Saturday, 1 December 2018

Nostalgia for Race Names, Whip Bans, Small Fields ….. and Hopefully a Great Win for Ms Parfois


One of the great pleasures of racing is the network of friends and owners who share in all the highs and lows of our sport. This has been made clear to me during this week in the run up to one of my favourite races of the season, the Ladbrokes Trophy Chase over 3m 2f at Newbury this afternoon. The main reason for this is that I know the owner of Ms Parfois, Martyn Chapman, who is a very enthusiastic and generous supporter of Anthony Honeyball’s yard. Indeed, he has adopted many of the principles and approaches of Owners for Owners partnerships for his own syndicates at the yard. I’ve followed Ms Parfois ever since Anthony bought her, and am also a big fan of her sire, Mahler, who seems to produce tough, game and genuine stayers that definitely mature with age. All the conditions look right for this horse at Newbury, and I’ll be absolutely thrilled if she can land a huge prize for connections. There’s another link to this race through one of our owners, Ged Shields, who is involved in a horse with Karl Burke on the Flat and also has a share in Kemboy at Willie Mullins’ yard. This horse is on a really strong upward trajectory at the moment and was 2nd favourite for the Ladbrokes before being scratched due to Storm Diana preventing his coming over to Newbury. The word “gutted” doesn’t begin to describe Ged’s disappointment, and I can only commiserate. Highs and lows, in just one race.

For those of us with long memories, however, the big race this afternoon will always be known as the Hennessy. When I was in my early years at grammar school in Chester, the Duchess of Westminster used to look after Arkle on the family estate at Eaton Hall. The local newspapers were full of the Arkle story and he put in so many heroic performances, not least winning the Hennessy in 1964 and 1965. When my wife and I lived high on the Woolley Downs near Lambourn, we went to every Hennessy and I can still vividly remember the magnificent Denman’s wins in 2007 and 2009. I must admit to having a nostalgia for these old race names, and even now I refer to the big race at Cheltenham in November as the Mackeson, rather than the Betvictor Gold Cup, as it was this year.

Unfortunately this year’s renewal was marred by the disappointing gamesmanship of Jamie Moore who knowingly broke the whip rule on the super-game Baron Alco. While it was a wonderful performance by the horse, it was dreadful to watch Jamie leathering him into and after the last, for which he rightly received a whip ban. You can’t get away from the fact that this is just professional cheating. The second horse, Frodon, also ran a super race ridden by Bryony Frost. She stayed within the rules, but her gallant mount was beaten two lengths. Surely there has to be a change in the whip rule that allows such blatant cheating to be rewarded. To my mind there are two options available to the BHA. One is massively to increase the punishment of the jockey – how about a month’s ban for the first offence, two months for the second, three for the third, etc.? I’m sure jockeys would soon learn how to count how many times they are allowed to hit a horse. The other option is to reverse the placings, which I think is terribly harsh on the owner of the winner. Much as I admire Jamie Moore as a jockey, he has previous in this area, and on one occasion at the Cheltenham Festival he shrugged off the ban by going on holiday in the Caribbean, paid for by connections. Before leaving this subject, Ms Parfois was involved in a similar episode in last year’s National Hunt Challenge Cup for amateurs at the Cheltenham Festival. The mare was ridden by William Biddick, who stayed within the rules, only to be beaten half a length by another cheating jockey in P.W. Mullins on Rathvinden. It is all most unfair.

A final topical subject is the increasing concern about very small field sizes in certain types of National Hunt races. Throughout the Cheltenham meetings this autumn, novice races in particular have been very poorly supported. As I wrote this blog yesterday, I saw that there are only four runners in a novice chase at Newbury, and that is becoming the norm. One impression I have formed is that we’re clearly in an era of huge concentration of buying power in the hands of a very small number of exceptionally rich owners. Their horses then find their way into an equally small number of yards, where trainers can pick and mix their races to avoid their top horses competing against each other. Indeed, it has been notable particularly with the runners from Gordon Elliott’s yard that he is increasingly sending horses over to the UK and closing down competition because smaller British trainers don’t want their horses racing against his firepower.

This situation is demotivating a lot of what I call the grassroots owners. There is an increasing feeling that it is becoming impossible to compete, both at the sales and on the track. The owner pool in National Hunt in the UK is declining at a faster rate than that on the Flat. Overall, covering both codes, 11% of owners leave the sport every year but there is only a 9% new intake. It seems likely that this worrying pattern will continue, partly because of economic uncertainty but also because of the demographics of the NH owner base. Here is a scary statistic to conclude this blog – there are now more National Hunt owners aged over 80 than under 40. I’m sure all of them remember fondly their Mackesons and Hennessys.



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