Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The Road to Hell, Part Two

Ah well, probably time to return to this sorry saga.  Another six paragraphs tonight might be appropriate.  Where to start?  Well, at the beginning, I suppose.  And the beginning is Part One of this appalling plan, ie the proposed closure of Kempton Park.  We can discuss Part Two, the potential Newmarket debacle, subsequently.  The idea behind Part One seems to be a consequence of the mismanagement of Jockey Club Racecourses, which has apparently seen the group slip into a nine-figure level of debt with a credit rating so low that it can't borrow any more.  The obvious solution might have been to have looked for a new broom to sweep clean.

That seemingly has not been the route chosen: instead, the architects of the decline and fall have come up with this brilliant and cunning plan for getting the group out of this hole.  The plan, it appears, looks likely to achieve nothing more positive than the damage which it has already inflicted on Jockey Club Racecourses Ltd, having now made the group as distrusted as it is financially overstretched.  If all one knew was abstract mathematics, selling Kempton Park for development might seem a good way to clear part of the debt (if not to generate enough funds to finance £500,000,000 of investment) but in every other respect this plan represents the road to hell for a group whose raison d'etre is to safeguard the future of racing at its courses.

Basically, closing any racecourse should be the very last resort.  Closing one of the best (and it still is one of the best, notwithstanding that its laissez-faire management and AW status have been dragging it down during the current century) is particularly undesirable.  What makes Kempton so special?  In three words: location, location, location.  Greater London is far and away the biggest conurbation in Great Britain, over and above being the capital.  On that basis, simply because London is where the greatest number of race-goers and potential race-goers live, it is very important that we have a strong racecourse presence there.  It wouldn't nowadays be financially feasible to build a racecourse in the metropolis as land there has become so expensive, but we don't need to: Sandown, Epsom and Kempton are already there, and all we (or JCR, anyway) have to do is to keep them going.

By pure chance, last week I found a timely illustration of the importance of maintaining racing's presence in the capital.  Last Thursday, two days after the genie had been let out of the box, I happened to treat myself to an extremely rare afternoon off, taking the train to London to see an exhibition in the National Gallery.  I spent two blissful hours wandering around the gallery looking at the pictures, just on my own.  I didn’t know a soul there.  Out of the blue in one of the rooms there, the curator/security guard approached me, “John Berry?  What can we do to stop them closing Kempton?  I love my racing – I have done so since I was a boy and Mill Reef and Brigadier Gerard were racing, and then of course Brigadier Gerard got beaten by Roberto at York … It would be just terrible if they closed Kempton …”.

I know that Kempton’s average Flat attendance is low, but that’s because it has a huge number of fixtures, and nobody, however keen, has the luxury of going racing to any but a small minority of them.  But it is the local racecourse for millions, and there will be tens of thousands of keen racing people who regard it as their local racecourse.  It has already been established that holding racing near London is important for embedding the sport in the wider consciousness.  The BHA believes this, hence its insistence that the Champion Stakes be moved to Ascot in order to engage with a wider audience; and JCR seemed to agree with this principle as it agreed to the move.  If we accept that moving the Champion Stakes was the correct decision, then vastly reducing the number of race-meetings held in the London suburbs is madness.

I understand that when the failings of the current management have led JCR into dire straits financially, selling Kempton has some appeal.  But surely this is not the only option, and surely the umpteen negatives outweigh the only positive, ie cashing in on its development value?  On which subject, there is a large area of land on the far side of the course at Kempton, part of the former Flat turf course, which could be sold without the racecourse ceasing to exist.  I know this land well as I walk my dogs on it when I go there.  Would it not be feasible to do what Wolverhampton did, ie make a much smaller circuit than the original one (which Kempton has already done) and then raise a large sum of money by selling the surplus land for development?  It worked at Wolverhampton; and if JCR is so desperate to sell off an asset, I don’t see why it wouldn’t work at Kempton.  Not ideal, and not necessarily feasible in the green belt - but food for thought, perhaps.  It couldn't be a worse idea than the one currently in play.
Saturday, January 14, 2017

Cold Comfort Farm

Aaagghhh.  I've been putting this off.  One can't pretend that this subject doesn't exist and hasn't been dominating the British racing consciousness this week and thus write about something else; but it's just such a big topic that I don't know where to begin.  But I can't put it off indefinitely so here we go.  But what I will do is to restrict myself to six paragraphs (number pulled out of the air).  One could easily run to ten times that amount.  No doubt in the fullness of time I shall write more than 60 paragraphs on this issue because this is a serious subject about which there is a lot to say, and I shall keep returning to it.  But for tonight I shall only scratch the surface.  And, in case you've just got back from that week-long return trip to the moon on which you set out last weekend, I'm talking about the plan by Jockey Club Racecourses to close Kempton and build an AW track at Newmarket.  Double whammies don't come much less funny than this one, although last year we did have the Brexit vote followed by the election of Trump, which I suppose puts our relatively little hill of beans into context.

What has prompted me finally to begin to put finger to keyboard is receiving just now my weekly National Trainer's Federation email, in which I read that the plan has been 'welcomed in the locality' (referring to Newmarket).  Is that right?  I don't know.  There are more than seventy trainers in Newmarket, and the Racing Post quoted the opinions of three of them when giving us the Newmarket view.  One of them, Mark Tompkins, was effusive in his enthusiasm, while the other two, Roger Varian and Marco Botti, sounded lukewarm.  I have spoken to one Racing Post reporter (only briefly because I was in a rush at the time) and told him that I have reservations, about both the closure of Kempton and the building of an AW course in Newmarket; and I don't know how many others the paper has canvassed.

In short, though, it is impossible to deduce the Newmarket view from the Racing Post's coverage.  So I just don't know.  I've only discussed the matter with two Newmarket trainers (well, three if we include myself, and I have indeed been discussing it with myself for many hours over the past few days).  One of them was enthusiastically in favour of the plan; one one of them was strongly opposed.  Well, two of them were strongly opposed if we include me.  So my research indicates either a 50:50 split, or a 2:1 majority against the plan.  But that's meaningless as statistical analysis consulting merely three out of 70 is worthless: that is too small a sample.  I will be interested to find out how many dozens of Newmarket trainers the NTF has consulted (I am not one of them) to reach the conclusion that the plan has been welcomed in this locality.

What I do hope is that none of those in this locality who have supposedly come out in favour of the plan are among those Newmarket trainers who spoke out against Newcastle's plans to rip up one of the best turf courses in the country to create an AW track, a plan which many northern trainers welcomed as it would make life more convenient for them.  Newmarket trainers who have welcomed JCR's plan appear to be doing so on the basis that the new set-up would be more convenient for us; and this plan, of course, can only come to fruition if one of the best turf tracks in the country (ie the National Hunt course at Kempton) is ripped up.  Presumably all those in this town who spoke out against the Newcastle plan are also against the JCR plan - because, of course, we wouldn't want to think that there are any hypocrites training here.

The problem that we in Newmarket have is that our local racecourse is a JCR course, and in recent years we have, on the evidence of how our local course is run, had reason to believe that JCR is doing a very good job.  The thing, of course, is that we have been exposed to our local JCR team, who are very good; while this brave new JCR world has been cooked up by their overlords.  Even so, our loyalty to our local JCR people makes it hard for us to acknowledge that their superiors are in the process of making a major cock-up.  Basically, closing any racecourse (particularly if you put on your website that you were "formed with the objective of securing the future of racecourses for horseracing") is an absolute very last resort - and even more so if that racecourse is one of the best racecourses in the country and one of the best situated, ie a metropolitan one.

It appears that JCR is in dire straits financially, reportedly with debts of £115 million and with a credit rating so low that it cannot borrow any more money.  Under the circumstances, some tough decisions clearly need to be faced.  But is closing Kempton really the least unsatisfactory solution?  If it is indeed the case that the company has been brought so badly to its knees that it really has to close Kempton, then one has to put a major query over the competence of the people running JCR.  If, however, it is the case that JCR doesn't have to close Kempton but its chiefs want to do so anyway, then one arguably has to put an even greater query over the bigwigs.  Difficult, isn't it?  And if Kempton is closed - well, it's easy to see why JCR would be wise to acquire a replacement AW track.  And it's easy to see why Newmarket might appeal to JCR as a potential site, because it wouldn't have to buy the land on which to put the course.  But from Newmarket's point of view?  Potential disaster, the last thing that anyone who cares about Newmarket's past and future could desire.  No doubt we'll return to this subject anon.
Thursday, January 05, 2017

End-of-term report

I'd been thinking that it might be a good thing to write a brief end-of-year review on this blog.  I've rather missed the boat because we're currently up to twelfth night; but better late than never, so here we go.  I'm mainly going to concentrate on trainers, but we'll start with jockeys because that's easy enough: Jim Crowley (pictured on Honky Tonk Queen at Lingfield in December 2012) and Josephine Gordon are clear-cut winners of Jockey and Apprentice of the Year respectively.  Also mentioned in dispatches should be Joe Fanning, George Baker, Adam Kirby and Seamus Heffernan, all of whom have been a pleasure to watch for many years now, and who all enjoyed some well deserved big-race success.

On the subjects of trainers, Aidan O'Brien and Jean-Claude Rouget both enjoyed truly excellent seasons, but we'll restrict ourselves to British-based trainers.  On that basis, Stuart Williams has to be Trainer of the Year.  It's an inexact science trying to work out how well a trainer has done with the team at his disposal: even if one knows how many horses the trainer has had under his care, quantifying their potential is not easy.  Even so, it would be hard to conclude anything other than that Stuart's achievement in training 50 winners during 2016 was first-rate.

Next best?  Hard one.  Possibly Eve Johnson Houghton, who enjoyed a wonderful season.  Possibly Chris Dwyer, whose stable has been uninterruptedly in good form for several years.  Possibly Phil McEntee, who enjoyed an outstanding season and whose achievements with Gentlemen and Swiss Cross in particular were superb.  Possibly Hugo Palmer, who did terrifically well, not least by winning a Classic.  And however much we should praise Hugo for that triumph (and we should praise him plenty for that and for many other successes during the year) we should hail Laura Mongan even more, her St Leger victory being the single most remarkable top-level training achievement of the year.

We should also salute Charlie Fellowes, who ought to have cemented his position among the training ranks with an extremely solid season; ditto first-season trainer David Loughane.  On top of them, there were surely many others whom I should mention, but whose names will probably only come to me after I've finished this.  But what I shouldn't do is finish without saluting Channel Four Racing, which ceased to exist at the end of 2016 after 30 years or more of good service to the sport which it was covering.

From start to finish Channel Four Racing had top-class presenters: at the outset John Oaksey and Brough Scott were outstanding, and Nick Luck was similarly good in the later years.  Ditto commentators: Graham Goode will, for me, always be the classic Channel Four commentator, and he was outstanding at conveying information, creating theatre and generating fun simultaneously.  And latterly Simon Holt has been as iconic.  There is no better commentator around than Simon, although Richard Hoiles on ITV and John Hunt on BBC radio are both top-class, so the sport will continue to be served well to the wider audiences in that respect.

Channel Four Racing also had great pundits all the way through, with John Francome and Jim McGrath arguably the best of them.  It lost the former a few years ago when failing to ensure that he stayed on the team when one production company handed over to another; while Jim has now been lost from our screens as ITV has failed to secure his services.  But again life will go on, and there will be good people on the new team.  With, at various times, BBC, ITV and Channel Four, our sport has been lucky to have enjoyed excellent terrestrial television coverage for decades.  God willing, it may continue for many more.
Wednesday, January 04, 2017

New year, new show, new brahma

White Valiant didn't run very well on Sunday, but funnily enough that wasn't a disappointment.  This blog is not a tipping site and I don't use Twitter for that purpose either, but on Sunday morning I did respond to an enquiry on Twitter as to how I rated White Valiant's prospects.  The rain had been beating down for a few hours by that time, and I wrote thus: "Ought to run OK but opposition will be strong and the v soft ground will be a complete unknown.  Hard to know what to expect."  I think that you'll work out from that that I certainly was not going to be disappointed were he to perform not particularly well.

We all know that when conditions become really testing in National Hunt races in the winter, the NH-bred horses generally clean up and the Flat-bred ones generally struggle.  Long before the bumper, the last race, came around, it was clear that those were the conditions which we were enduring at Cheltenham, where it rained all day.  Consequently, I was not at all fazed when he struggled.  My feeling was that that was likely to happen, but I just didn't know.  He'd never cantered on very soft ground, never mind galloped or raced on it, so it really was a case of guesswork as to how he'd cope.  My educated guess was that he wouldn't cope - but, of course, educated guesses are sometimes proved wrong.  Not, unfortunately, on this occasion, though!

The incessant rain led to five of the 16 horses in the race being withdrawn, their connections presumably suspecting that they would struggle the way that White Valiant did.  However, I couldn't really see the point in not running: we just didn't know how our horse would run on heavy ground, and there was only one way to find out.  And, while there is never no risk in running a horse, the risk was minimal.  He wouldn't jar up on heavy ground; rather, unless one were very unlucky, the worst that would happen would be that he would run badly and be tired but sound afterwards.  That was indeed what happened - and, happily, as we had a very sensible jockey on board, he wasn't too exhausted, because Davy Russell had the presence of mind not to put him under much pressure once it was clear that he was struggling.  So we live to fight another (and drier) day.

One interesting (to me, anyway) aspect of the outing was that it gave me an opportunity to give an old paddock sheet an appropriate airing.  In general I never put sheets on the horses in the parade ring.  My view (shared, plainly, by nobody else) is that they shouldn't be allowed because the point of a parade ring is that the horses should be available for inspection by the public, which aim is totally undermined if the horse is wearing a rug.  Strangely, this anomaly seems to have occurred to nobody else but me.  But even I use one maybe once a year when it is raining incessantly, simply to keep the jockey's saddle dry to make it more comfortable for him when he mounts.  (Trying to keep the horse dry is pointless, as he is going to be soaked by the end of the race whatever one does).

I had taken an old sheet with me in case it really was going to be as wet as the forecast was suggesting.  (Which it was).  This sheet was given to me by Barbara Lockhart-Smith, a formidable (unlicensed, because women were not permitted to hold trainers' licenses until the latter stages of Barbara's training career, so her husband Lt-Commander R. A. (Tony) Lockhart-Smith held the license) National Hunt trainer from the '50s to the early '70s.  Anyway, a while back Barbara gave me her old paddock-sheet, saying, "You will use it, won't you?".  The true answer would have been, "Very, very infrequently at best", but I took it anyway, gratefully because it is a nice little piece of racing history.

Barbara's best results included Sartorius finishing fourth to Arkle in the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 1966 under Terry Biddlecombe and Steel Bridge finishing second to Highland Wedding in the Grand National in 1969 under Richard Pitman.  Barbara might have had more than one paddock sheet so it is not guaranteed that these horses did wear it on those occasions, but I like to think that they did.  So I thought it fitting that White Valiant should carry this sheet around the Chetenham parade ring (a different parade ring from the one graced by Arkle in 1966, of course) one more time.  I took a photograph of him doing so which I shall have printed and which I shall send to Barbara, and I hope that she will approve.

On the subject of approval, Sunday's Cheltenham meeting was, of course, the subject of the first broadcast by the new ITV racing team.  Being there, I was obviously not at home to watch it, but we did tape it as it seemed right to be able to watch it subsequently and see how the new land seems to be lying.  And my first impression is very positive.  I had no idea what to expect of Ed Chamberlin, and I was slightly sceptical as we have seen too many occasions in the past when general sports presenters or specialist presenters of other sports have been drafted in to cover racing simply because they held a degree of 'celebrity' status, and then proved not up to the job simply because their racing knowledge was not deep enough.

However, I was delighted to find that we need have no worries on that score.  I haven't watched a soccer match since about 1975 so had no idea what to expect from Ed Chamberlin, but I thought that he was excellent.  He's clearly a first-rate broadcaster, and Sunday made it clear that he is very well stocked with both knowledge of and passion for the sport.  Nick Luck's shoes will be hard to fill, but he will be up to the task.  Otherwise, AP and Luke worked very well together and jointly made a very good back-up team for him, and the features (including the excellent montage at the start of the show made up of lovely archive footage reminding us of all the great racing coverage which ITV had given us in the past, and also including the outstanding Jonjo O'Neill segment) were first-class.

Furthermore, broadcasting from an outdoor position in the parade ring was a much better idea than doing so from a portakabin stoodio plonked down somewhere fairly nearby, as had been the Channel Four way.  This new ITV method made the viewer feel as if he were there, right in the thick of things, being rained on with the horses walking past merely an arm's length away.  In other words, it makes the TV-viewer feel like a race-goer, leaning on the parade ring rails, taking it all in, a sport of living animals and humans, rather than computers and animation.  Seeing Sunday's show, it makes it hard to understand why the Channel Four bosses persisted with their clearly less satisfactory method for so long.

The 'wild-card' element of the show was provided by Matt Chapman, and there's no point in trying to improve on Matt's analysis of himself, ie that some people will love him and some will loathe him.  However, I think that everyone will agree that he provided one of the brahmas of the show (along with Luke's very good and very topical observation, on the day that the New Year's Honours List was announced, that a horse with a poor completion record had 'more letters after his name than John Gosden').  I managed to miss Matt's brahma because, watching the programme the next day, we understandably fast-forwarded through a few sections; but I've been told about it, and assume that the account which I have been given of it is accurate.

Apparently, at one point during Matt's loose-cannon blunderings around the betting-ring, he spotted a spelling mistake on a bookmaker's board.  (The man was offering odds on the straight 'forcast').  Most people would have let sleeping dogs lie, but not our Matt.  He marched over to point out the error to the hapless bookie - and the brahma was that the bookmaker couldn't grasp what Matt was trying to highlight.  When I was at school, Mathematics and English were probably my two best subjects, but I believe that it is more common to find people who are very good at English and hopeless at Maths, or very good at Maths and hopeless at English.  This bookie clearly does not fall into the former category.  For the sake of his commercial future as a bookmaker, I hope that he is in the latter group.
Friday, December 30, 2016

Looking ahead to New Year's Day

Great excitement!  We don't have many runners in the winter (we had one in November and two in December, etc) but we shouldn't have to wait long to have a runner once 2017 has started because White Valiant (pictured here, yesterday, happily sporting considerably more mud than he will wear on Sunday afternoon) is declared for the last race at Cheltenham on Sunday.  It's always exciting to have a runner at Cheltenham, particularly if one doesn't have runners there very often.  In 22 years of training I doubt that I have had more than five or six, our most recent one having been more than five years ago, Alcalde in October 2011.

Our best result there was when Diamond Joshua finished third in the Triumph Hurdle, the first British-trained horse home  in the Britain's biggest juvenile hurdle.  But that was nearly 15 years ago, on Gold Cup Day 2002, the day that Best Mate won his first Gold Cup.  So that's a fairly distant memory by now.  That was actually the second time that I'd found my way to the placed horses' unsaddling enclosure at the Cheltenham Festival, and the third time that I'd been to the Festival as a competitor.  In 1985 I had led up the horse who finished fourth in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle (Welsh Warrior, ridden by Steve Knight, who is now Richard Hannon's head lad) and in 1987 I had ridden Le Vulgan in the National Hunt Chase (and fell off).

Both horses were trained by my boss Andy Turnell, as was the other horse I had ridden at the course (but not at the Festival): Black Rod, third behind the Fred Winter-trained Observe in an amateurs' steeplechase there in 1986.  But those are even more distant memories - so, as you can gather, any trip there is a rare and special occasion.  So we'll go to Cheltenham on Sunday and savour the fact of being competitors at the world's premier National Hunt racecourse; and anything better than that would be an unexpected bonus.  A further source of pleasure will be that we will have Davy Russell on board.

I was hoping that Daryl Jacob would be able to ride, as he's a terrific jockey and he rode the horse superbly when he won on him last month.  But the disappointment of the news that he was obliged to ride for Nicky Henderson in the race was assuaged by the discovery that Davy Russell was available to take his place.  There is no jockey, Flat or National Hunt, anywhere in the world whom I admire and respect more, and prior to today it had never occurred to me, not least because he lives and mostly rides in Ireland, that he would ever don my silks.  I hope that I don't forget my camera!