Thursday, 15 March 2018

The Cheltenham Festival – The Ace in the Pack. It’s Certainly Bigger, But Is It Better?

My wife and I went along to The Centaur at Prestbury Park on Sunday to listen to an excellent OLBG-sponsored preview evening chaired by Jeremy Kyle, with the panel consisting of Ruby Walsh, A.P. McCoy, John Francome and Fergal O’Brien. John was definitely the star of the evening – informative and witty in equal measure. I believe, probably like many people, that he’s the finest NH jockey I’ve seen and certainly the one with the best sense of humour. Throughout the evening he was the butt of lots of Kyle comments, but he wafted them away with wit and aplomb, even at the interval when Kyle kept emphasising that the show had to stop to enable John to go to the toilet. Rather grossly, when he came back, he enquired whether he’d had time to “empty his bag”. We all know that Mr. Kyle spends lots of time with losers, so he’s probably not used to dealing with one of the all-time stars of the game. At one point during the evening John was reflecting on how, in the early days, he had to fill in a form stating who he wanted contacting in the event of a serious accident on the course. He just wrote on the form, “a doctor”. Oh, for the days when racing was more light-hearted, and real characters dominated the stage.

Listening to John also had me thinking back to the first time I went to the Festival in 1981. What was the big talking point on Day One that year? Anyone who was there will immediately say it was the famous Francome pull on Sea Pigeon going into the last hurdle. The horse was travelling so well, he didn’t want to hit the front too early, so the brakes were put on before he scampered away from the magnificent Monksfield to win by seven lengths at the top of the hill – the most breathtaking piece of riding I’ve seen in National Hunt.

Nothing like nostalgia in our sport, is there, and all the debates on who the greatest horses of all time would be, and the best trainers, jockeys and dare I say it, even owners. Mentioning Monksfield is what the marketing and media types call a “segue” – a link to another subject. He wasn’t a big horse at all, but an incredibly game battler who had a huge, raking stride on him. In Owners for Owners, we’re in the really fortunate position to have a horse with a similar and almost freakish action in Acey Milan, who at the time of writing this blog is 3rd favourite for the Champion Bumper and on form, having won two Listed bumpers at Cheltenham and Newbury, is the second top rated horse in the race and the highest rated bumper in Great Britain. He’s had quite a long season now, with four races – three wins and one second – so how well he does depends on whether he has held his form going into the Festival. As he can only have a fifth bumper run in a Listed race, we didn’t really have any choice but to head into the Champion, and once he’d won the top-quality Newbury bumper by 11 lengths we all decided that he had to take his chance. No matter what happens this week, he looks a lovely prospect for the future.

The only similarity I have with John Francome is age, and the four days of the current Festival certainly take their toll – on the liver and the aching knees as I rack up miles of walking around the course and mountainous climbs up the various stands. It sometimes feels like a test of endurance, with similarities to the 4m National Hunt Chase on Day One, which hopefully Anthony Honeyball (trainer of Acey Milan) will win with Ms Parfois.

One of the recurring themes throughout the week is bound to be whether the predominance of Cheltenham is sometimes to the detriment of National Hunt racing. Superficially it seems obvious that the whole Festival frenzy is a most wonderful promotion of racing as well as a huge revenue-generator. When I saw Sea Pigeon the attendance was a quarter of what it is now, and the facilities were dreadful in comparison. This week, over a quarter of a million people are likely to attend. If they all spend, say, £100 minimum getting in and having a few drinks on the course, then as the Americans would say, “do the math”. Indeed with Guinness at a fiver and a glass of wine at a tenner, it doesn’t take long to get past that minimum figure.

It’s probably inevitable that the four-day Festival will soon span five days, with the Gold Cup on Saturday. For the large numbers of people for whom the Festival is all about being at a big occasion and drinking yourself horizontal, it doesn’t really matter. If you’re an afficionado who wants to see the most competitive, highest quality racing, then the risk is dilution of that through a wider range of additional races that trainers can pick and mix from. As we’re now in an era where four trainers in Messrs. Elliott, Henderson, Mullins and Nicholls, and prime owners such as Gigginstown, J.P. McManus, Simon Munir / Isaac Suede and Rich Ricci, there is an increasing risk that trainers and owners with their top horses can avoid the competition that genuinely produces champions. However, I’m sure that economics will prevail and that the mighty, heroic clashes of yesteryear become less frequent, which is a real pity.

In the last blog I mentioned how much I’d enjoyed going over to Leopardstown for the two-day Dublin Festival. Even in my dotage I think that I could survive a two-day Cheltenham Festival, which of course is never going to happen, but that would be my absolute ideal. Three days I thought was excellent; I’m dubious about four; and I definitely wouldn’t attend five. Of course, if Acey Milan has ended up by winning the Champion Bumper, then I can probably invest in a top-of-the-range zimmer frame.

Enjoy the week, everyone.

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Thursday, 1 March 2018

Book the 2019 Dublin Racing Festival into your Diary – An Antidote to Dreary Winter Racing

At the beginning of February, my wife and I and a few owners went over to Ireland. Some went direct to Dublin while others went via County Tipperary, where we called in to see a couple of our youngsters who are being brought along superbly by P.J. Colville and his wife Grainne. It was probably a foretaste of what was to come when we were sitting in Mikey Ryan’s Bar and Restaurant (interestingly, owned and renovated by John Magnier, who apparently fancied a nice place in Cashel to have his supper), savouring a pint of Guinness at 7pm, watching the Ireland vs. France rugby game on TV. When Johnny Sexton slotted in his wonderful dropped goal to grab the game back from the French, the place absolutely erupted. Never have I been kissed by so many people in such a short period of time. The dinner wasn’t bad, either.

From then on, the weekend only got better. We went up to Leopardstown for Day 2 of the superb inaugural Dublin Racing Festival. Racing is always bandying around such phrases as “Sensational Saturday”, but this time the whole meeting lived up to it in spades. I don’t know about you, but I have felt that the 2017 / 18 NH season has been something of an anti-climax, with very few stand-out performances and lots of small field races being mopped up by Messrs. Henderson and Nicholls. An indication of that is the number of horses that Buveur D’Air has actually beaten, and his average starting price of about 1/5. There used to be a time when the Saturday NH meetings really did seem to be something to savour, with heroic performances from horses and riders. Somehow we seem to have lost that sparkle, with the whole of the season having shifted to an undue focus on the Cheltenham Festival. Horses aren’t racing against each other with the frequency that they used to, and it increasingly feels as though we’re just waiting for the denouement without really having enjoyed the lead up to it.

The Irish racing authorities seem to have felt the same, with a number of their better races spread over a period of weeks. They decided to consolidate the best races into the two-day Dublin Festival, and the competition and the craic were magnificent, with so many sparkling performances: Faugheen vs. Defi Du Seuil, Min vs. Yorkhill, Samcro vs. Sharjah, Footpad vs. Petit Mouchoir and then a fairytale outcome to the Irish Gold Cup with the “horse who came back from the dead” Edwulf putting in a gallant performance, although admittedly helped by the last fence fall by Killultagh Vic, who seemed to be travelling best of all. The Leopardstown stand erupted and it must have been 50 deep around the winner’s enclosure. It’s a long time since I’ve seen so many hats being thrown up into the air. It almost felt like going back in time to the great win of Dawn Run, which still stands in my memory as the most emotional and heart-felt reception for any NH horse. The whole atmosphere at Leopardstown was captivating – real enthusiasts, there to savour the racing rather than just the alcohol …. although there was a fair bit of that consumed as well.

Lots of English fans travelled over for the meeting. It was surprising though how few English trainers and horses made the journey, which is pretty unenterprising. Indeed the British trainer who gave the meeting the greatest support was Phil Kirby, and he doesn’t have many horses. Even stranger when you consider how many horses Nicholls and Henderson took up to Musselburgh on the same day, and stranger again when you consider the prize-money. Cheltenham Festival Trials Day only managed £204,688 of prize-money whereas Day 2 at Leopardstown was a whopping great €825,000, at an average of €103,000 per race and with prize-money often down to 8th. I’ve already said to all our trainers that if we have any horses suitable for this meeting next year, we’ll definitely make it the season’s target.

One of the themes discussed by the Brits in Ireland was whether we need to strengthen the British season with a similar high-profile mid-season festival. For some time there has been a debate about whether the Kempton King George meeting could be significantly upgraded, although the refrain seems to be that “logistical challenges” (whatever they may be) preclude it. That seems a real pity.

Anyway, a couple of weeks on from Ireland we were lucky enough to have a runner – and emphatic winner – at Newbury during Betfair Super-Saturday with Acey Milan (who may now go for the Champion Bumper at Cheltenham). The sponsorship of Betfair has brought in significant money, which we were lucky enough to participate in; the total on the day was £303,102. This triggered the thought that maybe Newbury and Betfair could work together to stage a Wonderful Weekend as a stepping-stone to Cheltenham. Indeed, as we were supping celebratory Champagne in the Royal Box after Acey’s victory, I floated this to a couple of the directors of Newbury and it definitely seemed to strike a chord.

As a postscript, I can only congratulate Newbury for the huge improvements that have been made at their course. Their spanking-new Owners’ Club is one of the best facilities on any British track and the investment all round the course from car parking to pre-parade has transformed the track. They have just started the second phase of their developments and Newbury must now be the course with the greatest improvement trajectory in our sport. A huge change is taking place, not just in investment and infrastructure, but just as importantly in mind-set. For those with a long memory I wrote a couple of scathing blogs about the course following a PR disaster in December 2013 (the link is to “Nonsense at Newbury”). The Chief Executive was fired shortly afterwards, to be replaced by Julian Thick, who can be commended for all the changes that have been made. Here’s hoping that they can put on a Wonderful Weekend – or maybe even two of them – so that they replicate Leopardstown’s Champions Weekend on the Flat as well as the Dublin Festival.

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.