Saturday, January 18, 2020

The best of men, the best of friends

I think that I either ended 2019 or began 2020 on this blog by saying that I was (unreasonably) optimistic that this would be a better year, hoping that, unlike in the previous one, the good news might outstrip the bad.  Well, I'm afraid that things aren't going very well so far.  I think that it was 2nd January that I took a phone call from a dear friend, John McNamara of Golden Vale Stud in Co. Limerick, who was ringing to let me know that the health problems which he had been suffering in recent weeks had been confirmed as terminal cancer, and that the prognosis was for weeks rather than months.  Well, I'm afraid that the inevitable outcome came to pass yesterday, 17th January, as John passed away.

I'm so very pleased that I made a day-trip to Ireland on Monday to spend some time with John and his wife Terre in Milford Hospice in Limerick.  John, a wonderful man who went through life with great generosity of spirit and genuine joy of being alive, was in typically good form.  He was looking very well and we enjoyed the usual afternoon of laughter; and I came away thinking that I'd try to get over again in another couple of weeks.  Terre was telling me that she was hoping to take John on a couple of outings, including a trip home, and that she had been given the go-ahead to bring his favourite dog in to see him.  Nobody could have been more stoic and accepting of their fate than John was, telling me that he had not complaints as he had "lived a charmed life" and that his only concern was that Terre would be alright after he had gone.

Apparently John was still in good form on Thursday, three days later, when Terre was there.  He ate a good dinner and she went home looking forward to her visit the next day.  Then, as I found out when she called me at lunchtime yesterday (Friday), he went downhill very rapidly in the night and passed away early in the morning.  If I sound unmoved in this dispassionate account of events, I'm not.  Even when one knows that the end is coming and even when one recognises that the best of all options is to enjoy a good life and to enjoy it right up to the end, the passing of a very good man who has been a very good friend to me for over 25 years is very hard to swallow.

I first met John at Doncaster's St Leger Yearling Sale in 1994.  I was about to start training and was trying to buy an inexpensive yearling.  He had noticed me failing to do so on a few occasions and he had a little bay filly by Superlative out of Meanz Beanz, by High Top, whom he had failed to sell and for whom he was not asking very much, so he introduced himself and asked whether I might like to buy her.  Happily I did, both because she proved to be a little diamond who won for us (Meg's Memory) and also because this meeting led to my cherished friendship with John and Terre.

I rarely leave home nowadays but over the years Golden Vale Stud, between Kilmallock and Bruff, has been a loving home-from-home for me.  I've trained some winners bred by them and one whom they owned (Sangita at Warwick, which Terre recently told me John regarded as his biggest thrill in racing) and have rejoiced in the many successes of their proteges, most notably Grade One Aintree Hurdle winner Bimsey (who beat Pridwell and Make A Stand that day) and the listed winners Diamond Max (Prix du Ranelagh at Longchamp), Pelham (Easter Stakes at Kempton) and Conectis (La Brea Stakes at Santa Anita).  I particularly enjoyed the happy chance of being a pundit in the studio on At The Races one afternoon a couple of years ago when a two-year-old which they had bred won at Listowel, trained by Johnny Murtagh.  I don't tip many winners when I'm on the TV, but you can be sure that I tipped that one.

There are so many particular memories which I treasure.  But most of all I have treasured their friendship.  I was overwhelmed - and I do mean overwhelmed - when they appeared at my father's memorial service in Devon last May, travelling there and back in the day by flying in to Bristol and taking a taxi all the way down and back.  At the time I never dreamed that I would be attending John's funeral (which is tomorrow, the funeral mass across the way in Dromin at 12.30 followed by burial in Bruff) less than nine months later, but sadly that is the case.  Carpe diem.
Thursday, January 09, 2020

Scratching the surface

2020 is now well under way so it's time that I wrote a chapter on this blog.  It's so well under way that we've now reached the stage where, once again, dawn breaks at the same time that it did on the shortest day of the year, nearly three weeks ago!  That continues to baffle me, even though I have had it explained to me a few times.  Today is 18 minutes longer than the shortest day, which is fine - except that all 18 minutes come at the end of the day.  Sunset on the shortest day was at 3.46, while today it was at 4.04; whereas dawn broke both on the solstice and again today at 8.04.  A week ago it broke at 8.06.  So odd.

What's also odd is that our first runner of the year will be on Saturday and it will be a horse who, on the face of it, should not be running in the race.  Times have changed, and sellers are no longer the lowest grade of race.  Basically, our prize money has got so bad at the lower levels that a half-decent horse and a horse with no ability are both worth roughly the same (ie nothing) which means that in sellers (run at weight-for-age plus penalties, as opposed to selling handicaps) horses down the bottom of the ratings' table are meeting the better horses in the race on stones', rather than pounds', worse terms than they would in a handicap.

But, oddly, I'm running Heaven Up Here in a seller, notwithstanding that the form-book and the ratings-list will tell you that she has no chance.  But I'm happy to be there for a variety of reasons.  Firstly, sellers tend to get smaller fields so it was safe to plan for this race on the assumption that she would get a run, which wouldn't have been the case had I been aiming her for a Class Six handicap.  Secondly, notwithstanding that she's a five-year-old now, she still has a lot to learn about racing (having only run four times, always badly, and not since 2018) and it'll be better for her to run in a relatively small field rather than the full field which a Class Six handicap would inevitably attract.

Thirdly, I tend to take official ratings in a sellers with a pinch of salt.  As a general rule, the higher-rated horses are usually horses whose rating is unrealistically high.  If you had a horse rated, say, 70 and he was actually willing and capable of running to a mark close to 70, you'd run him in a handicap rather than a seller, wouldn't you?  I know I would.  Anyway, we'll see what happens on Saturday.  Logic says that it will be a low-key start to 2020, and very possibly a dispiriting one.  But I've had this race in mind for her for a couple of months and I'm looking forward to running her in it.  It's such a long time since she's run and she's a lot less immature than she was when she last ran, so we'll travel hopefully until such time as the arrival convinces us otherwise.

It's clearly the silly season if I'm getting excited about running a no-hoper in a seller, but that's fine: it's the silly season anyway.  But you've heard more than enough about one of its chapters, so don't expect me to be pontificating about the pros and cons of the Cheltenham Festival being extended to a fifth day; or about the Duke and Duchess of Sussex's plans for their future, come to that.  These are topics on which Private Eye would publish deliberately inconsequential articles under the byline 'Phil Space'.  The Unibet blog's coverage of the likelihood or otherwise of Altior running in a Unibet-sponsored race on Saturday is another instance where I'm keen not to add noticeably to the already-far-too-big pile of words already spouted.

But I will just say that I was slightly taken aback by the BHA's weird press release yesterday which refers to a trainer's "obligation under the rules to immediately scratch a horse if, at any time between closing and the deadline for declarations, the trainer becomes aware that the horse is not going to run."  Did you know about this obligation?  I didn't.  I've certainly never done it.  In fact, it's very rare to see any trainer ever doing it.  This makes no sense at all.  If you have decided not to run, you just don't declare when the time comes; if you decide that you are indeed going to run, you do declare. Seemples.

If it was a case that you scratch once the decision is taken not to run, there would be no point in having declarations (other than on race-day, which are a necessary way of confirming that the horse has arrived at the track).  You wouldn't need to declare: the list of runners would just be the entrants who still hadn't been scratched by 10.00 in the morning two days before the race (or one day before the race if it is a non-Grade One National Hunt race).  But that's not the way it works at all.  You have a list of entries.  That basically remains unchanged until the new and shorter list comes out after declaration-time of the horses who have been declared.  There is virtually never a case of a horse being scratched (other than Altior today).  I just don't get it.

The other thing to point out, bearing in mind that my beef used to be with the re-offering of races after declaration time, is that re-offering (which should never have existed but which the BHA liked - and I actually maintain that in practice it does still exist, only, like Alan Partridge's Mini Metro, it has been re-badged) flies totally in the face of this thing about scratching once one decides not to run.  If you don't declare it is because you have decided not to run.  That's all there is to it.  The BHA apparently now maintains that, when races were re-offered, the horses who hadn't been declared - and therefore clearly, according to them, should have been scratched - should all be enticed to run.  Just as well that their trainers hadn't done what they we now find that they were supposed to do!

Oh yes, another silly season topic which I'll avoid (bar mentioning that it would have been better for everyone bar the guilty parties had the answers been supplied, and I'm not worried about them): George McGrath's Christmas Quiz.
Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Old year, new year

I've survived another year.  Well, not quite, but if I get through another 11 hours I will have done.  That's good.  I tend generally to subscribe to the school of thought that isn't taken in by the whole New Year nonsense, in that one day becomes the next whether it's 17th August becoming the 18th or 31st December becoming the 1st of January.  But, inexplicably, I am approaching this particular New Year with a spirit of optimism.  That truly is inexplicable as we've had easily the worst year of results I've put together in 25 years of training.  And it's been a year with more than the usual share of sadness.  But the human spirit is (or is meant to be) a resilient one, and I suppose I'm working on the (dubious) logic of 'things can only get better'.

Even looking into it more deeply it is still hard to find the reasons for my optimism.  We aren't starting the New Year with any new horses, only the ones we have had in 2019 minus a few that have retired; and the ones which we have are obviously a year older - although in some cases, probably the majority, that fact encourages my irrational brain to suppose that they may do better than in the past, rather than worse.  Whatever - it might just be that 2019 is a year I'm happy to put behind me.  Roll on 2020!  (Even though, I won't greet it in person as I imagine that I'll be asleep by around 9pm, as usual).

We ended our racing year in much the same style as we had spent the majority of it.  Our final outing of the year, to Wolverhampton on Friday 27th December, was a total write-off.  Thanks largely to the fact that she was drawn so wide (and also that I was very mindful that the form of her close second in a small-field maiden race might not translate at all to the very different conditions of a full-field of seasoned handicappers, notwithstanding that the horse who beat her a neck in that race had won at Wolverhampton the previous day by nine lengths) I did not go there with particularly high hopes for Hidden Pearl.  Which was just as well as the race could hardly have gone worse (well, that's not true as she got round and neither horse nor rider were hurt) and she finished 10th of 13 (with, irrelevantly, the horse whom I had thought most likely to win the race, Herm, two places behind her in 12th).

On the subject of horses and riders (not) getting hurt, I've had a good idea.  That does happen occasionally (although on the majority of occasions when I think that I've had a good idea, it generally turns out that the idea isn't as good as I had originally thought).  But on this occasion this really might be a good idea.  Suspended sentences.  This has been brought on by a film clip which Kevin Blake posted on Twitter of the head-on view of the finish of a jumps race in Ireland a couple of weeks ago.  To my untrained eye it looked as bad a case of dangerous riding as you'd ever see but the stewards appeared to demur, giving the rider (of the runner-up, which was fortunate as it meant that they did not have to demote or disqualify a winner) a four-day ban for 'careless riding'.

Kevin was clearly as stunned by the riding and by the verdict as I was.  He commented, "The rider of the runner-up got a four-day ban for careless riding. What kind of carnage would have to ensue for Irish/British stewards to pass down a verdict of dangerous riding?  This obscenely lenient stewarding won't end well."  That's my fear, too.  It's one upon which I have touched frequently in this blog in the past.  This was an Irish race so one might think that it's harsh of Kevin to be bringing British stewards into the discussion, but in fairness we have all too often seen similar a disinclination by British stewards to take a firm line as regards trying to discourage dangerous riding.

The point of the matter is that punishing the rider per se is not what matters: it is ensuring that the rider does not ever again ride with such disdain for the safety of his fellow competitors, human or equine.  I don't know the identity of the rider, but I got the impression that he's probably a conditional.  And clearly a very good one because, leaving aside that he rode without regard for the safety of the horse and rider alongside him and seemingly with an attitude that his winning the race was more important than not causing a fall, he looks to ride very well indeed.

How to ensure that he changes his attitude and becomes the top-class jockey that he looks to have the potential to become?  Is telling him that he has ridden carelessly but not improperly or dangerously, and giving him a four-day ban, the right method?  On the face of it it isn't, as much as regards the verdict as the length of the ban.  One would hope that the some of the senior riders would have given him a hell of a verbal rocket in the changing room afterwards, but the fact that some of them tweeted their support of his ride suggests that that probably didn't happen.

They should have known better, although I'm sure that the rider of the horse with whom he interfered (again, I don't know and don't want to know it was) would not have been so forgiving.  It's hard to see why they should be so keen to speak up for someone who shows so little respect for the safety of his fellow riders, but there you go.  I'd be happier with the observations of experienced jockeys able to take a detached viewpoint, eg Willie Ryan (tweeting, "Appalling piece of horsemanship.  Bend the rules for sure, we all done that but that was just ridiculous and why our sport is going quickly downhill.  This type of riding cannot be seen.  It is putting both horse and rider at huge risk.  It's just wrong.") or Seb Sanders (tweeting, "... This type of riding is dangerous or intentional which is rarely used by stewards because they haven't got the balls to charge any jockey for it.").

Peer pressure would be the best way of educating him.  In its absence, action by the stewards has to suffice.  So here's how I would go about it.  When a rider is guilty of dangerous riding and/or intentional interference, find him guilty of that and give him, say, a six-month suspension - but suspend all of that sentence (maybe bar a couple of days) for, say, two years.  If he commits any instances of genuinely careless riding or accidental interference in that time, he'll have the standard accidental interference/careless riding penalty but the suspended sentence won't come into play.  But if he were to commit another instance of dangerous riding and/or intentional interference (and you can more or less guarantee that he won't do so) then the suspended 178 or however many days would be applied.  Seemples.  That would pretty much guarantee that deliberately dangerous riding would be eliminated, which would be great news for everyone, particularly the jockeys and the horses.  And you'd have done so without having to impose any heavy-handed punishments.

More immediately - Roll on 2020!  As of tomorrow, 2019 is forgotten.  Everyone's scores are back down to zero, so we're not doing any worse than anyone else.  Our score will stay on zero for at least 10 days (as our first entry of 2020 will be on 11th January) and probably for considerably longer than that, but let's hope that it can start to rise at some point.  And then keep rising!
Thursday, December 26, 2019

Chewing the cud

I did indeed find myself 'ready for Christmas'.  And what a nice Christmas it was, too.  The second consecutive dry day (predictably we haven't been able to get the treble up - we're having a lot of rain today, Boxing Day) and it was more than merely dry: we were treated to stunning sunshine from dawn (seen through Hidden Pearl's ears in the second paragraph) to dusk.  Today, by contrast, is the perfect afternoon for being settled in front of the television while some really good racing is being run, although I will of course have to head outside for evening stables before too long.  Then tomorrow we'll be off to Wolverhampton, where Hidden Pearl has scraped into her race.  I'm looking forward to that.

If I have a bit of spare time at Wolverhampton, I might do some further studying of the BHA's 'Review of the Buying and Selling Practices of Bloodstock and Racehorses'.  It's a mighty document: 83 pages in the main section, plus two appendices.  I don't think that it does itself any favours by being so long.  It is fairly heavy going, albeit that there is the occasional moment of levity.  Its size and detail, though, is off-putting - and, as I'll suggest below, potentially counter-productive to its objective.  In fact, I'd suggest that Lee Mottershead, Chris Cook, Bill Barber, Howard Wright and myself might be the only people actually to have read it.  It is interesting, though, if slightly worrying and slightly confusing.

You may have read a sentence which Lee wrote in the Racing Post on Monday: "Among the themes running through the author's commentary is the normalisation of activities and attitudes which were long since banished from other trading areas and the widespread fear that has allowed them to flourish."  In the next paragraph, Lee quotes from the review, a section in which Felice quotes one breeder who told him that "the system is so endemic of 'give us a kickback' that [industry participants] don't see it as corruption, they see it as the norm".  Do you see the problem which I have?

What jars with me is that this makes no sense set against the oft-quoted figure from the report that only 5% of agents are dishonest.  Surely this makes no sense?  How many agents would there be in the British Isles?  40?  60?  No more than 60, surely?  If there are 40, then 5% of them = two.  If 60, then 5% of them = 3.  How on earth can we have reached a situation where dubious practice has become normalised and endemic if there are 38 agents doing everything right and merely two doing things wrong, if there are 57 agents doing everything right and merely three doing things wrong?  How influential can these two or three (unnamed) agents be?  It just doesn't add up.  That figure of 5% is so strange.

My other concern is that the report might have painted the BHA (and us) into a corner.  I was surprised by how much of the review is given over to unsubstantiated quotes from (unnamed) people highlighting dishonesty in (unnamed) others.  For example, "... with another stating that "corruption is rife at sales" and one industry observer commenting that the "scale of dishonesty, amounting in some cases to straightforward theft, has been eye-watering"."  Or how about "... Agents have been critical of their fellow Agents (with one describing a colleague as a "law unto himself ")."?  Or, "A significant number of breeders and/or trainers made highly critical comments around the behaviour" of some (unnamed) "Agents describing them as "beyond unethical "."?

Now the problem we have here is that this report has taken the damage done by dishonest behaviour to a higher level altogether.  We've gone from all believing that there are probably some terrible things being done to having it written down in black and white that there are indeed some terrible things being done.  If the report's aim was to limit the damage being done to the industry's reputation, so far it has done the opposite of what it is trying to do, ie it has increased the damage being done.  But it can (and aims) to rectify that.  How?  By licensing agents.  But do you see the problem here?

All the current agents will, presumably, apply to be licensed.  But unless some of them are refused licenses, then the licensing system will just be a white-wash.  It's no good telling us that some agents are beyond unethical and that the scale of dishonesty, amounting in some cases to straightforward theft, has been eye-watering.  It's one thing getting a load of unsubstantiated and unattributed complaints; quite another to print them in an official review.  But once printed in the review, they can't be unsaid.  Now that they are in print, they are doing damage that will prove very hard to undo.

The review has told us that there are rotten apples.  Few are going to believe that these apples will become unrotten for being given a license.  So this licensing system will only undo the damage which the report's contents have done if several agents (and it's hard to believe the 5% figure) are refused licenses.  And that's not going to be easy.  It's fair to assume that any agent refused a license is going to sue the BHA for restraint of trade.  And if the best evidence which the BHA can come up with is what is in the report (ie unnamed people talking about unnamed people) then the BHA won't have much chance of winning those court cases.  So we'll be worse off than we are now, both as regards racing's finances (because this whole thing will end up as having been a very expensive exercise) and its reputation.

It's going to be interesting to see how this pans out, but I am concerned.  (And I am writing this as someone who is favour of the review on the basis that the BHA is going to be finding itself under increased scrutiny from Westminster about its ability and its right to govern the sport, and that it has to make sure that it does not provide Westminster with sticks with which to beat it about failing to have 'got its house in order' - and the current poor reputation of the probity of the bloodstock world, if unaddressed, would indeed potentially be such a stick).  I only hope that the way that this document has been published does not end up meaning that the BHA has bitten off more than it can chew, and doing more harm than good.  In the interim, I hope that I haven't bitten off more than Hidden Pearl will be able to chew at Wolverhampton tomorrow.
Monday, December 23, 2019

Getting ready for Christmas

In common with nearly all other Britons, we're 'getting ready for Christmas'.  And, funnily enough, I am nearly 'ready for Christmas'.  I've bought half of my presents (ie one) and am starting to feel as if we're nearly there.  Which, of course, we are, as it's now the evening of the 23rd of December.  When we get to Christmas, we'll then have ten and a half months of not being asked if we're 'ready for Christmas'.  And, of course, we'll be getting ready for Boxing Day, which is equally exciting, assuming that racing goes ahead, principally at Kempton.  It won't be going ahead at Huntingdon as they've been inundated; but I think that the weather is going to be less desperately wet than it's been, so hopefully the courses which are currently raceable (ie all that hold Boxing Day fixtures, bar Huntingdon) will still be raceable on Thursday.

Then we'll be getting ready for Friday, ie getting ready to take Hidden Pearl to Wolverhampton.  Mind you, those preparations might be in vain as she may be eliminated.  Thirteen get in and she's number 20 of 25, so it's going to be touch and go, at best.  Still, if she doesn't run then, she can run in the first week of January in a more or less identical race (14 furlongs, 46-65 handicap) at Chelmsford.  Normally we'd know on Wednesday if we're running on Friday; but as Wednesday is Christmas, Weatherbys won't be operating on that day so declarations won't be taken until Thursday.  So we'll have to wait until then to know if we get a run.  I am aware that some people reportedly prefer 24-hour declarations, but I don't know why: 48-hour declarations make life so much easier for trainers.

It's great that Boxing Day declarations have already been taken so the runners will be in tomorrow's (ie 24th December's) papers.  I'm looking forward to it already.  On the subject of jumps racing, we had my bugbear - ie a jumper suffering an unnecessary injury because of not wearing boots - at Ascot on Friday when Angels Breath badly damaged his front tendon with his hind hoof while landing over a jump.  Personally, having been, to borrow a phrase from The Fox's Prophecy, "taught wisdom by disaster", I ideally never run a horse in a jumps race without front boots, but I can understand why some trainers prefer not to do so as, while doing so decreases the chance of the horse suffering a fatal or career-ending injury, it also increases the chance of the horse not winning, simply because the boots add weight to the leg.

Obviously, on soft or heavy ground, they can add significantly more weight as the boots collect mud as the race goes on.  So I can understand why trainers particularly prefer not to use them on heavy ground - although the same afternoon I did watch a Venetia Williams-trained horse wearing boots, as all hers do, win in bottomless ground by a street at Uttoxeter.  However, in an age when more and more things are bound by regulation, I am surprised that it is permissible to run a horse in hind plates when he isn't wearing front boots.  (Obviously, if a horse does strike into his front leg with the toe of the hind foot, the damage is far less severe if he is unshod behind).

My preference would be for it to be compulsory to run jumpers in front boots because then the trainers who opt for a safety-first policy are not disadvantaged and there is no disincentive (in the form of your horse carrying less weight on his legs) towards leaving the boots off; but if we are allowed to run horses without boots on their front legs in jumps races (and I do appreciate that some people subscribe to the school of thought that a horse is more likely to strain a tendon when wearing boots because the legs are less ventilated, although for me - and presumably Venetia Williams - and all other old-school people this is perceived as less of a risk) then not insisting that such horses race barefoot behind is just barmy.