I felt that discretion is definitely the better part of valour and that the blog should be written the previous weekend, which is what I’ve done.

So by 15th, we’ll know whether any of these amazing stats have been turned over:
  • No horse has regained the Champion Hurdle crown since Comedy Of Errors in 1975. Will Hurricane Fly have prevailed?
  • Only Golden Miller (1932-1936) has won at five successive Cheltenham Festivals. Will the gorgeous Quevega have equalled that record?
  • Over the last 40 years, the Champion Chase has only been won by two seven-year-olds. Come on, Sprinter Sacre.
  • No Feltham winner has ever gone on to win the RSA Chase. Odds stacked against Dynaste.
  • Thursday at the Festival has been a roller-coaster for the Irish. They may have done well in the Jewson, but other races have been a disaster. Will this year have been any different? They haven’t won the World Hurdle since 1995; they have never won the Ryanair; and it was 1983 with the gallant Greasepaint that they last won the Kim Muir. A great day to lay the Irish horses – or was it?
  • Will Long Run have been able to regain the Gold Cup? Only one other horse has ever done it – Kauto Star.
Time now to take off the anorak. The reason why I mention I’m jumping for joy is that we’ve had such a fantastic start in Owners for Owners with our four National Hunt horses, all bought over the Autumn. Houndscourt has come second on each of his two runs, and has earned a really positive Timeform comment and 115p rating; Shantou Magic came fourth in one of the hottest bumpers so far, at Ascot; Quick Decisson won on his first outing and then came third in his next bumper; and finally Lady Charisma came 6th in a hot mares’ bumper on her first outing. If I put the anorak back on again, then the question is which races might we be dreaming of for Cheltenham 2014? The Jewson or RSA Chase for Houndscourt? The Neptune or the Bartlett for Shantou Magic? The Pulteney or the Arkle for Quick Decisson? The Mares’ Hurdle for Lady Charisma?

I know in this game you should never look ahead, but wouldn’t it be absolutely fantastic if at least one of the horses managed one of the above engagements. May the dream live long through next season.

Friday 1 March 2013

The Road to Righteousness isn’t Via the All-Weather

One of our owners sent me an email recently pointing out a ride on the all-weather. I had a close look at it and I thought that without any doubt it was a blatant example of a horse being pulled. I’m not prepared to name the horse, jockey or trainer, but I definitely agree with a comment by Graham Cunningham recently on Channel 4’s Morning Line, in the context of Andrew Heffernan’s 15-year ban, that we now appear to have an integrity problem with low-quality all-weather racing. Indeed, he asked, “Is it worth the bother?”

A friend of mine up in the North of England has a wonderful Victorian stylised painting entitled “The Road to Righteousness and Salvation”. It shows a couple going through a gate at the foot of the painting. They are then confronted with two alternative roads to follow. One takes them up through the foothills of godliness into the kingdom of Heaven, while the other leads to eternal damnation. They are faced with ten temptations, at each of which they could divert from the straight and narrow way. The reason why this painting is always pointed out to me is that the first trial is to do with “cursing and use of strong language”, the second, “partaking of alcoholic liquor”, and the third, “gambling”. Well, that certainly damns the 70,000 or so who will be at the Cheltenham Festival in a few weeks’ time. By the way, the other seven temptations aren’t bad either.

So this had me wondering what ten “temptations” might be on the All-Weather, and why this is becoming an ethical concern.
  1. Trainer deliberately runs the horse down the weights into a 0-55 race.
  2. Keep the horse unfit and not able to perform satisfactorily.
  3. Put on a claiming rider with no strength, who can’t ride one side of the horse never mind
  4. Run it over the wrong trip.
  5. Run it on the wrong A/W surface.
  6. Put on or leave off headgear, depending on what the horse actually needs.
  7. Come out of the gate slowly and get boxed in.
  8. Alternatively, run it really wide on all the bends.
  9. Dope it.
  10. Pull it.

Nine of these appear to be becoming more common. Alas, it is hardly surprising with the lamentable state of prize money. The only way many small trainers and their owners can secure any sort of return on investment is to land a touch, and with the quality of much of the all-weather racing it has become the obvious target. What needs to be done about it? Personally I’d like to see much higher scrutiny of the performance of certain trainers and jockeys, and for that to be reflected in the readiness or otherwise to reduce official ratings. And obviously, a big increase in prize-money is essential, otherwise there will be more people in the racing fraternity departing from “The Road to Righteousness”.