Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Is York Now the Best Racecourse in the Country? It is Certainly My Favourite.

The recent Ebor festival was an outstanding success, although only a few favourites came in, and even then I studiously managed to avoid backing them. So if I was talking through my pocket I would definitely be critical. But I’m exactly the opposite as far as the Knavesmire is concerned. It really is a super track.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m more than prepared to criticise racecourses for their indifferent service and poor facilities – not just for owners but for the general racegoer as well. York, however, seems to get all the basics right, and over the last few years has made significant multi-million pound investments in facilities such as the new pre-parade ring, Champagne bars, restaurants etc. There are always lots of areas to relax, sit down, raise a few glasses of the best value Champagne on race tracks in the country, the walkways actually allow you to get around easily and all the staff are unfailingly polite and appear to be extremely well trained. Even the excellently produced and detailed racecards are free.

This year’s festival also will have pleased owners, with every race worth more than £50,000 in prize-money, and there have been significant boosts for the hugely competitive handicaps as well as the pattern races. Indeed the level of competition is such that to win at York now you need to have a horse who if not already 100+ on official ratings soon will be, after winning any of the races there.

Like all business operations, it is the quality of leadership that really counts, and Lord Grimthorpe and his team, with the hugely talented William Darby, have to be commended for what they have achieved. Indeed I have heard that the members of the board only receive payments to cover expenses, so for many of the top team it is clearly a labour of love, with all profits and surpluses ploughed back into the course in prize-money. This really does set the benchmark in quality, commitment and performance that all racecourses need to strive for.

In terms of the racing itself this year, this brought quite a bit of controversy, most of it on Day 1. Arabian Queen, in the Juddmonte International, turned over the hot Derby-winning favourite Golden Horn. It is just a pity that the winning trainer, David Elsworth, then made a complete fool of himself, throwing a major strop about not being invited to lunch and apparently feeling that his filly had been unfairly criticised. In the Great Voltigeur, Pat Cosgrave got into a barging match on Storm The Stars but under current British rules kept the race. It is now pretty clear that unless there is only a neck or a head difference in a result, the chances are that interference won’t lead to a result being overturned. Throughout the meeting a few jockeys picked up bans for over-use of the whip, and with the level of prize-money on offer it is clearly the case that some jockeys are still prepared to ignore the rules. There should be stiffer penalties to curtail this behaviour.

The two highlights for me, though, were undoubtedly the magnificent successes for “ordinary owners and ordinary trainers”. Mecca’s Angel’s win in the Nunthorpe was the first Group 1 for both jockey Paul Mulrennan and trainer Michael Dods. On the right ground she is a really game filly and was very well bought for 16,000 gns. The Prix de l’Abbaye at Longchamps is an obvious next target for her. Then in the Ebor the win by Litigant for Joe Tuite and A.A. Byrne was a mightily impressive performance bearing in mind that the horse had been off the track since April 2014. Again, cheaply bought at £18,500. The owner currently has seven horses in training, and the other six haven’t managed to win £10,000 in total between them this year. Such are the highs and lows of ownership. I used to live only a couple of miles away from Tuite’s yard, in Great Shefford near Lambourn, and doubtless if I was still based there would have heard some whispers beforehand. Sadly, all my bets went down, and indeed the final day of the meeting was just about a complete graveyard for punters. The Placepot paying £4,882 to a £1 stake says everything about the day!

Great to see the ordinary owner do well. That was in marked contrast to the results for some of the top trainers, most noticeably William Haggas, all of whose winners were owned by royalty and sheikhs. Such is the value of mega-wealthy patronage in the top yards at Headquarters.

Already looking forward to York next year, and indeed have already booked accommodation. See you there!

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