Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Foxes and fings

In the last chapter I passed on a recommendation for Graham Triefus, Sam Hoskins and Don Clark for the ROA Council ballot, while saying that there were probably other candidates whom I also know, like and respect but that, as I hadn't looked the list of candidates, I didn't know about them.  I still haven't looked at the list of candidates but, even so, I have found out that there is (at least) one more in that category: Gay Kelleway.  Anyone who knows anything about Gay will, I am sure, hold the same opinion that I do: that she would be a great asset to the ROA Council.

I bumped into Gay in Hamilton Road yesterday morning and had a chat with her on the subject, which left me even more convinced that she would be an excellent ROA Council member.  What also interested me is that she shares my belief that we would be wiser to hold racing without starting stalls while lockdown protocols still apply in the country.  I've been very surprised that this has never even been mentioned in discussions on the subject, but to Gay and me it is obvious: one can easily hold races without starting stalls (as National Hunt races continue to prove, as all races proved until the mid '60s, as many Flat races proved until the '70s, and as a few Flat races still prove even to this day) but one can't hold races with starting stalls without compromising one's social distancing measures.

The issue of starting stalls is already set to cause a major problem in the forthcoming weeks.  We have rightly been told that we should not run horses who are unruly in the preliminaries, unruly at the start or difficult loaders, and that 'any horse showing unhelpful behaviour will not be allowed to enter again until further notice'.  This is going to be a nightmare, isn't it?  There is going to be so much ill feeling caused by the application of a bar on unhelpful horses.  How is this going to work?  There will be plenty of horses showing unhelpful behaviour, but they aren't all going to be stood down from racing, are they?

Horses being sent for stalls tests works well because there are fairly hard and fast guidelines about when a horse should be sent for a stalls test.  But simply to say that they'll be barred for the time being if they show unhelpful behaviour will be a nightmare.  It will be so subjective.  There are sure to be some horses barred who (in the eyes of their connections, anyway) show less unhelpful behaviour than some horses who are aren't barred.  Everyone is going to be watching everyone else's horses, and making notes to use in their own horse's defence when (not if) they have a horse who is unhelpful.  What if Pinatubo or one of the other 2,000 Guineas principals messes around before the start, but goes in eventually?  Will he subsequently be barred?  And, if not, will the same leniency be shown to others?

See what I mean?  It'll cause so much ill feeling.  And, by the way, it is right that this stipulation is in place: if we are going to race from stalls in a time of social distancing, then it is imperative that only horses who do not play up at the start are sent to the races.  But it's a policy which is guaranteed to cause problems, but wouldn't be an issue at all if we raced without stalls for the time being, which would totally remove the justifiable and inevitable concerns about lack of social distancing at the starts of races.

Oh, by the way, I've worked out why Ascot has been so adamant throughout that "Royal Ascot" will be going ahead next month (even though, correctly speaking, it won't, as anyone who understands English knows that we'll be having a behind-closed-doors version of Ascot Heath rather than of Royal Ascot).  It's because of the World Tote Pool which had been agreed for the meeting.  The World Tote Pool is a great boon for Ascot (if I read a South China Morning Post article correctly, it will benefit by a figure in excess of £500,000 each day) and thus for British racing, and I can quite understand that Ascot might fear that the agreement might be jeopardised if they didn't call the meeting 'Royal Ascot'; and also that international punters might be less enthused if the magic word 'Royal' did not appear in the title.  Silly, isn't it?  But any such fears probably are valid.  It's 'marketing', isn't it?  And 'Royal' is the marketing equivalent of double sixes.  (The pedant in me will still be referring to it as Ascot Heath, but don't mind that).

I had one little chuckle yesterday, when Jana asked me who would be likely to be riding Hope Is High at Yarmouth in the middle of next week, notwithstanding that the entries, never mind the declarations, for the race haven't yet closed.  I seem to recall that in a previous chapter I was musing about how on earth it could have happened that a trainer could have run two horses in the Ballarat Cup and put the two jockeys each on the wrong horse, without anyone noticing - in particular, without the strappers noticing.  It made no sense at all.  To illustrate the point, I think that I said that whenever we plan to have a runner, the first question asked by whomever looks after the horse is the identity of the jockey.

I just couldn't envisage one of my staff taking a horse to the races and not being interested enough to know who was going to be riding or to fail to notice if I legged the wrong jockey aboard - never mind two of them failing to notice at the same time.  Hope (pictured with Jana on Southfields on Saturday in the final three photographs) will be (assuming that she gets in - and I'm quite optimistic on that score as the entries for the handicaps at the first meeting, Newcastle on Monday, aren't nearly as big as I had been expecting) our first runner since we observed and discussed the Ballarat debacle, so I'm pleased to see that my confidence in my staff is looking justified.  It's going to be quite daunting going to Yarmouth with all the protocols we shall have to follow, but at least one thing I don't need to worry about will be Jana not picking me up on it if I (in a socially distant manner, of course) leg the wrong jockey on board!

One other good thing yesterday, apart from this glorious weather, was that Ivona and I saw a fox as we were trotting up through the trees along the Hamilton Road side of Southfields yesterday morning.  It wasn't too worried about us and we passed within a few metres of it.  That was a real treat: we see plenty of interesting wildlife, including small deer, on the Heath, but a sighting of a fox is rare.  Mind you, I'm watching the 6.00 news on BBC1 as I type this and that has just shown a fox trotting past the front door of 10 Downing Street, so maybe our sighting wasn't so special after all.  But we enjoyed it.
Friday, May 22, 2020

Everybody hurts some time - don't let yourself go

Thank you again for the feedback after the last chapter.  And Neil Kearns (once again) has raised an interesting point.  Field-size limits?  We seem to have been told that when racing resumes, the field-size limits will be 12 because that is what has been agreed with the authorities to ensure that there isn't too much breaching of social-distancing rules when the horses are down at the start and being loaded into the stalls.  That's fair enough - but where does this leave us with the big races?  We must hope that this limit of 12 doesn't last too long as, while some big races have small fields, that doesn't always happen, and it would be a shame to have very good horses eliminated from Group One races.  (We are, as previously discussed, going to have very good horses eliminated from Ascot's feature two-year-old races, but that's Ascot's choice).

As regards those Ascot races, I probably took too long in the previous chapter to make my point.  My point being that this whole 'Royal Ascot has to be run in June' thing (leaving aside that the meeting won't be 'Royal' this year whenever it's run) seems to be based on the incorrect assumption that the Ascot June Meeting has to be a duplication of the previous year's meeting, and that running the meeting but deferring some of the races until the following month isn't an option.  The point which I was making was that, of course, it is very much an option.  If it wasn't, Ascot would never have evolved.  The Oatlands Stakes would still be the feature of the meeting (which would still be run in August).

In fact, the one complaint most people would make about Ascot in recent years is that they keep tinkering with it.  When I was younger, I could recite the programme for each of the four days off pat.  And that was good.  The programme was fixed, the same six races in the same order every day for years on end.  It was reassuring.  But more recently it seems always to change one year to the next.  I think that there has even been a race which has been both introduced and jettisoned (a seven-furlong handicap - Balmoral Handicap, maybe?) within a matter of years.  And yet now, the first time that there actually has been a need to tinker, we find that the programme has suddenly become sacrosanct: if a race was run last year, it has to be run the next - no ifs or buts.  As regards keeping it the same as last year, by the way, it's maybe worth pointing out that the absurdity of making, as seems likely to happen, the three-year-olds in the Queen's Vase runners tackle the 2800m first-up didn't happen last year or any other year!

The other thing that keeps me scratching my head is this thing of whether there can be 'foreign runners' (whatever that means).  Of course there can!  There has been free movement of horses and truck drivers all year.  Broodmares have been moving freely between Ireland, GB and France throughout the spring.  If connections of a horse trained in Ireland, GB or France want their horse to run in one of the other countries, they can transfer the horse to a trainer in that country.  They only need to have the horse dropped off with the trainer a day or two before the race, and the horse can then be picked up and brought home the day after the race.  It's a subject that isn't even worth discussing.

Of course, if they want the horse to run under the current trainer, that could be more problematic.  But, really, there's no need for that.  Irish-trained runners in Britain will be restricted to stables who can spare their staff for more than two weeks, bearing in mind that personnel (bar truck drivers) arriving in Ireland have to self-isolate for two weeks (which in this case means on their return).  And the same thing will happen with personnel arriving in Britain from France (bar truck drivers - and COVID-19 researchers and workers of seasonal agricultural workers, not those categories apply here) if our stunningly non-proactive government ever gets round to implementing its mooted but still long-overdue plans for self-overseen quarantine for arrivals.

Michael O'Leary has apparently said that it shouldn't take place so that, over and above our government's inertia, will probably guarantee that it never happens (particularly if the Weatherspoons man holds the same opinion).  However, the news today confirms that it is meant to start 'next month' (whatever that means).  There was initially a suggestion that arrivals from Ireland and France would be exempt, but now it seems that only arrivals from Ireland will be exempt, with the rule applying to all arrivals from France bar truck drivers and COVID-19 workers/researchers and seasonal agricultural workers.

So that (if the rule, which should have come in in March, is ever implemented) would rule out French-trained runners here, and make it impractical for British trainers to run horses in France unless they are prepared to have their staff off work for two weeks afterwards.  But, as I say, there really is no need even to be discussing this subject because there is an obvious get-out in the form of the horses to joining (temporarily) the team of a trainer in the country in which they are to run.

See what I did there?  I said that the subject isn't worth discussing, so devoted three paragraphs to discussing it.  But I won't compound the error by making it four.  Instead, I'll just mention the ROA elections.  They are looming.  (I don't think that they've been yet).  I always used to think that, as I'm a member of the NTF, there wasn't a lot of point in my joining another 'union', so I was not a member.  But I did join a few years ago.  However, during the time in which I was a member, something happened which made me despairingly conclude that the upper reaches of its hierarchy were detached from what I regarded as the realities of ownership as they (the realities) are for people who don't race high-class horses.  So I didn't renew my subscription.

However, three people whom I know, like and respect are standing for the ROA Council.  (Well, there are could well be more than three people whom I know, like and respect standing for the Council, but I haven't looked at the full list of candidates, so I'm only talking about the three whose canditatures have appeared on my radar).  These three people - Sam Hoskins, Graham Triefus and Don Clark - would all make excellent people to be fighting the corner for the country's ownership base (in fact, I think that Sam already is, because I think he is already a Council member and is up for re-election) so I think that I'd probably have to review my previous decision and re-join if they were to be elected.

Just while we're on the subject of recommendations, I was thinking about the breeze-up situation the other day and how badly the would-be vendors have been hit by the problems stemming from COVID-19.  It was very good to hear on Luck On Sunday that Tattersalls look to have a plan in hand to hold a sale, so hopefully there can be some trade before too long.  It's obviously difficult, but if it's held in England (which at first glance wouldn't be the obvious thing as most of the horses are currently in Ireland) at least people can get here from all parts of the British Isles; and the Irish vendors won't mind being without their staff for two weeks afterwards (assuming they have sold the horses, that is).  I suppose the only question is where people will stay while they are here, but that probably won't be insoluble.

I don't follow the breeze-up trade closely, but I believe that it has been the case that there are now very few GB-based vendors.  One who has recently joined that particular fold is Mark Grant, who has, of course, been a stalwart of the National Hunt riding ranks since coming over from Ireland, where I seem to recall he rode for David Wachman, 15 years ago or so.  It has turned out to have been a terrible time to become a breeze-up trader/vendor (at least people who have been doing it a while have had a chance to build up a bank to tide them through the lean times, ie the present) but I was having a look at his website the other day and was very impressed by the photographs and films of the horses on it.

It's not going to be easy trying to sell any horses at present, but he certainly looks to have some well-educated, nice horses, so I'll be keeping my fingers crossed he can weather the storm.  (And this recommendation is not based on personal acquaintance - I've never met Mark, but he's clearly bringing a wealth of experience into this new venture and, under normal circumstances, you would say that it would be certain to go well for him).  In these difficult times, one can't help but wish him well.  (The horses are on www.markgrantracing.com, by the way). 

Finally, the saddest news of the week is the death of Mick Curran, whose face anyone who follows the sport will know because if you have seen any photographs of Golden Horn or Kingman in a winner's enclosure - and we have all seen plenty of those - you'll have seen Mick's smiling face there by the horse's side.  Mick's fate is a salutary reminder that one never knows what is around the corner: it now seems a lifetime ago that he was looking after and riding the best horses in John Gosden's stable, and seemingly loving every minute of his life, but it was only half a decade ago.

I got on very well with Mick, particularly after we discovered that we both come from the same part of the world.  He was from Galashiels and I'm from between Hawick and Galashiels; and when I told him that, his reply was, "I started with Harry Bell".  I can see the wry grin on his face and hear the tone in his voice when he said those words, because he knew that I would know exactly what kind of introduction to working life that would have entailed.  (Harry Bell trained near Denholm, about four miles from where I grew up).

If the name doesn't mean anything to you, I can't enlighten you by equating him to a current trainer because there is no trainer nowadays quite like Harry Bell (and, for the avoidance of doubt, there are very few horsemen as skilled as he was - check out his record in the Scottish National) who really was a character from a bygone age and a legend in his own lifetime.  He had his ways of doing things; and if you'd had a grounding in his stable, you'd have thought that you'd be ready for anything.  And you'd definitely be more than qualified to look after the best horses in the world.

Sadly, it appears that that grounding didn't make Mick (seen on/with Golden Horn in the final three photographs, the last two taken in Clarehaven after Golden Horn and Jack Hobbs had finished first and second in the previous day's Derby) ready for the setbacks which have clearly come his way over the past three or four years.  I was very surprised when I heard that he'd left John Gosden's stable, and the last time I saw him he was riding out for Robyn Brisland in Hamilton Road.  We'd bump into each other regularly in Hamilton Road and exchange cheery greetings - Mick's life clearly was not going in the right direction, but he was still smiling - but that didn't last long and I hadn't seen him since then.

I wish Mick could know how many people are really, really sad to have heard the news.  I don't know whether an appreciation of how much he was liked and respected would have helped him.  Possibly not, because he must have known anyway.  If people feel that they can't cope, it can take a lot more than that to change their minds.  But the key thing is to remember that help is always there - and not just the good wishes of people who like you, but people whose professional skill is helping those in need.  This chapter has contained a few suggestions already, but the most important tip I can ever give is that, if you work in racing or have done so, Racing Welfare is always there for you.  Help is available on 0800 6300 443 (and the call is free) at any time of the day or night, and calling that number is always a better option than the alternative.
Sunday, May 17, 2020


Great feedback, as always, from Neil Kearns after the last chapter.  Some of his words are particularly worth considering, on the subject of the positioning of Ascot in this necessarily strange season.  We keep hearing about what will or won't be happening as regards 'Royal' Ascot, and I'm with Neil in questioning whether any of it makes much sense.  So we'll have a look at the subject now, starting off with whole idea of 'Royal' Ascot.  And that's important because its the illogical clinging to the term and all that it seems to imply which is causing most of the problems.

Older generations, of course, did not refer to 'Royal Ascot', but to 'Ascot'.  This was because Ascot only held one meeting a year until the end of the Second World War.  It was only once it began racing more often that a term was needed to differentiate 'Ascot' (ie the meeting in June) from its other meetings, because previously there had been no other meetings.  Hence people starting to refer to Ascot as 'Royal Ascot', and the new meetings simply as 'Ascot'.  And 'Royal' was a very good term to use because the meeting was royal.  The monarch and other members of the Royal Family attended; there was a Royal Procession and a Royal Enclosure.  And widespread enthusiasm among the large and jolly crowd for the royal connection.

For much of the post-war era, Ascot's June Meeting had an extra day.  Royal Ascot lasted for four days (Tuesday to Friday) but there was an extra day on the Saturday.  But it wasn't a royal day: the Queen wasn't there, there was no royal procession and no royal enclosure.  So it was known as 'Ascot Heath'.  (Merely calling it 'Ascot' would not have worked because many of racegoers still referred to the first four days as 'Ascot', as they had been brought up to do when it was 'Ascot' and there was no need for the 'Royal' qualification).

So what's this thing about will 'Royal Ascot' be held this year or won't it?  Of course it won't.  But will the Ascot June Meeting be held this year?  I very much hope so. As long as racing does indeed return in June, it goes without saying that Ascot's fixture will take place.   But it clearly won't be 'Royal Ascot', will it?  Surely the Queen isn't planning to be there?  Surely there won't be a Royal Procession nor a Royal Enclosure?  The meeting is going to be held behind closed doors, so it would be really weird if any of the aspects of the meeting which merit its 'Royal' prefix applied this year.  It will be unlike any previous meeting, but if we want to give it a prefix, surely it would be far more 'Ascot Heath' than 'Royal Ascot'.

Unfortunately this misplaced enthusiasm to run an ersatz, unroyal, misdescribed 'Royal Ascot' has led to other problems.  It seems to have brainwashed people into thinking that the meeting should be 'Royal Ascot' (notwithstanding that its royalness will be absent) also in the sense of its programme of races, as if such a programme of races were set in stone.  But this is nonsense, isn't it?  The programme isn't set in stone at all, and never has been.  Throughout the history of 'Ascot', the make-up of the meeting has been a moveable feast.  Most obviously, 20% of the races at the meeting in the last few years were introduced (or, in some cases, reintroduced after a long absence and under different conditions, eg the Windsor Forest Stakes and the Albany Stakes) in the 21st century.

We've also had numerous other very recent changes.  The Bessborough Handicap has been rebadged as the Duke of Edinburgh Handicap.  The Cork and Orrery Stakes has become a weight-for-age race, has become the Golden Jubilee Stakes, has become the Diamond Jubilee Stakes, and has become for four-year-olds and upwards.  It is a very different race (albeit over the same distance) than the one which Danehill won as a three-year-old carrying 8 stone!  (Different name, different age conditions, different weight conditions).  Three-year-olds are also no longer eligible for the Prince of Wales's Stakes.

But we're only scratching the surface here.  Other changes in recent years have been the renaming of the New Stakes (now Norfolk Stakes, and which was originally run over just shy of four furlongs); the increase in distance of the Coventry Stakes from five to six furlongs; the increase in distance of the Chesham Stakes from five furlongs to six furlongs and then to seven furlongs (in 1996).  I don't know when we lost the Granville Stakes (which Gold Bridge won the same day and in the same time that Hyperion won the New Stakes) but I think that the Rous Memorial was only lost (transferred to the autumn and re-named the Rous Stakes) in the '60s.  It was certainly at the meeting recently enough for the Queen to have had one of her Royal Ascot victories in it (courtesy of Landau).

And this supposedly time-honoured no-sponsorship thing?  Where did that come from?  There have been numerous sponsorships.  Local inn-keepers used to sponsor the Postmasters' and Innkeepers' Plate (run on the Wednesday) but when the railways made it possible for racegoers to come down from London and return within a day, the local innkeepers found the week much less profitable - so the Ascot Authority instead persuaded the Great Western Railway, arguably the principal commercial beneficiary of the meeting's popularity, to sponsor a race instead.  They even used to get the odd local MP to sponsor a race, presumably to show his commitment to life in his constituency.

And why is the June date for 'Royal' Ascot so sacrosanct?  The meeting was first held in August (on Saturday August 11th, 1711, to be precise) and definitely wasn't called 'Royal Ascot'.  But we're getting off at a tangent.  This idea that Ascot's June Meeting has to be called 'Royal Ascot' and has to have a set programme of races is nonsense.  And it's dangerous nonsense too.  And it's currently doing a lot of harm and causing considerable ill feeling.  Of course there are plenty of races which have been run at 'Royal Ascot' in recent years and which will be perfectly suitable to be run next month.

The majority of races will be fine being run then.  All the handicaps, for starters.  And then the Queen Anne Stakes, the Prince of Wales's Stakes, the three Group One sprints, the Jersey Stakes, the Hardwicke Stakes, the Windsor Forest Stakes.  But, equally, there are several which clearly would be better being delayed for a month or so. And delaying them will be no problem because Ascot has meetings throughout the summer.  The 'King George' Meeting at the end of July would be an obvious destination for most of them.

The St. James's Palace Stakes and Coronation Stakes are part of a development programme for young horses.  They will be considerably weakened if they are run before the 'Guineas' races in England, Ireland and France have all been run and the principals from them have had time to be freshened up in readiness for contesting the 'championship deciders' which these two races have become.  Similarly, the King Edward VII Stakes and Ribblesdale Stakes work ideally when coming after the Derby and the Oaks, providing a great opening for horses who have been weighed in the balance at Epsom and found slightly wanting, or who had previously been found slightly wanting in the Classic trials.  And running the Queen's Vase so early in the season would be even sillier.

I'm not comfortable about the idea of Gold Cup being held in the first month of the season so that its contenders mostly tackle the race first time out.  It is easily the jewel in the staying-race crown; and running it in a time-slot which means that, in most cases, it is the first race of the top stayers' season is about as sensible as it would be to run the Cheltenham Gold Cup at the Mackeson Meeting.  And don't come back to me with the response that it has to be run at 'Royal' Ascot because the Queen always presents the trophy, because she won't be doing so this year.  And the winner's owner won't be receiving it, either, more's the pity.

But it is the issue of the two-year-old races which really takes the biscuit.  I can't put it any better than a tweet by Matt Taylor (@VikingsRevival): 'Running the Ascot 2yo races 2 weeks after the start of the season is nothing short of ridiculous. Embarrassing lack of both flexibility and common sense.'.  Couldn't have put it better myself!  Of course, one of the main drawbacks is that, it being such a weird scenario, there will be plenty of people wanting to have a crack at them, so it would be very hard to ensure that the horses who make the line-up are the ones who ought to be there, ie the ones genuinely of that calibre rather than no-hopers flying too high just on the off chance of a weird result.  In other words, how to make sure that the realistic candidates aren't eliminated.

There is no right answer to this one, bearing in mind that, while we usually have more than two months of maiden and novice races to sort out the wheat from the chaff, this year there won't be much more than a week's worth of two-year-old races - and that'll be at a time when there are considerably fewer fixtures per week than usual.  The BHA has done its best to solve this insoluble problem by coming up with a scheme to make sure that the established leading trainers of two-year-olds are guaranteed to get a few two-year-olds in to what we might call the qualifying races in the first week of June.

Like democracy and the Duckworth-Lewis method, this is probably the least bad of all the options.  But, like democracy and the Duckworth-Lewis method, it is still a very unsatisfactory solution.  It is woefully inadequate and, worse than that, almost guaranteed to cause considerable ill feeling, for two reasons.  Firstly there will be plenty of stables around the country which don't regularly churn out two-year-old winners but which this year seem to have stumbled upon one which can go a bit, and the connections of these horses are being discriminated against.

This could obviously cause considerable trouble for these trainers, with the horses' owners effectively being told that they are being disadvantaged because of their choice of trainer.  However, the system will cause even greater issue for the trainers whom it is meant to favour, ie the principal two-year-olds' 'production-line' stables.  These stables usually have a couple of months of opportunities to run their dozens of seeming Ascot prospects, to sort out which ones are good enough to go and which aren't.  Now they have to nominate some who will be guaranteed a slot in the qualifying races, which puts them in an awful position not merely because, until they run the horses, they don't know the answers but also, most pertinently, they are faced with the predicament of deciding which owners to favour and which to tell that they are being overlooked.  And that's a terrible position to put the trainers in.

And it shouldn't be happening.  There is no downside to running these two-year-olds' races at the 'King George' Meeting.  Well, there is one: the loss of the Princess Margaret Stakes, which would have to be elbowed aside.  But that's the full extent of the debit side of the ledger, while the plus side is massive.  I can't see that anyone would object.  It's just common sense, isn't it?  Why tie oneself in knots worrying about the best way to crack a nut when there is no good way to do it, when all the while the nut can instead easily be moved to a place where it will crack itself?
Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Cautiously optimistic

Great excitement!  We have a possible or probable date for the resumption of racing in Great Britain: 1st June.  I regard this date as a possible or probable date for the resumption of racing in England; a possible date for the resumption of racing in Wales; and an unlikely date for the resumption of racing in Scotland.  The big potential fly in the ointment, of course, is that I fear that the daily death toll, which has started to decline, will be rising again by the end of the month as a result of the lockdown having started to ease itself.  Whether that rise does start to happen, and what its consequences might be if it does happen, remain to be seen.

We won't get too carried away by the resumption of racing, though.  Not from a participant's point of view anyway.  From the point of view of people who want to observe or bet on races (which is all of us) it is great news.  But if you're wanting to run a horse you shouldn't be holding your breath because I suspect that in the large majority of cases the horse won't actually run for several weeks after the resumption.  We'll have two horses having a gallop here this week (which will be Hidden Pearl and The Simple Truth galloping together tomorrow morning) and I've had a look at the provisional programme for the first week.  There isn't a race for either of them (in the sense that, while there are races for which they are eligible, neither has a suitable option in which she or he would have a realistic chance of getting a run).  And that will be the case for the vast majority of horses trying to run in the first few weeks.

As regards the other horses whom we might want to run reasonably soon, I haven't even wasted time looking.  Emma wanted to have a look to see if there was anything for Hope Is High, but I pointed out that as she shows her best form on turf on flat tracks, there's no point in looking for options until we know which courses will be holding the races.  Ditto for Roy, whose list of suitable courses is even more select (ie Brighton).  But even from what will be the frustrating point of view of trying to run horses who won't get a run, it'll still be great to get the racing programme under way.  The sooner we get the show back on the road, the sooner we collectively can start to work through the backlog of thousands of horses queuing up to run, and the sooner horses can get a run eventually.

And overall, of course, it will just be great to have racing to watch again. It's been good enough to see the French racing on Sky Sports Racing the past three days; it'll be even better to have what from this side of the Channel one might call 'the real thing'.  And it'll be great for the sport's currently even-more-beleaguered-than-usual finances.  It'll be interesting to see how the figures work out once we do start racing.  Obviously there will be zero pounds coming to racecourses from gate-money and catering etc.  And presumably there will be significantly less coming from sponsorship, both because sponsors and their guests won't be allowed to go racing and because, in most cases, sponsors and potential sponsors will have less money to spend.

Furthermore, it will remain the case that there will be a vastly reduced sum coming from picture rights for as long as betting shops are closed.  But betting might be relatively helpful to us.  The days of 85%+ of the nation's betting turnover going on horse-racing seemed to have gone forever, but for the period in which racing is the only sport taking place, it could be some sort of return to the good old days as regards our share of the nation's gambling expenditure.  (Although, of course, one wouldn't want to get too carried away in this respect as we'll still face stiff competition from lotteries, on-line casinos etc.).

There are still a lot of details to be sorted out.  I have just had an email arrive from the BHA outlining a provisional programme of Pattern and listed races for the five days 3rd to 7th June inclusive.  That obviously is only of academic interest to this stable, but it is of interest even so as we'll all enjoy watching the races.  The first thing that strikes one is that the email gives no clue as to which racecourses will be holding these races, nor what the prize money will be.  Those details are obviously fairly important.  To illustrate that one can't take anything for granted, the black-type races set to be run on 5th June are the Abernant Stakes, Brigadier Gerard Stakes, Paradise Stakes, Lingfield Derby Trial, Lingfield Oaks Trial and Coronation Cup.  These races are generally run at Newmarket, Sandown, Ascot, Lingfield, Lingfield and Epsom.  But those courses surely won't all be racing on the one day, will they?  However it works out, though, it'll just be great to have racing back.
Friday, May 08, 2020

RIP Jane O'Shea - a truly good person, taken too soon

Eighth day of May (VE Day), fourth blog chapter of May.  We're running like a well-oiled machine here.  I know that (a) I previously said that too much had already been said on Ralphgate, and (b) I said that I'd had my last word on the subject.  But I'm going to have another last word.  The thing was that I read quite a lot of criticism of Ralph after he had been on Luck On Sunday on Sunday, and I didn't think it fair.  So I might just say a few words to redress the balance.  I even read him being criticised for going on the show, which really was unfair.  I would imagine that the last thing he wanted was to go on the show, but once Nick Luck had asked him on, he basically had to.  He would have known that he would have been roundly criticised after his appearance, but that he would have been even more roundly criticised had word got out that he had refused to appear.

Basically, what impressed me was that he had the courage of his convictions.  I disagree absolutely with the core point of his argument, but that does not mean that I dispute his right to hold his opinion.  (If social media is anything to go by) we have become a very intolerant society.  Of course we all believe that our own opinion is the correct one (and I'm generally as guilty of this as anyone) but, even so, we shouldn't have to get as hot under the collar as most people seem to do nowadays if they find someone holding - and, more pertinently, expressing - a contrary view.  I much prefer my father's adage which he used to come out with when finding someone totally at odds with his opinion.  He would merely observe, "Well, it would be a dull world if we all thought the same".

It would have been much easier for Ralph to back-track, and he would have known that.  Much easier for him to tone down his observations and conclusions.  But he didn't.  And, it is again worth mentioning, he didn't volunteer them: he only came on the show because Nick asked him to do so, and the topic only came up because Nick brought it up and started questioning him.  He had no choice in the direction of the discussion.  Left to his own devices, I'm sure that he would have avoided the topic by a mile; but, drawn down that road, he gave honest answers.  There was plenty of sense in much of what he said - and I'm saying that as someone whose view on the main point is diametrically opposed to his.  He had put plenty of thought into the topic, reached his conclusions, and gave honest answers.  And one can't ask for more than that.

And that, by the way, is why he'll be such a good President of the NTF.  In this instance, he was acting off his own bat to do what he thought was helpful, having put in plenty of time, effort and thought to reach that conclusion.  It'll be different when he's the President because, while he will still be able to act as a private citizen and speak for himself, when he's speaking as President of the NTF he'll be voicing and working to achieve policy agreed by the NTF, which won't necessarily be something with which he agrees.  But he's shown he has tireless commitment to a cause, and I'll be very pleased next year to see him championing the NTF's causes.

As I said previously, we just need to hope that onlookers and the media have the intelligence and the integrity not to confuse Ralph speaking on behalf of the NTF and Ralph speaking on behalf of himself.  We trainers all at times like to believe that our own particular policy should be NTF policy (and I'm as guilty of this as anyone) but no two trainers think exactly alike and the NTF is not here to adopt the views of any one of its members (myself included!) but to adopt the agreed views of the consensus of a majority of its membership.  Ralph knows this and he won't abuse the position - but he will, as the effort which he has put into this current issue suggests, work tirelessly to promote the NTF's agreed policies.  Which is exactly what we need.

By the way, I don't only think that he is wrong in his principal conclusion.  I think that he is also wrong in believing that the leak came from the BHA's side.  It clearly came either from the BHA's side or from the side created by him sharing his views with a handful of other trainers.  He's probably better qualified to assess the situation than I am, and he says that he strongly believes that it came from the BHA's side.  My ear is less close to the ground so I should not be in a position to form an opinion, but (as discussed above) we always like to form one anyway; and we always believe that our opinion is the correct one, irrespective of how little or how much logic and/or evidence there might be to back this up.  I can, at least, say that, as a detached (even if uninformed) on-looker, I am in a position to take an objective view - and I am as strongly of the other opinion, ie that it did not come from the BHA's side.

Right, (finally) enough of that.  And this time I do mean it.  I have to mean it because we have something much less unimportant to talk about.  There is, of course, plenty of death around us at present during the COVID-19 pandemic.  And there was considerably more in the six years which led up to VE Day (and still plenty more to come afterwards, including my maternal grandfather who hadn't yet been demobbed a year or so after the cessation of hostilities and found himself in the peace-keeping force in Palestine while the British government was re-drawing the map and creating Israel, where he became a casualty of the consequent unrest).  However, there is still death from causes other than COVID-19 going on; and it's a sobering thought to consider that deaths from, say, cancer, will rise as people, concerned about the chances of catching COVID-19, become more fearful of visiting a doctor or going into hospital.

Tragically, we have had a death from other causes in our parish.  Jane O'Shea will have featured in this blog a couple of years ago when her husband Mick finally succumbed to cancer after an extended illness.  I had known Mick and Jane since he was one of Luca Cumani's head lads while I worked there in the late '80s.  They were the nicest couple you could ever meet.  I can't remember if Jane worked for William Haggas from Day One - possibly not because I think that I remember her working for Paul Kelleway before she was there, and I think that William's first year as a trainer was my first year in town - but she would have joined him soon after the start of his training career, if not at the very outset.

She must have worked for William for the best part of 30 years, mostly as head lad.  She retired early when Mick fell ill, both to look after him and to make sure that they could spend as much of what limited time they still had together together (if that makes sense).  Mick's gradual death took an awful lot out of her, and it has been lovely to see her get her life going again since he passed away.  She's been involved in absolutely everything.  No local charitable exercise took place without her lending a hand.  There was no community activity of which she wasn't a part.  She was tour-guide for 'Discover Newmarket' and National Stud tours.  She was just an absolute lynchpin of the local community, the type of person who made the world a better place by existing in it and made your day better by popping up in it.

Tragically, Jane seems to have had some kind of brain aneurism a couple of weeks ago which led her to collapse at home.  She was found and taken, unconscious, to Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge.  Attempts through the week to help her to regain consciousness were not successful, and last weekend she passed away.  I couldn't have told you Jane's age, only knowing that she was a few years older than I am.  I am now told that she was 59.  I know that everyone has to die at some point and that there's a lot of death, including a lot of premature death, around at the moment (as ever).  But the death of Jane, a person who spent her whole life giving so much to the people and the community around her and who had endured so much anguish during and after Mick's suffering, really is very, very hard to swallow.