Battle lines drawn over culling 300 races
Mike Deasy on what it means to be a winning jockey, the bust-up between Arena Racecourses and the Jockey Club, getting sensible about dress codes, forgetting racegoers in the five-day Festival debate, and more
Let’s start these scribblings by noting two heart-warming stories involving jockeys. First, there was James Doyle’s Newmarket Classic double.
After an emotional victory in the 2000 Guineas (pictured), a race that’s been cruel to the “Doyler” in the past, he became only the fifth jockey of the modern era to land the 1000 Guineas in the same year.
He joins Kieren Fallon (2005), Geroge Moore (1967), Ryan Moore (2015) and Lester Piggott (1970). As he said: “To be part of that small group of jockeys is fantastic and pretty mind-blowing when I heard the names of those guys.”
Then there’s the tale of Bradley Furniss who was just as thrilled to win the Download The At The Races App Apprentice Handicap at Lingfield on 9/1 shot Central City.
It was his first victory after 22 attempts and the 7lb claimer said: “I didn’t really know whether to laugh or cry. When every other horse was off the bridle and I was travelling, I thought we were going to do it. I can’t believe it really, it hasn’t settled in and I don’t think it will settle in for a while.”
James Doyle had a winner on the same card.
Battle lines drawn between racecourse groups
A war of words has broken out between Britain’s two major racecourse groups and the trigger was a surprise, but nonetheless welcome, proposal from the British Horseracing Authority that next year’s fixture list should see a reduction of around 300 races.
Arena Racing, whose tracks include Newcastle, Lingfield and Wolverhampton, had been seeking to stage more all-weather races in return for extra prize-money of £3.7m.
However, with the National Trainers Federation and the Professional Jockeys Association rejecting Arena’s plan, the BHA blocked the suggested proposal.
Deals involving prize-money require all the sport’s stakeholders to be in agreement, so with the trainers and jockeys opposed, and the BHA coming out on their side, only the racecourses and owners were left in favour.
Now, the BHA has gone a step further with its aim to reduce the number of races. At last, the elephant in the room has been acknowledged by the sport’s regulatory body. Put simply, there’s too much racing which the equine population cannot support.
What swiftly followed was the Jockey Club, the country’s largest racecourse operator, expressing support for the BHA’s stand on having fewer races, recognising declining field sizes, a scenario that’s been felt at all levels of the sport, not least at the Cheltenham Festival.
The Jockey Club’s Nevin Truesdale told the Racing Post: “Clearly there’s a commercial impact of this, but done in a measured and equitable way hopefully we can pay back the sport of a longer period by addressing the current issues and sporting spectacle.”
Arena Racing hit back, describing the Jockey Club response as an “unfortunate and thinly veiled attack” on its business.
Whether or not the BHA’s plan comes to fruition remains to be seen, but its intention to cull some 300 races is a welcome move as, at long last, the unsatisfactory equation of race numbers/horse population is being addressed at the highest level.
To stretch to another animal metaphor, the monkey is out the box and it doesn’t look like anyone will coax it back in.
It can’t go unnoticed that the Jockey Club agreeing to a reduction of the number of races sits uncomfortably with the prospect of a five-day Cheltenham Festival.
If evidence was needed that there are insufficient horses to go round, then the first day of Chester’s May meeting is a good example.
The opening day had final field sizes of 6, 6 (handicap), 9 (listed), 4 (Group 3), 9 (handicap), 8 and 11 (handicap). Day two currently has average field sizes of 9.6 whilst the third day looks a little more respectable but, this being Chester, a few declared participants can be expected to fall by the wayside.
Getting sensible about dress codes
Chester’s May meeting is a highlight of the Cheshire social calendar, and the county’s glossy magazine, Cheshire Life, did the course proud in its latest issue with a guide to going racing on the Roodee. And it’s a meeting when racegoers take pleasure in dressing up.
But the racecourse’s new chief executive, Louise Stewart, has indicated that the course will be reviewing its dress code for future meetings. It’s their desire to stop being seen as elitist. Why wait?
It’s a move all racecourses should consider, not least after the embarrassment two female racegoers experienced when they were initially refused entry to Sandown’s Premier Enclosure on bet365 day because they were wearing white trainers – footwear ideally suited to walking around racecourse enclosures unlike some who totter around on heels that are broken ankles in waiting.
One presumes that those who were involved in the same day’s well-publicised fracas, which took place in the Premier Enclosure, had passed the dress-code.
A friend, considering her first trip to the Irish Derby, asked if she had to dress up at the Curragh. Plenty do, I said, but it’s not compulsory. And, like Cheltenham, who simply say “dress for the weather”, that’s the way to do it. I’ll just have to bite the bullet over lads not wearing socks.
Beware views from a bubble
Lucy and Justin Wadham have given their full support to the addition of a fifth day to the Cheltenham Festival. The dual purpose trainer at Moulton Paddocks and her husband, in a letter to the Racing Post, say they find the opposition to the extra day as “difficult to fathom”.
They argue that it will give thousands the opportunuty to attend the Festival on a Saturday. That six-race cards would not dilute the standing of the meeting. That a fifth day has successfully been added to Royal Ascot offering the chance for people to attend on the Saturday which they otherwise couldn’t manage.
You will notice that little or no mention is made of the people who currently go to Cheltenham, or those who can’t attend but treasure watching it remotely.
The Wadhams are correct that a Saturday will give thousands the opportunity to attend, although what percentage would be syphoned off from Uttoxeter’s Midland’s Grand National isn’t clear? Or that Saturday is up against other major sporting events, not least the last day of rugby’s Six Nations, with three back-to-back games extending into the evening.
Arena Racing wouldn’t be too pleased that their Uttoxeter track’s fagship meeting could be potentially diluted of both racegoers and star-name jockeys.
It seems the Wadhams are happy that the extended meeting would comprise six races each day. Those who attend one or more of the existing four days will just have to settle for a reduction in the races they pay to see.
That Royal Ascot was extended to six days loses sight of the fact that the meeting had long been a six-day fixture. Saturday was Ascot Heath day when the artisans got the track back.
The six-day Royal meeting basically meant the premiere enclosure remained as the Royal Enclosure for a further day and the admission prices for other enclosures were hyked accordingly. Many consider Saturday the weakest day of the week.
You will notice that the Wadhams made little or no mention of the people who currently go to Cheltenham. That the cost of going to five days may be beyond their reach or beyond their inclination.
In the past two or three years, The Racing Hub has twice polled its 12,000 Twitter followers for their view of the Cheltenham Festival becoming a five day event. Not one respondent wanted five days and around 30% preferred returning to three-days.
The Jockey Club say they will consult with those with an interest in racing, starting with the sport’s stakeholders. The trouble with that is, as the Wadhams demonstrate, many such people appear to be in a bubble.
Their opinions will tick a lot of boxes for the Jockey Club seeking support for a five-day Festival. How a much larger interest group, racing fans, get their message across that four days at most is the preferred option is also difficult to fathom.
They are not reactionary, they are not Luddites. They are fans of the sport and can spot greed when they see it.