Saturday 15 March 2014

Over-dominant Trainers and Cheltenham’s Many Frustrations

Although this blog has gone up the day after the Festival, it has actually been written on the eve of it. I know from past experience that there is no chance whatsoever of finding any time to do a blog while the racing is on, and by the weekend a combination of exhaustion and alcohol has completely numbed the brain. I can’t see any reason why this year would have been any different.

But what a great day prior to the start – reintroduced the pre-Festival round of golf at Naunton; off to the bucolic Plough at Ford for more than a few pints of Donningtons best bitter and a Festival preview evening, chaired by the estimable Stuart Machin; and all spare minutes totally immersed in the various race trends and preview evening reports.

And it is a foregone conclusion that the racing itself will have been immensely pleasurable.

So it is probably only a curmudgeon who wants to grumble about the whole Cheltenham Festival experience. This year it started with the extremely irritating charges for owners’ badges. Our Shantou Magic was scheduled to run in the Martin Pipe on Friday. All the owners and some family members were going. All of us are members at Cheltenham, and yet they saw fit to charge us £75 for each extra paddock badge, just so that we could all go in to support our horse. You gain nothing else really for your £75. There is a tatty old marquee to go to, but you have to pay for any food and drink on top. This is just yet another Cheltenham rip-off. In the last blog I berated the early closer system. We had Shantou Magic in the Coral Cup (cost £126) and obviously also in the Martin Pipe (£86). While this doesn’t sound a lot, if you multiply everything by several thousand to reflect the huge entries, it is considerable money.

I was also trying to organise meetings with friends and co-owners throughout the four days. The problem is that there are so few suitable bars to go to, and with up to 75,000 people there each day it is just about impossible to have a relaxed and convivial drink. This is in such contrast to Aintree, which would win the hospitality stakes in a hack canter, compared to Cheltenham. Hopefully when the new stand is completed, all this will change. The risk, though, is that the exploitative mind-set of Cheltenham doesn’t change, even if the infrastructure is improved. They keep sending me customer satisfaction surveys, which I always dutifully fill in. However I have seen very little improvement so far. Maybe it will have changed this year, but I doubt it.

Finally, another niggle going into the meeting was the whole issue of watering the course. I have a real concern anyway about the over-dominance of Messrs. Mullins, Nicholls and Henderson, which I just don’t think is good for the sport. So it was irksome to see two of that ilk publicly lobbying for the course not to be watered. They wanted “nature to take its course”. In this day and age, that is a totally impossible and na├»ve stance to adopt. Maybe it had more to do with the need for Big Buck’s, Bobs Worth and Triolo d’Alene to have good ground. Earlier in the season there were similar selfish views expounded over the framing of novice chases. I don’t have a lot of sympathy, just because they have yards chock-full of talent and want to keep them apart.

Right, that’s the curmudgeonly thoughts for this Festival out of the way. Let’s hope the racing has been superb, the hangovers manageable and the wins, huge! On now to Aintree and Punchestown.

I am always interested to hear your views so please do leave a comment. If you can't see the comment box at the bottom of this post then navigate to the post using the right hand navigation or click here > and scroll to the bottom of the page. Look forward to hearing your views. Thanks very much for sharing them.

Saturday 1 March 2014

Cheltenham Festival – Almost There, But Do Early Closers Serve Any Real Purpose?

As always, Cheltenham fever is building up, and I’m really looking forward now to the usual fabulous racing and equally usual assault on the betting account and liver! Having said that I’ve devised a few “Cheltenham survival strategies” (mostly to do with cutting down on alcohol) to get through the rigours of the meeting. Not overly confident that will succeed. Another reason for looking forward to it, though, is that we are hoping our horse Shantou Magic will be running in either the Coral Cup or the Martin Pipe, depending on the going. He trotted up in his first two novice hurdles before Christmas and then stepped up to Grade 1 in the Challow Hurdle at Newbury, where he travelled beautifully but didn’t get home from the front, and set it up for the eventual winner Captain Cutter, before trying to give lumps of weight away in a handicap at Wincanton. Off 137 he must have a decent chance, particularly in the Martin Pipe.

Anyway, the plan is to do a slightly shorter blog this time. I’ve had feedback that they are getting too long – particularly for those who read the blog on iPhones etc. Will try to curb my War & Peace tendencies.

One Cheltenham statistic that caught my eye is the incredible 1,038 entries for the eleven handicaps. For the two races that we’re considering, there are 136 entered in the Coral Cup and a staggering 166 in the Martin Pipe. Objectively this just doesn’t make any sense at all. The ranges on OR are 111-154 for the former and 112-145 for the latter. At least half of these horses have absolutely no chance of getting in, since they are probably a stone below the standard needed. Of the other half, virtually all have multiple entries, so the trainers are bound to pull them out of some of these and / or wait to be balloted out. While trainers may not be too bothered, owners certainly should be. The loss of entry fees, which as you would expect are expensive at Cheltenham, is just a complete waste of money.

So do “early closers” such as we have at the Festival make any sense at all? They certainly give pundits something to write about in the Racing Post and national press; encourage punters to take ante-post prices (which is a double lunacy – 50% of your selections probably won’t get in, and you obviously haven’t a clue what the going will be); prompt NH aficionados to have endless debates over the merits of potential combatants; and of course, boost total prize-money without the racecourse having to dig deeper into its own coffers. On the other hand they are really expensive, needlessly restrictive, and confusing for trainers.

I ran this by a couple of our trainers this week, and they both had exactly the same view: only have two early closers each year – the Grand National and the Derby. Sounds a sensible policy to me.

I am always interested to hear your views so please do leave a comment. If you can't see the comment box at the bottom of this post then navigate to the post using the right hand navigation or click here > and scroll to the bottom of the page. Look forward to hearing your views. Thanks very much for sharing them.