Friday, 1 April 2016

Ides of March for the Bookies: Whacked by Whittingdale and Mauled by Mullins. But Who is the April Fool? Please Step Forward, Paul Darling

So how was Cheltenham for you? I always like the turn of phrase of Alastair Down in the Racing Post, and he described this year’s festival as “the antidote to cynicism”. Having been critical of Cheltenham’s facilities in the past, it is marvellous to be able to praise the course for everything that has been done to transform Prestbury Park and make it one of the best sporting venues in the world. Indeed, in many racegoers’ eyes, it is now the best race meeting in the country and certainly this year it proved to be a punters’ paradise. Even I made money on every single day, which shows how easy it was!!! It’s a long time since I’ve had a Heinz in, but how could anyone fail to perm lots of winners from Douvan, Annie Power, Vroum Vroum Mag, Yorkhill, Vautour, Thistlecrack, Limini, Ivanovich Gorbatov, Don Cossack and then the three JP McManus-owned and top amateur-ridden hotpots of Minella Rocco, Cause Of Causes and On The Fringe – laid out, or what?

The stand-out performances for me were Douvan in the Arkle (first horse since Flying Bolt in 1965 to do the double with the Supreme Novices’); Sprinter Sacre’s emotional comeback in the Champion Chase; Any Currency’s win as a 13-y-o in the Cross Country for our trainer Martin Keighley (who attended our OfO champagne picnic with his wife Belinda that day and convinced most of those present to entrust their cash to “Woody” and Aidan – a superb ride); Vautour’s romp in the Ryanair; Thistlecrack’s sublime win in the World Hurdle; and then Don Cossack demonstrating why he is the top chaser in training in the Gold Cup (and OfO has a particular interest in him as we have a Sholokhov 2yo, nicknamed “Don Caster”). Great to see first festival wins for Dan Skelton, Harry Fry and Ian Williams as well as Martin, while you can’t help but be envious of Patricia Pugh, whose horse Altior won the Supreme Novices’ and is only the second horse she has ever owned. Victoria Pendleton, quite rightly, was lauded for her personal poise and riding performance on Pasha Du Polder, although she has a veritable mountain to climb to catch Ruby Walsh, who passed his landmark of 50 winners at the Festival on Black Hercules. And after Gold Cup day, the debates on whether Cue Card would or would not have beaten Don Cossack will continue for many years. Phew – a magnificent meeting. Now on to Aintree, where Willie Mullins is expected to send a team of over 20 horses in a bid to win the UK jump trainers’ championship crown. The last Irishman to do that was the legendary Vincent O’Brien, one of my all-time heroes. Willie is now odds-on for the title and is 6/4 to land seven or more winners in Liverpool. I wonder if we’ll see a repetition of the stats from Cheltenham – four owners managed to win half of the races. I definitely hope not.

Throughout March the backdrop to British racing has been all about the announcement by the Government on the Racing Right, and on Budget Day, Wednesday, 16th March, Chancellor Osborne reiterated that offshore betting operators will contribute to racing’s finances, and in Nick Rust’s phrase, the Government is clearly committed to a “fair, enforceable and sustainable return from all betting activity on our sport”. The timetable to introduce the new funding system was outlined by the Chancellor with consultation planned over the summer, notification to be given to the European Commission, a statutory instrument to be published by the end of the year and then the new funding model in force from April, 2017. A huge win for racing.

So I was delighted when Paul Darling, Chairman of the Association of British Bookmakers, made a short speech in which he said that “we’re clearly entering a new era of partnership between betting operators and racing. It’s time for all of us in the betting industry to admit our past failures and lack of innovation, and embrace the new spirit of partnership that will strengthen the whole of racing, its sustainable funding and our own profitability.” On behalf of the big operators that had previously declined to become Authorised Betting Partners (ABP), such as William Hill, Coral, Paddy Power, Betfred and Ladbroke’s, he announced the launch of the Aintree Betting Pledge (ABP), whereby any registered owner will be entitled to a £100 free bet that can be placed on any of the Mullins runners.

If only, if only ….. What Mr. Darling actually said is that the amount of money racing now receives from betting shops is “completely unsustainable” and that racing is a product that is now a loss-maker in his industry. He believes that the current levy is unaffordable and that it makes the racing product less attractive than others. Indeed, “racing must be willing to treat betting as a partner and not as the enemy from whom as much cash as possible must be extracted by whatever is today’s latest device”. Alas, therefore, the sniping and skirmishing is bound to continue. There are some real dinosaurs in the betting industry.

The excitements of Cheltenham prevented me from doing the promised summary of the BHA Newbury strategy forum that I attended at the beginning of March. More on this in the next blog ….. provided of course that Aintree doesn’t distract me next time, which is highly likely.

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