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.

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