Tuesday 15 November 2016

Remembrance Sunday and NH Superstars – So Many Poignant Moments at Cheltenham

Remembrance Sunday and NH Superstars – So Many Poignant Moments at Cheltenham

The general consensus about the three-day Open meeting at Cheltenham last weekend was that it was a mini-festival in many ways: absolutely terrific racing, with lots of current and future superstars in action. The crowd welcomed a number but, alas, said farewell to a few as well, not least the immensely talented but fragile Simonsig who broke a leg in the Shloer Chase on Sunday, and Sprinter Sacre who had been retired after suffering a tendon strain, but was paraded in front of his adoring fans at Prestbury Park. Ben Pauling’s best horse, Barters Hill, slipped a tendon off a hock and will be out for a some time, while Thistlecrack gave the crowd many heart-stopping moments. Colin Tizzard’s post-race comment was a distinct understatement when he said that the horse was “a bit exuberant”. He bunny-hopped a few, banked a couple and flew the rest. Doubtless he is a future Gold Cup winner …. but make it 2018, Colin.

I remember seeing Sprinter Sacre for the first time in the Game Spirit Chase at Newbury on 17th February 2012, when he put in a majestic round of jumping and just strolled away from the field up the straight. I followed the horse back up the walkway and asked Barry Geraghty what he thought to him. With all the expletives deleted, it was along the lines of: “Absolute superstar”. No-one would disagree. Alastair Down wrote an article on the retirement of Sprinter Sacre for the Racing Post. It was so good that I’ve decided to include it in its entirety. Here is Alastair’s eloquent piece, entitled: “Superstar Sprinter had swagger and brilliance”.

“HE was the James Bond of two-mile chasers - devilishly handsome, lethal in action and, when it came to winning, usually just needing to be shaken not stirred.

The name is Sacre. Sprinter Sacre.

At the zenith of his scarcely believable powers there was something almost absurdly glamorous about Sprinter Sacre, and from early on the public were drawn to him as the expression 'animal magnetism' could have been coined for him.

He had a buccaneer's swagger about him and if you plonked someone who had never been racing at the side of the paddock they could not fail to pick him out as the beau ideal of what an equine athlete should look like.

But if he was a prince in the parade ring he was simply the king out on the course. Sprinter Sacre won his first ten chases and in doing so redrew the map of the known two-mile world.

Imperious and untouchable, he made the hellfire rattle of a Grade 1 chase over two miles look easy whereas the truth is all about horses at full stretch from flagfall and the requirement to jump with the precision of a Swiss watch.

His 2012 Arkle defeat of Cue Card and his first Champion Chase victory by 19 lengths over Sizing Europe were, in terms of sheer style and superiority, ground-breaking and stands-shaking. Both days had about them the unmistakable scent of racing history.

Recovery and return

And very much part of our admiration for Sprinter Sacre is that his career suddenly ceased to be a seamless progression and entered the zone of struggle.

When he was pulled up at Kempton in December 2012 it was the precursor to 13 months off the course. At various times while he was being patiently rebuilt at Seven Barrows many thought we would not see him again or that should he return it would be as a shadow of the emperor of old.

Indeed, when he came back for his three runs in early 2015 he finished second, was pulled up in the Champion Chase and then second again. Some of the fires still clearly burned but the blazing brilliance - like those ancient hilltop beacons that sent both warnings and great news countrywide in days of old - seemed extinguished.

But through the days of doubt one man's faith never seemed to waver and he ever looked for the first streaks of a fresh dawn to drive the darkness away.

Be in no doubt, Nicky Henderson's handling of Sprinter Sacre has been the stuff of genius.

Sprinter Sacre. Picture: Edward Whitaker - Racing Post
PICTURE: Edward Whitaker (racingpost.com/photos)

This finest of all two-mile chasers has taken us to undiscovered places by roads never previously trod but it has been Henderson who has planned every step and nurtured his phenomenon back to fitness.

And it was never solely about getting Sprinter right physically, but keeping him sweet between the ears. Pain, discomfort and enforced inactivity can play with horses' minds and blunt their relish for the job. Few would have tolerated what Sprinter Sacre went through without being scarred.

Nicky will have had to push on occasions but he would never shove. He loves his horses and anyone listening to him on Sunday as the emotion and gratitude poured out will have realised this will never be a loveless world as long as Henderson and steeplechasers reside at Seven Barrows.

It was exactly a year ago in the Shloer Chase that Sprinter Sacre shed his chains and soared once more. It was make-or-break day for him, and in the paddock beforehand he looked awesome and had that gigolo's strut back on him.

And when he won, Cheltenham, home of the brave, went into raptures.

Henderson's finest hour

But there was more to come. When he took it up going to the second-last in the Champion Chase there was something wild about the sound as the faithful began to roar for him, British and Irish voices united in the single, thumping, heartfelt wish that Sprinter would get home.

He did of course, passing the stands to a bedlam of approbation and affection. Always a terrible show-off, witnessing his repossession of the Champion Chase crown was like watching some fable or legend come to life in front of you.

It was Henderson's finest hour and grizzled festival devotees who have lived many a winter will never tire of taking the moment out of the display case of memory and turning it over once more like something priceless. Which it was.

Henderson himself was superb yesterday, conducting a masterclass in rueful celebration as he recalled the triumphs and battles of recent years. He talked about the occasion as being a celebration of Sprinter Sacre's life, but it was also the stuff of tears.

Saying farewell to old friends is always sad and Sprinter was an old friend who never let you down when he was fit, well and able. In a beautiful phrase Nicky said: "We were very lucky to be the curator of this horse." And we were even more fortunate in having Henderson do the job and light up our world with this paragon of a racehorse.

In a turning of the screw beyond imagining, the day for Seven Barrows plummeted from sorrow at the end of a golden age to cruel distress with the death of Simonsig.

Most trainers would have got straight into the car and retired hurt. But not Nicky who, although clearly shattered by the second barrel of the gun, dealt with the media with a magnificence that was both humbling and utterly admirable.

Remembrance Sunday is never easy. In our little world it was, for some yesterday, abjectly painful. Spare a thought for them.”

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Tuesday 1 November 2016

Announcements Made on the Simplification of Ownership Administration: Full Marks to BHA and ROA.

Ever since I’ve been involved in owning horses the duplication, complexity, expense and hassle of ownership administration has been a complete pain in the backside. I have often joked that it was probably easier back in the days of Queen Anne. Even the postman who comes to our house regularly takes the micky out of the huge postbag of Weatherbys-related correspondence. It has probably taken a decade to learn how to deal with it all, which shows how complicated it can be – particularly when you’re running partnerships with multiple owners.

On the serious side though, it is not just the needlessly complex admin. There is a strategic dimension to the whole subject. The BHA, in its strategy for growth, is determined to bring more owners into the sport and retain those they already have. Anything which is potentially a barrier to that has to be properly addressed and changed. As Charlie Liverton, CEO of the Racehorse Owners Association, said last week when a raft of ownership reforms was announced: “Owners have long complained that their first steps on the road to ownership were characterised by red tape and confusing ownership structures, followed by numerous fees.” Encouragingly, from next Spring this should change, with a far simpler and much more modern process being introduced. My wife and I are very pleased about this, not least because we’ve taken part in a number of working groups with both the BHA and the ROA, and have made numerous recommendations for changes together with testing some of the proposed changes that are now going to be made. There are three main elements to the new system.

  1. Digitalising administration: a new racing administration web site for owners is being launched. Through an online hub, which will be supported by a telephone help desk, owners will be able to register, update and maintain ownerships digitally, removing the vast majority of paper-based forms. In addition owners will be able to set up sponsorships, register an authority to act and check and pay invoices, all online. These changes will make it much easier and quicker to complete any necessary administrative requirements associated with being an owner.

  2. Simplifying ownership structures: in Owners for Owners we describe ourselves as forming joint ownerships, thereby encouraging co-owners to be genuine owners of horses. However it has never been easy simply to describe the differences between, say, co-owners, partnerships and syndicates. Having said that, many of our owners are with us because we are not a “syndicate”. There is certainly a lot of confusion around the different types of ownership, and the plan now is to streamline the eight types down to five: sole, partnership, syndicate, racing club and company. Sole and company ownerships will remain the same. Partnerships will be designed for small groups of registered owners who are looking to share the responsibility and liability for their horse(s) (the Owners for Owners offering). Syndicates will become the ownership vehicle for entities which have been formed through a public offering to consumers and / or one that has an individual managing it (e.g. a syndicator). In future the syndicator will become responsible for the syndicate, replacing the current requirement for two nominated partners from within the group. In a racing club, the horse(s) are owned by the club with members paying a subscription fee.

  3. Consolidation of fees: along with simplifying the registration process, both new and existing owners alike will benefit from the alignment and bundling of ownership fees. Rather than charging a number of different fees at various stages through the year, fees for the registration and re-registration of colours, an authority to act and VAT will be aligned to one date in the year. New owners will be able to purchase “fee bundles” at the registration stage in order to minimise any additional admin.

All of this is to be welcomed. It will be very interesting to see exactly how the changes are introduced. Regular readers of the blog will know that I was highly critical of Weatherbys Bank when their online banking was updated, which was a change management disaster. Hopefully everyone has learnt from that.

So full marks to both the ROA and the BHA for their part in pushing for these changes to take place. I worked closely with Richard Wayman before he became the Chief Operating Officer of the BHA, and his support for the initiative is warmly welcomed. His views are clear: “At the heart of the sport’s growth strategy is making racehorse ownership more attractive and accessible to both new and existing owners. This will require significant progress in a number of areas, including ownership administration, where there needs to be much greater emphasis on the customer experience. The initiatives announced (on Tuesday 25th October) will address many of the administrative frustrations faced by owners for too long.” Hear, hear!

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.