Tuesday 15 April 2014

Grand Times at the Grand National – The Aintree Experience and Retraining of Racehorses

My wife and I always try to go to Aintree for the Grand National and for my money it is the best-organised NH meeting of the whole season- superb facilities, fabulous racing, and a real party atmosphere as 70,000 Scousers turn out in force, in their finery. It may be easy for the press to mock the excesses of “Ladies’ Day”, and it is certainly testimony to the tanning salon and tattoo parlour, but it really makes for a magnificent Aintree experience. It was also great to see the first £1m National, with excellent prize-money down to 10th. One of the real pleasures of the winter sport is that the “little man” can grab a huge prize. Charlie Longsdon in his blog summed it up really well: “Highlight of the Aintree meeting had to be Dr. Newland’s great win with Pineau De Re – he has 12 horses in training, and that is what the Grand National is all about. It is a fantastic story – something that could not happen in Flat racing. That’s why we love the National Hunt game. Everyone has a chance of having a superstar, and you do not have to have 150 horses in training and spend £100,000 to buy a great horse. Bring on the National in 2015!!!” Another of our trainers, Philip Hobbs, must certainly be thinking that – his Balthazar King, still improving at the age of 10, came 2nd and won £211,000. There was also a nice interview with Philip and Richard Johnson on Channel 4 – 16 years together. Although he didn’t say it on air, he has a lovely line: “If I don’t change my wife or my car very often, why should I change my jockey?” (Apologies [to Sarah] if I’ve misquoted, Philip – and I think I have – but that is the gist!)

There were several great results here for racing, not least Pineau De Re’s victory off the reasonable mark of 143 (certainly when Owners for Owners has a horse over 140 that stays forever, I know where we’re going). The excellent sponsor, marketing and branding for Crabbies created a very positive impression and they must be delighted with how the whole event unfolded, especially the avoidance of any controversy. There were no fatalities, and the way in which the core structure of the fences has changed for the better has been a most successful feature of Aintree for the last two years. It is also testimony to the leadership of Lord Daresbury who stepped down as Chairman at the meeting this year. When I first started going racing in the North I used to follow him as a rider. As Peter Greenall he was also the boss of the now-defunct brewery, Greenall Whitley (their bitter was often described as “only suitable to put on chips”), before selling the business off and concentrating on the hotels and leisure industry. One of the few real strategists in business and racing.

Finally, full marks again to the BHA for the way in which they took a proactive stance through the marquee and publicity for thehorsecomesfirst.com. They had a prominent and well-staffed stand by the parade ring and throughout the three days of the meeting, there was a concerted campaign to engage racegoers and raise awareness of the high standards of equine welfare in our sport. Proactivity like this is far better than responding reactively when there is a problem. Literature was given out containing such positive statistics as:

  • Over the last 15 years the equine fatality rate during racing has fallen by a third, from 0.3% to 0.2%.
  • The sport has invested over £25m in veterinary activities including research and education since 2000.
  • There are estimated to be 1m horses in the UK. Racehorses are the best looked-after 2%.
  • There are over 9,000 horses registered with Retraining of Racehorses active in other equine disciplines such as polo, showing, dressage and eventing.
  • Our sport employs over 6,000 people providing first-class care and attention to the 14,000 horses in training.

Finally on the statistics front, there was a very interesting piece of information based on a study by Liverpool University which found that 62% of “traumatic injuries” (ranging from grazes to fractures) suffered by a sample of leisure and competition horses occurred when turned out in a paddock, compared to only 13% during ridden exercise. This certainly confirms my own experiences – I tend to be more worried when horses are on their summer holidays turned out in a field, than when they are being carefully looked after in their boxes in a yard. I hope all our NH horses that are being turned out now for the summer take note of this!

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Tuesday 1 April 2014

Lamborghinis, Bingo and Beer – and Encouraging News on the Prize-Money Front. Plus a Few Reflections on the Cheltenham Festival

If you didn’t already know it, you can tell I’m a retiree because I watched the budget live, and was extremely pleased with some of the announcements made by the Chancellor, George Osborne. I suspect I won’t raid my pension pot too quickly for the Lamborghinis, but not surprisingly, it may well help fund a couple of new horses for the Autumn. We’re planning to buy one with both Charlie Longsdon and Philip Hobbs during the Spring / Summer – if you’re interested in joining either or both of these new partnerships, please let me know. I didn’t really mind the Chairman of the Conservative Party taking the mickey with his “beer and bingo” tweet, but I did celebrate the budget with a few pints of Donningtons’ Old Grobbler in the Plough at Ford.

However, the really encouraging news in the Budget from the horseracing industry’s perspective was a clear commitment from the Government that it intends to address the key issue of the levy and racing’s funding. The levy is going to be extended to cover offshore bookmakers (which ought to bring c. £25m back into racing over the next year or so) and a “Racing Right” will be introduced, which can readily be enforced as part of levy reform. As an example and putting this into context, over 60% of betting with William Hill is now offshore. It significantly boosts their profits but does nothing for racing. That will change under the new regime, which will now be worked on in detail by the Government, in conjunction with racing’s stakeholders.

In the past I have been quite critical of the BHA, but I think they have done an excellent job here. One of our owners is Steve Harman, Chairman of the BHA, and I know that he has put considerable effort into developing stronger relationships between the BHA and key politicians. The Budget announcements clearly signal that we now have much greater Government support for our industry. This is a significant step forward, and in many ways a necessary precondition for levy reform. I am hoping that Steve will write a blog for us in the not too distant future, covering some of these issues.

Also in March, another organisation of which I have been critical in the past – Arena Leisure Company – decided to end their stand-off with the Horsemen’s Group and sign a three-year deal, underpinned by the BHA, which should increase their prize-money by 25%.

So at the moment it looks as though there will be an excess of £123m of prize-money for 2014. This is a record amount and shows what can be done by more proactive lobbying and negotiation.

Not that I’m going to stop being critical – an immediate target being the five courses that haven’t signed up for the Horsemen’s Group Prize-Money Agreement: Catterick, Hexham, Plumpton, Redcar and Towcester. Hopefully they will be shamed into action. If not, as owners, we should stop sending our horses there.

Finally, a few reflections on the Cheltenham Festival:
  • Happiest trainer award: must go to our trainer Jamie Snowden for gaining his first Festival win. An experiment was conducted at the Festival: heart monitors were put on a trainer, an owner and a jockey to see what happened to their pulse rate. When the result of the stewards’ enquiry came through and the race was awarded to Present View, Jamie’s was 196. There were lots of ribald tweets and emails afterwards about what else might cause his pulse rate to reach these heights.
  • Unhappiest trainer award: alas, must go to Martin Keighley whose Any Currency was beaten in a photo finish by Balthazar King, trained by another of our trainers, Philip Hobbs. He provided the TV image of the meeting as the frustration spilled over and he threw his race programme to the ground in disgust.
  • Oddest quote award: Michael O’Leary, when he said, “I couldn’t care a rat’s backside what people will think or say”. Anyone who has flown Ryanair well understands this. But this was in the context of the doping investigation at Philip Fenton’s yard, and his horse Last Instalment running in the Gold Cup.
  • Quirkiest image award: to the Racing Post reporter who said that being in the Guinness Village reminded him of penguins keeping warm in the Arctic: hardly seeming to move, but somehow finding their way from the cold outer edges to the warm and cosy centre, and then back out again.
  • Best horses award: a three-way photo finish for me between Sire De Grugy and the joy of the Moore and Preston families; Vautour for the scintillating way that he won the Supreme Novices; and the beautifully laid-back More Of That in the World Hurdle. Mind you, there were a few more horses who should probably win awards for bailing me out on the betting front!
  • Stingy b******s award: to Cheltenham Racecourse itself, for daring to be so greedy that they charged Owners for Owners £90 for additional owners’ badges, just so that we could stand in the paddock for one race. We thought the figure was £75 but it was increased even further on Gold Cup day when Shantou Magic ran in the Martin Pipe. Not even a free cup of tea! I think I’m going to write to Cheltenham asking when they intend to introduce a soup kitchen for impoverished owners. We invest so much money, and to be treated like this at the NH Olympics is an absolute disgrace.
On to Aintree now. It’s just a pity that Doncaster and the start of the Flat intervenes with such a whimper.

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.