Thursday, 15 January 2015

Is there a Purpose to All-Weather Racing, and Does Chelmsford City Meet It?

My three least favourite tracks in the whole of the country are Wolverhampton, Lingfield and then Kempton. All of them are all-weather tracks, and every time I’ve been there as an owner I’ve vowed never to return. Standing on the green rubberised concrete of the parade ring at Wolverhampton, with the scent of stale Balti wafting across from the grim bar and restaurant overlooking the crowd-absent terraces, definitely doesn’t count as an enjoyable owner experience in my book. I know I’m exaggerating, and doubtless if one of our Flat horses stormed home, head in his chest, to win going away, I’d probably feel different. But that hasn’t happened either, and invariably you go to the A/W out of necessity rather than pleasure.

And yet the last decade has seen an exponential increase in the amount of all-weather racing in the UK as a percentage of the overall fixture list, so it clearly is meeting a number of objectives: first and foremost, it generates betting turnover and therefore levy to help fund racing; the crowd-free business and commercial model clearly works for the course operators, particularly ARC; unfortunately there are large numbers of moderate horses who have a better chance of winning in the winter on the all-weather than they ever would do on turf in the summer; and finally it provides viewing fodder for TV channels, even if a lot of it is as dull as ditch-water.

So, reluctantly, I have to admit that there is a purpose to all-weather racing. Some of the key questions though are to do with the quantity, distribution and quality of the A/W fixtures and racecourse experiences. Back in this blog on 1st March 2013, I also raised the concerning issue of integrity since many of the ethical breaches have involved this form of racing.

Therefore when Chelmsford City (the former Great Leighs track that closed down almost six years ago) held its first fixture last Sunday, 11th January, I wondered whether we were just going to get more of the same or, ever the optimist, whether a new operator with much deeper pockets could use this racecourse to launch what hopefully could become a new era for all-weather racing.

Very rarely for me, I sat down and watched the racing on TV. I also had a side interest because a horse that I formerly had a share in, Lunar Deity, took part in one of the races, going for a hat-trick, and almost succeeded – only beaten a short head. Lunar was by Medicean, a stallion that I really like, and it is great that we now have another by this sire, with Karl Burke. He looks a late-maturing type (as was Lunar Deity), but hopefully he will be out as a two-year-old in late summer.

First impressions were pretty positive. Prize-money was high in comparison with other similar fixtures; the facilities had a plushness that I probably hadn’t expected; entrances, bars, restaurants etc. appeared to be massively superior to the other A/W tracks, and the track itself has been well regarded since its original construction. True, the grandstand is in the wrong position and apparently over the next three or four years they are going to build one where it needs to be, and the track rode quite deep and slow but will doubtless bed down over the next few months. Personally I wish the track every success and it is bound to be very well supported particularly by the Newmarket trainers, presumably at the expense of the other courses.

But the main reason why I wish it success is that I hope it applies leverage and competition to drive improvement generally in this poor relation of our sport. There is no inherent reason why all-weather racing has to be so abysmal. Better management, prize-money and facilities, and much greater collaboration with other racing stakeholders, ought to be capable of dramatically raising overall standards. Furthermore I would like to see a quantum improvement of this sort both stimulated and reinforced by the allocation of fixtures. Racing needs more incentives and penalties in the system, with a stronger BHA being prepared to apply them in a way that genuinely rewards the improvers and penalises the laggards. Let’s hope good progress is made.

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