Thursday, March 21, 2019

Getting back to normal. And a grip.

It's been over three weeks since my last chapter, but at least I'm back in harness now.  I wrote a chapter on 26th February, but sadly my father died that night and it's taken a while to get back into my usual rhythm.  Getting there now, but.  And we had his funeral on Monday.  So I'm getting back on track.  The final spur has been that racing politics are getting as shambolic, as idiotic and as nasty as the national situation (well, not quite - we're maybe 2% of the way there, but that's 2% too much) so I felt that I'd try to distill a small dose of common sense to pour oil on the waters.  (Onto racing's waters, that is; as far as the national situation is concerned, that seems to have gone beyond recall, thanks to the deadly duo of Cameron and May, and to the dangerous lunatics whom they have empowered / abetted / encouraged / failed to control - delete as applicable).

We've had a few debacles recently.  The equine influenza epidemic-that-wasn't could, with the wisdom on hindsight, have gone better, but that's water under the bridge.  Lessons, one presumes and hopes, will have been learned; and no lives were lost.  Erring on the side of caution is rarely the cause of a disaster, and it wasn't in this case either.  The next contentious issue (unless I've missed one) was the Sandown photo-finish debacle.  That was a debacle, but it certainly wasn't the fault of either the judge or the stewards.  Or any other BHA employee.  Or the BHA.

At Sandown the hurdles course and the steeplechase course converge on the finish from different directions.  Therefore, if one is to be fair (and it is the racing authorities' duty to be fair), there must be two finishing lines, each at right angles to the racing line on its own course.  This means that if there is one winning post on one side of the track, there must be two on the other side.  We're dependent on the photo-finish being lined up to the correct post on the side which has two posts.  (And we always will be, irrespective of whether there is one post on the near side and two on the far side as at present, or one on the far side and two on the near side, which would be the alternative).

It sounds simple, but humans are fallible and once in a lifetime you will find that the technician responsible for lining up the photo-finish apparatus will get it wrong.  That is what happened on Imperial Cup Day.  I don't know whether the technician works for the racecourse or for Racetech, but the certainty is that he doesn't work for the BHA.  It was 0% a stewarding mistake and 0% a judge's mistake.  In fact, the judge did well to realise so soon after having been given a duff print that it was a duff print, and thus to rectify the error so swiftly.  He did so well in advance of the 'weighed in' - and, frankly, any bookmaker silly enough to pay out before the 'weigh-in' has only himself to blame.

But then we came to the National Hunt Chase.  The fatal fall of Ballyward was tragic, but it was not the result of the race being long or being for amateurs.  It took place the better part of a mile and a half from the finish when Ballyward was still travelling easily, and he was being ridden by the most successful amateur in history, one of the most competent and experienced there has ever been.  He just jumped poorly all the way round, and the writing was on the wall from early on that he looked unlikely to get round.  I've never watched any of his previous races so don't know whether was generally a bad jumper or whether he was just jumping uncharacteristically badly that day.  Whatever, this tragedy should not be used as a stick to beat either racing, the BHA, amateurs or the race.

Unfortunately, the race then produced the debacle of the poor decision by the stewards to suspend Declan Lavery for his ride on third-placed Jerrysback.  This was just plain silly.  It is good to have a rule that says that in jumps races a rider should pull up if his horse is very tired and out of contention.  But this should not have been erroneously applied here: by definition, a horse who finishes third is not out of contention.  What prompted the stewards' bizarre decision is hard to understand.  But at least their mistake has now been rectified, even if Declan Lavery should not have been required to travel from Ireland to London to have the injustice righted.  I hope that he has received an apology and his travelling expenses.

Furthermore, leaving aside that this rule should not be applied in instances like this where it is not applicable (and it was doubly inapplicable because, over and above the horse not having been out of contention, the fact that he was fine after the race - not apparently that the stewards took the trouble to find that out - shows that he wasn't even particularly tired anyway) it is a rule that should only be used with circumspection under any circumstances.  Racing has two inherent achilles heels - ie fatalities and the whip - but, up to now, horses being tired is not a third one.  I think that everyone recognises that horses getting tired is inevitable; and it is not not an issue.  The stewards should be thinking long and hard about turning it into an issue, and creating a third stick with which the sport can be beaten.

So that's the situation.  But that is very, very far from saying that we should be looking for different leadership.  I have been appalled in recent days to read a series of news items detailing people who ought to know better giving the opinions that the BHA is not the right body to rule the sport and/or that Nick Rust is not the right person to head the BHA.  And I have not used the word 'appalled' there lightly.  If you feel yourself getting ready to voice the view that we would be better off without the BHA, or with someone else at its head, then take a deep breath, start counting to a million, and let me know when you've finished doing that.  And get a fu*&in' grip.
Tuesday, February 26, 2019

It's how you tell 'em

Our three runners are down to two, in rather annoying circumstances.  The first annoying circumstance of the week actually concerns one of the two horses who will be running.  The fact that winners are now allowed to run in maiden races does rather irritate me.  (Well, I know that that's not technically true - winners are not allowed to run in maiden races, but it is just that maiden races are no longer maiden races but are now 'novice' races in which previous winners can run, but effectively when you're running a maiden in them because he/she has to run in such races before he/she is eligible for handicaps, in your mind the race still is, or rather should be, a maiden race).

Anyway, Sacred Star runs in a novice race tomorrow against a Melbourne Cup hopeful.  Strange but true.  Verdana Blue, easy winner of a maiden race in the autumn and then runner-up in a listed race before beating Buveur D'Air in the Grade One Christmas Hurdle at Kempton, should start at around 1/10 in this 'novice' race and win with her head in her chest.  Mind you, it would still be a very strong race even without her.  Gumball, runner-up in a Grade One hurdle race at Aintree last April, makes his Flat debut; while we also have a maiden who finished second in a Class Two handicap at Chester last time.  I'm expecting her to run creditably, but as you can probably work out, I'm not expecting her to win.

So that's one rule change that slightly sticks in the throat.  I can understand why two-year-old maiden races became novice races and agree with the theory, primarily because we had reached the stage where there weren't many conditions races, and there are no two-year-old handicaps in the first half of the season.  But all the while this was being discussed, it never crossed my mind that this would be applied to older horses' maiden races too.  The previous system of maiden races worked very well, and all that has been achieved by allowing winners to run in them has been to make them even more uncompetitive than they already were, because the winners all too often dominate both the betting and the race.

Rule change number two was bringing forward declaration time from 10.00 to 9.30, and then re-offering every race until 10.00.  I don't like the idea of re-offering races because my literal mind sees it that when a race has closed, it has closed.  But what is really irritating is that the BHA don't paint the new situation as it is: they say that the race still closes at 10.00, but you can see the other declarations from 9.30 onwards, which was as it used to be after 10.00 if a race was being re-offered.  It annoys me that they misleading portray it thus.

The real give-away that the race closes at 9.30 is that one can't cancel a declaration after that time.  If the race was still open, as the BHA maintains, you would be able to cancel the declaration.  I was reminded of this this morning.  Roy cantered up Long Hill third lot this morning just after 9.40.  He wasn't quite as exuberant as usual cantering and I wasn't totally happy with him afterwards.  He was 100% sound, but he wasn't the Roy who had galloped really well with Sacred Sprite on Sunday.  I was relieved that I had my phone on me and it wasn't yet 10.00, so I went on-line while riding home at 9.55 to cancel the declaration - only to find that I didn't have that option.

So that was annoying.  I ended up making Roy a non-runner at around 10.30, about fifty-five and a half hours before the race and about half an hour after what is officially (but isn't actually) declaration time.  It was so silly.  He should never have appeared among the declarations.  I hate having non-runners, but I'll have one on Thursday (as 'self-certificate: off colour').  If we'd been told that declaration time was being brought forward to 9.30 and that every race was being re-offered, that would have been fair enough. if very annoying.  But being told that declaration time is still 10.00 and no races will be re-offered, when that's plainly not true, wasn't very funny.  As I was reminded this morning and as I will be reminded on Thursday when Roy is a non-runner from a race in which he shouldn't have appeared among the declarations in the first place.
Sunday, February 24, 2019

Thick and wet - the fog, that is, not me (I hope)

One runner last week (or that was the plan anyway) but it turned out to be a non-event.  We headed off down to Chelmsford on Friday evening with Solitary Sister (seen in the first photograph on Thursday morning), leaving Newmarket on a beautiful, warm, sunny afternoon - and arriving at Chelmsford in thick, chilly fog shortly after dusk.  It was rather disconcerting, driving along the road beside the course and not being able to see most of the floodlights because of the density of the fog.  I walked over to the enclosures between the first two races, and one could barely see for a furlong.

When I got back to the stables after the second race,  I walked into the canteen alongside one of the stalls handlers, who was coming in to get some provisions for the team between races.  He advised me that all the jockeys who had ridden in the previous race had said that the visibility was dangerously limited, and that he suspected that no more races would be run.  While the fog hadn't seemed so thick as to suggest that this would definitely be the case, I wasn't totally surprised.  Anyway, there was only one sensible response in these circumstances at a racecourse where one gets a free dinner in the canteen: "Well, I had better get my dinner order in quickly, then!"

I needn't, of course, have been so hasty.  My fish and chips were very good, but they would have been equally good a while later because, typically, the canteen staff were in no hurry to shut up shop.  There are some courses where the shutters would come down in the canteen shortly after an announcement of an abandonment, but Chelmsford fully deserves its place among the elite in the recent NARS racecourse survey, and there was no rush required to get fed.  And then we came home.

It was unfortunate, but no lives were lost.  It would have been a close call, but one can't quibble with the jockeys' verdict on this occasion.  The jockeys in the second race had, apparently, all felt that visibility was too poor for racing to continue safely, and I'd be happy to take their word for it.  The jockeys who ride regularly during the winter are fully accustomed to riding in unpleasant conditions, and they wouldn't be ones to look for excuses not to ride.  If people such as Adam Kirby and John Egan, both of whom are complete professionals and utterly fearless, say that we shouldn't be racing, that's good enough for me.
Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Another good man gone

Very sad news this morning when my father called me to let me know that his friend Peter Bailey had had a heart attack and died during the night.  He and my father were very good friends for many decades, while Peter was very kind indeed to me and played a very big part in my becoming addicted to the sport.  Peter was still training in Sparsholt, near Wantage, when I was first lucky enough to be taken to his stable, but it was after he had moved to Wilsford-cum-Lake, near Amesbury, that I got to know him, his stable, his horses and his staff much better.

I didn't finally leave school until I was eighteen and a half as I did A-levels and then stayed on another term to do the Oxbridge exam, and for the final couple of years I was champing at the bit to start work in a stable.  Thanks to the kindness of Peter and his wife Jane, I was able to assuage my impatience to a fair extent and also to begin my racing education as they went well beyond the call of duty in having me to stay on a few occasions in the holidays and in breaks from school, putting up with me (and I'm not being modest - I would have taken a lot of putting up with at that time) both as a house-guest and also as a liability with and on the horses.

I should have been a good rider by that time as I had been riding ponies for long enough, but I wasn't.  Even so, Peter managed to find a few horses sensible enough not to take too much advantage of my incompetence.  The first of them provided me with a particular thrill: the first racehorse I ever rode was rather a special one, Prince Rock, winner of many good long-distance steeplechases including one which I particularly remember, the four-mile Bass Steeplechase at Cheltenham one New Year's Day, which I remember watching on the BBC and seeing Ian Watkinson have to push him just about every inch of the way.

Having Prince Rock introduce me to riding racehorses was not the only 'first' which Peter provided for me.  He was also the first person to let me 'school' over hurdles - and 'school' is very loosely used here, the lesson on that occasion being provided by the horse to his passenger, rather than vice versa.  The horse (I am pretty sure it was Prince Rock again) was giving a double lesson that day: to his luggage and to the inexperienced horse whom he was accompanying.  You can probably understand how thrilled his schoolboy-rider was by that treat, not least because the rider on the young horse (Richard Linley) had ridden the Champion Hurdle winner only a few weeks previously.

I know that 'things ain't what they used to be' (including nostalgia) but I don't need rose-tinted spectacles to revisit my stays with Peter and Jane, and their son Edward.  They were wonderfully happy times (for me, anyway, although I suspect I detracted from, rather than added to, my hosts' enjoyment of life).  Everyone was so kind to me, going well beyond the call of duty to help me to learn (a small portion of the huge amount of) what I needed to learn.  Head lad Ken Pickersgill, travelling head lad Frank 'Fred' McKevitt and jockey Chris Gwilliam spring immediately to mind.  I will be forever grateful for their kindness and patient tuition.

I subsequently rode in three races on horses trained by Peter.  The first two were on the horse my father bred and owned, Play The Knave.  He won several races over both hurdles and fences, and was good enough to finish third or fourth the two times I rode him, in amateur steeplechases at Chepstow and Worcester.  I suspect that he would have run better with a better rider both times, but Peter, typically, was kind enough to give no hint of harbouring any thoughts along those lines.  I was subsequently honoured to be asked to ride another horse for him one Easter Monday (and that was when there were many more meetings on Easter Monday than there are now, meaning that people holding some sort of license or permit to ride in National Hunt races were spread very thin) in a novice chase at Huntingdon, who I think finished third.  I don't think that I let him down that day.  I hope not, anyway.

The last time I saw Peter was at a Kempton AW meeting a few years ago.  (Strange but true, as he only ever had the odd Flat runner and, I would guess, never trained a runner on the AW - although, funnily enough, one of his most famous winners was on the Flat at Kempton: Scorched Earth, enabling Meriel Tufnell to become the first woman to ride a winner on the Flat under Jockey Club rules in Great Britain - one for your next trivia quiz).  He had finished training by this time and was there as he owned a share in a horse trained by John Dunlop who was running.  As always, he was kindness itself.  Just a lovely, very kind man.

Peter trained some very good horses and won some very big races.  The strength of his stable had already started to decline by the time that I was spending time in it but some of the most special horses in the first few years that I was following racing had been trained by him, many of them owned by Michael Buckley (not that you'd immediately know it, as they were racing in his old black and white quartered colours, which are no longer in use).  Hennessy winner Strombolus and Whitbread winner Zeta's Son were among the best, along with many other good horses including Canasta Lad, Casamayor, Skryne and dear old Prince Rock.  Peter's passing is the passing of a trainer who occupies a big chapter in the history of National Hunt racing.  It is also the passing of one of the nicest and kindest men I have been lucky enough to know.  Condolences to his loved ones.
Friday, February 15, 2019

Respite

Disappointing run last night.  Horses can have you scratching your heads, and Solitary Sister is getting towards the stage of having me scratching mine.  I was very happy with her going into the race; but, of course, the doubt was that, although she seemed ready to run to her best, that didn't really mean a great deal as she had never come close previously to winning a race.  I was very happy with her in the preliminaries and very happy for most of the race.  Turning in, I still thought she could win, but she didn't pass a single horse in the straight.  Frustrating.  We might send her back to Chelmsford for a similar race a week today, wearing either blinkers or cheek-pieces.  If she doesn't do much again then, waiting until the grass would probably be wise.

That aside, it was a very enjoyable evening.  Chelmsford is a pleasure to visit, and as it's starting to feel springlike (for the time being, anyway) it was a very pleasant evening.  And the result of our race was very good.  Obviously I would have most liked Solitary Sister to win the race; but, failing that, it was really good to see Croeso Cymraeg win for two of the nicest men in the game as he's owned and bred by Richard Evans and trained by his brother James.  It's always a pleasure to bump into one of them at the races, so seeing them both sharing a win was great.  I always enjoy a trip down Memory Lane and I'd steered them down that street with Fred Rimell (for whom they both rode when they were jockeys) recollections, and it got even better when Nigel Tinkler, who also rode for him, showed up on a rare visit from Malton to Chelmsford.

So that was very pleasant, just as it's been here the past couple of days which have started with a slight frost but quickly turned into perfect spring days.  The downside, of course, is that, while the tracks look wet enough at the moment, this could mean that by the middle of next week we could resume hearing anguish about 'the ground' again, particularly in relation to the Great God, The Cheltenham Festival.  Every cloud has a silver lining, and the one benefit of the media frenzy sparked by the Equine Influenza outbreak was that for a few days we didn't have to hear about the ground at Cheltenham (or about how it really shouldn't be up to Apple's Jade's connections which race she contests).  Just a short-term respite, I'd imagine, but it was nice while it lasted.