Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Spring and a few of its consequent mysteries

Saturday was a great day.  It wasn't merely the day of a great Grand National, won by a great horse ridden by a great jockey.  It was also the day when winter ended.  We'd had the odd nice day, but until Saturday there was no sign of consistent good weather.  Saturday didn't start off particularly well, but the sun came out at around 10 am; and things have continued to pick up from there.  Today we have had unbroken sunshine and a top temperature of 23 degrees.  Tomorrow promises to be similar, only a couple of degrees even warmer.  It won't be unbroken sunshine until September, obviously and admittedly; but the good weather has at last arrived after a dreadful and dreadfully long winter which now, less than a week after its departure, already seems like a semi-distant memory.

In tandem with spring arriving, we might have been having our first turf runner of the year.  That's not to be, though, as Das Kapital was one of 11 horses eliminated from the Wood Ditton Stakes at Newmarket tomorrow.  Safety factor 19; 30 declared.  And the race (at £15,000) was too valuable to be divided, which is fair enough.  God willing we can go to Yarmouth on Tuesday instead.  What was odd, though, about the division of races at that this Craven Meeting was that we've twice seen something which I had never knowingly seen previously: a race being divided which did not need to be.

This was really odd.  A race isn't divided unless it receives at least 18 declarations, so that there will be at least nine horses in each division.  That makes sense: any fewer than that, and you run the risk of dividing a race to produce heats which don't feature each-way betting with three places.  So if, say, the safety factor is 14 and 17 are declared, there will be one race with 14 runners and three horses eliminated.  If there are 18 horses declared, the race will be divided and there will be two divisions with nine runners each.

But I had always assumed that, to be divided, a race not only had to have at least 18 declarations, but also had to have exceeded the safety factor.  Not so, apparently.  This week there have been two races at Newmarket (one maiden race, one novice race) which have attracted 18 declarations and which have been divided, despite the fact that the safety factor for each was 19, so the race could easily have been run just as one race, with every declared horse getting a run.  That surprised me.  But, there you go - you learn something new every day.

What we didn't learn yesterday was who galloped with Elarqam up the Rowley Mile before racing.  If you were watching RUK's coverage, you will know that we don't know which two horses galloped with him, because their supposed anonymity became quite a talking point.  The mantra was that a horse can't have a public gallop on a raceday without being identified.  This is correct: a horse can't come onto racecourse property, whether to gallop or to act as a companion or because he is passing through, without being identified.  His passport has to come with him and be inspected to ensure that his vaccinations are in order.

So these horses weren't coming to gallop anonymously: the clerk of the course knew who they were.  If Mark Johnston didn't want to volunteer their names, then that's fair enough.  But I can't see why it became such an issue for the RUK people.  All they needed to do was to ask the clerk of the course, who was fully aware of these horses' identities.  I can't see that he would have refused to tell them.  What I also can't see, incidentally, is why any trainer would want to conceal the identity of his public gallopers.  I can only see two reasons for wanting to do this, and I can't see that under normal circumstances either would apply.

I can see that the trainer would want to keep the horses' identities private if he hadn't told their owners that they were going to be galloping at Newmarket that day.  However, no responsible trainer would have omitted to let the owner know that their horse was going to the Craven Meeting for a public gallop, so that rules this one out in this instance, Mark Johnston being one of the most responsible trainers you could ever meet.  So that leaves us with the second reason - and, as Sherlock Holmes used to say, when you have ruled out all other possible explanations, what you are left with, however unlikely it may appear, has to be the answer.

This leaves us with the only other possible explanation, ie that the owners of these other two horses like a bet, so wouldn't want it to be public knowledge that their (presumably otherwise under-the-radar) horses have been galloping with one of the best three-year-olds in the country; because if this becomes public knowledge, then the next time they run their odds will be shorter than would otherwise be the case.  That's understandable; and, if that were the case, I wouldn't tell anyone who they were either - the only thing being that if I were getting an otherwise anonymous maiden owned by someone who likes a bet ready for a coup, the one thing I definitely wouldn't do with him would be to take him to the Craven Meeting to gallop before an audience of thousands (well, tens of thousands if you throw in the RUK pundits and viewers) with a 2,000 Guineas aspirant.
Saturday, April 07, 2018

Too much of a good thing?

The big news of the week is that we had two really nice days in a row.  Wednesday was very nice in the morning but rain (yet more of it) moved in during the afternoon (which had been forecast - through the morning it was almost impossible to believe that the forecast was going to be right, but right it turned out to be).  Thursday and Friday (yesterday), though, were both lovely.  Thursday was just divine, unbroken sunshine all day.  Yesterday wasn't quite so glorious but very nice anyway.  And it's warmer.  So spring does at last seem to be more or less here (if not farther north yet).  And today is pleasant too, if not sunny.

The big news stories aside from the weather have been the self-certificate suspension for a handful of trainers, and the million-pound Sky Bet Ebor and xxx Cesarewitch (sponsor as yet unsigned).  I don't know quite what to make of this second one.  In one sense I ought to be pleased as these are two races in which we might conceivably have a runner.  I've trained a Cesarewitch runner twice in the past (Il Principe, 8th of 29 under John Lowe in 1998; Il Principe, 11th of 32 under Neil Kennedy in 1999) and it is easy to see that happening at some point in the future.  And it is easy to see Hope Is High becoming an Ebor contender this year.  So I should be pleased that these races are going to be hugely valuable.

But I'm not really sure that I am.   My main criticism about prize money in Britain is that the gap between the highest-value races and the lowest-value races is far too big.  Making the prizes for these two races so huge doesn't do anything to tackle this issue; if anything, it exacerbates it.  The other criticism is that it will mean that it will cost a fortune to run in them, which will hugely lessen the chances of smaller connections taking part.  York have said that the entry fee for the £1,000,000 Sky Bet Ebor will only be 0.5% of the prize - but that's still £5,000, which is very stiff.  (And the implication of the statement was that, if the figure hadn't been 0.5%, it would have been higher).  (Presumably only those who make the final field will pay the full £5,000, but there will be many others paying a four-figure sum who are initially nominated but who don't make it through all the forfeit stages).

I had thought that it would be fair to assume that the figure for the £1,000,000 xxx Cesarewitch might be the same.  Apparently, it won't be: it will be 1.25%, so it will cost £12,500 to run in the race.  There's going to be a National Lottery-type bonanza for the connections of the winner which is good, but the downside will be that the connections of the 30 horses who don't finish in the first four will all be reflecting that they have paid a fortune to have an unproductive day out, with very possibly many or most of them reflecting that they have suffered for their honesty in that they have been beaten by an inferior horse who has merely been campaigned less openly and is thus better handicapped.  I'm not sure that that will be doing much to increase the sum of human happiness.

It is fair to assume that a hefty chunk of the million pounds will be provided by owners' entry fees.  For the £1,000,000 xxx Cesarewitch, one could see the best part of £500,000 coming from entry fees.  I feel that an £500,000 xxx Cesarewitch with a much smaller entry fee might be a more satisfactory move.  Two other titbits for thought on the subject.  Firstly the Gold Cup is currently worth £500,000, half the value which the xxx Cesarewitch will boast. Does this make sense?  Hard to argue that it does.  Secondly, if a horse has already reached a point in the ratings' list when he seems sure to get a run in the xxx Cesarewitch, do you think his connections will be trying to win his lead-up race worth, say, 1% or 2% of that value if doing so would secure him, say, a 6lb penalty for his real target?  I don't, either.
Tuesday, April 03, 2018

Come blow your horn, start celebrating; right this way, your table's waiting!

Good.  That's a wrong righted.  From a tweet by Lingfield's excellent clerk of the course George Hill I see that there was a presentation ceremony there at this afternoon's meeting to mark Nicola's achievement in being the Champion Apprentice of the AW winter season.  That's just as it should be.  Good on 'em.  Obviously I'm particularly pleased as the rider concerned is our rider, but that's not the point: the AW Winter Champion Apprentice deserves to be have his or her achievement recognized and honoured, irrespective of who wins the title, just as the Champion Apprentice in the main season deserves (and receives) his or her plaudits and ceremony.

The spectre of a potential fly in the ointment was briefly raised after I wrote the last chapter as someone suggested that any rider who starts the season as an apprentice should have all his/her winners included in his/her tally, irrespective of his/her status when riding them.  That is plainly not true, however, as was made very clear two years ago.  Tom Marquand was Champion Apprentice in 2015.  The following year it became clear during the second half of the summer that the 2016 title was going to be between him and Josephine Gordon.

Early in the autumn, as was extensively covered in the Racing Post and other media outlets at the time, it became known that, as Tom had ridden out his claim early in April, he was going to have to surrender his apprentice license exactly six months later, early in October, one week before Champion Stakes Day (which is illogically the final day of the so-called championship season) and that consequently any winners which he rode in the final week of that season would not count towards his tally in the apprentices' table.  This was black-and-white, undisputed.

It was actually rather nice that season because Josephine, understandably, was keen to be ahead of him not merely at the end of the season but at that point too, so that, were she to win the title, nobody could begrudge her her crown by saying that she had had, say, 26 weeks to rack up the winners while Tom had only had 25 - and it turned out that she was indeed ahead of him when he ceased to be an apprentice with one week remaining, so it wasn't just that she beat his total with one more week than he had, but she beat his total in exactly the same time too.

One sometimes sees something similar in National Hunt racing.  The title of Champion Amateur used to be a big thing, but inexplicably nowadays it is paid no heed.  (Well that's not true: presumably the contenders for it are very aware).  I wouldn't be confident that I could name one Champion Amateur in the last decade, whereas previously the title and its winner always used to be given great publicity.

One often sees a leading young amateur who clearly has a good future as a professional leading the amateurs' championship by, say, three wins in February, and being asked about his future.  He's on the crest of a wave, and clearly it's in his financial interest to become a conditional as soon as possible - but he says that he is going to remain an amateur until the end of the season before making the change because he is keen to win to be Champion Amateur (because, clearly, winners ridden by him that season on a conditional license do not count towards his total for the amateurs' championship, notwithstanding that he had started the season as an amateur).

Anyway, it was great that today's ceremony happened.  But that was today, and next we have tomorrow.  And tomorrow for me and Roy will be a trip to Kempton.  It's a twilight meeting rather than an evening meeting, which is great news as that means that it doesn't finish as late as it would were it an evening meeting.  It finishes nice and early at 9.15 (once again prompting the question of what time the last race would have been were it an evening meeting).  We're in the last race, but by a stroke of good fortune we're in the first division of it at 8.45.  Every second counts at that time of night!  For both Roy and I it will be our fourth trip to Kempton this winter and our first trip to the races for four weeks.  It is also very likely to be our last trip to Kempton of the current winter/spring, as Brighton will be calling from the end of this month onwards.  I'm sure that he'll run his usual creditable race tomorrow and, as always with him, I'm looking forward to the outing (its late hour notwithstanding).
Sunday, April 01, 2018

Sherlock Holmes & the Curious Case of the Missing Champion Apprentice

Time flies.  I see that I haven't posted a chapter on this blog for two weeks, since Sunday 18th March.  I was fired up that week with Cheltenham reflections, but I must have been enjoying myself since then as the time has clearly flown.  There hasn't really been any reason for my absence.  Just busy, I suppose.  We had another (shorter) freeze-up early in those two weeks, with plenty of ice and a small amount of snow for a handful of days, and we have had the odd nice day, and one or two more which have been good in parts.  But basically it's just been rain, rain, rain,which always makes everything hard work.  (Don't be led astray by the scenes in these photographs.  They aren't representative; it's just that I generally only take photographs when the view is reasonably pleasing).

I'm pleased to say, though, that I've had a fairly quiet Easter weekend.  Well, it seems to have been quiet, even if thinking about it a bit more deeply suggests that it can't have been that quiet as yesterday was a fairly long day.  Morning stables lasted from 6.30 to 12.30 with five lots and no break in there; and then I had an evening shift on ATR in Milton Keynes from roughly 5.20 to 9.50.  And that's 55 miles from home.  So that was a fairly long day - but the nice thing is that it has seemed very pleasant.  Today has been very easy, only one lot ridden, and Friday was a delight as I snuggled up in front of the TV for the afternoon until it was time for evening stables.

It was such a shame that the weather was so grim for the big Good Friday racedays at Lingfield and Bath, with only Newcastle getting off without heavy rain.  We were luckier here in that the rain didn't arrive until mid-afternoon; and it wouldn't have affected my enjoyment of the racing anyway as I was enjoying it in my armchair courtesy of the ATR coverage.  I really enjoyed the afternoon, with great sport throughout at Lingfield ending with the heart-warming success for the Bloomsbury Stud colours, happy memories of which play a big part in all our yesterdays, in the Betway Easter Classic.

Newcastle was good with Gronkowski earning himself a place in the Kentucky Derby by winning the Listed race, even if it's very hard to see him being either good enough or seasoned enough to be competitive in the race, not least because he's never run on dirt.  I always enjoy seeing Jeremy Noseda get a good result, and it's great to think that his stable will be having a runner in the Run for the Roses.  But what gave me most pleasure on the day was Franny Norton going through the card at Bath.  Admittedly this was a card which, thanks to the dreadful weather, only contained four races, but going through the card is going through the card.

Off the top of  my head I can only think of three jockeys going through the card in the British Isles in the 20th century (Gordon Richards, Alec Russell and Frankie Dettori) and, until Franny did it at Bath on Friday, I don't think that any jockey had done it in this part of the world in the 21st century.  Franny has been a fine, ultra-reliable jockey for many years now and has been a big friend to this stable both last century and this, so that was lovely to see.  I watched all four races and it was really exciting - going into the last race, you knew that he would go through the card if he won it, and watching the race you just got the feeling that this was going to happen, even though his mount only grabbed a hard-fought victory in the dying strides.  A bit like Frankie on Fujiyaman Crest - the tide was running too strongly to be resisted.

Franny rarely gets a chance to win a race which might put his name in the record books.  I still feel bad on his behalf that he was not offered the ride on Permian, whom he had ridden to victory in the Dante, in the Derby last year, losing out when a more fashionable jockey, William Buick, came available when his retainer, Godolphin, ended up not having a runner - and I didn't buy the excuse that Godolphin actually owned Permian because it didn't, not according to the official registration anyway, unless we don't give much respect to the theory that the registered owner of the horse is meant to be the actual owner of the horse.  Hence I was delighted that, courtesy of his winners in the rain on a Bank Holiday at Bath, Franny will now have his name forever etched in racing's history books.

The one disappointment of an excellent Good Friday of racing was that Nicola seemed to receive no recognition whatsoever for being Champion Apprentice for the winter.  This is so odd because, particularly since the advent of Lingfield's Good Friday championship final day and of the 'AW Championships', there has been so much of a boost to the profile of the winter seasons.  The Champion Jockey of the winter has been a big thing, and there's even an award for winning-most  horse.  It's just so odd that there is no recognition of, or award or publicity for, the Champion Apprentice.

There was so little recognition of Nicola's achievement that the AW season ended and I still didn't know whether she was the Champion Apprentice or not.  (Even more bizarrely, neither did she; and she was still in the dark about it until I told her today, two days after the season's end).  I just hadn't seen a table anywhere, nor any mention to the subject at all.  So strange.  Fortunately, on Saturday my friend Wally Hagger posted the winter jockeys' table (as it appeared on the AW Championships website) on Facebook (or the first 25 names on it) highlighting the fact that Nicola had been the leading female rider during the AW winter season (one win ahead of Josephine).  Josephine had ridden 25 winners, Nicola 26).

This was great because it enabled me to work out who had been the leading apprentice.  (Not that there was any reference on it to apprentices).  It's a bit like being Sherlock Holmes working this out, but here goes.  The only rider above Nicola on the table who has been an apprentice in the past year was Edward Greatrex, who rode 28 winners.  I can't remember exactly when Edward rode out his claim, but I do recall that it was some time in the middle of August.  The rule is that, when an apprentice rides out his claim, he has the choice of either taking out a senior jockey's license straightaway, or continuing to ride as an apprentice for a maximum of six months (or until his current license expires in the spring, whichever comes sooner).

I don't know which option Edward chose, but the latest he could have continued to ride as an apprentice was until some time roughly three weeks into February, meaning that, even if his winners up to that point count (and I don't know that they do - it could be that he took out a senior jockey's license straightaway; I just don't know) any winners he rode in the final five, maybe six, weeks of the winter season don't count towards his total for the (apparently non-existent) apprentices' championship for the AW winter season.

And, while I haven't been keeping a tally of what winners he has ridden when, he's had more than three winners in the last five weeks.  (Just looking up Captain Lars' record on the Racing Post site, I see that he has ridden four winners on that one horse alone during that period).  Which means that Nicola has ended the winter season as the Champion Apprentice, which is a magnificent achievement for someone whose career total stood at two halfway through last year.  It's just a pity that she and I seem to be the only two people in Great Britain who know this.  Well, there's actually three of us now because I've spoken to her agent Phil Shea on the subject.  And, now that you've read this blog, you're the fourth.
Sunday, March 18, 2018

Festival shame

Overtaken by events.  For six months of the year I write a weekly column for Al Adiyat, the weekly racing magazine in the UAE.  I have a free hand in the choice of subjects and the length of the articles, so I cover quite a bit of ground during the season as I cast left and right to find new subjects.  I submit my article every Sunday (or earlier) for publication (I think) two days later.  The past couple of Sundays (ie today, two days after the meeting, and last Sunday, ie two days before the meeting) have seen me writing about the National Hunt Meeting / Cheltenham Festival (of course).

The articles aren't meant to be chapters of a book. One doesn't have to have read the previous one to understand the current one.  But in this case there was an element of connection between the two, between the preview and the review.  Both touched upon the National Hunt Meeting being held at Newmarket (as happened in 1897) and both touched on the disgrace of the fact that the Mildmay of Flete Steeplechase is nowadays run under a name which does not include the words 'Mildmay of Flete'.  I was thinking that that is as sacrilegious as one could get; and I think that I referred to Lord Mildmay as perhaps the greatest figure in National Hunt racing of the 20th century.

If there were a figure greater, I suppose it would be either Fred Winter or Fulke Walwyn - and, b***er me, now Fred Winter's name too is to be removed from the race which commemorates him.  Unbelievable.  The Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle was run this year as the Boodles Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle.  Next year, apparently, it will be run as the Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle because the sponsors seemingly were disappointed when, according to Ian Renton, "they didn't get a single mention on the day".  If that is the case, then their beef should be with Cheltenham, not with Fred Winter and not with the many racing enthusiasts who revere the sport's history and who are appalled by this sacrilege.

The racecourse announcer is presumably employed by Cheltenham.  I would presume also that Cheltenham has some level of control over the choice and actions of the commentator.  Racing UK and ITV are both there under contract with the racecourse.  (And Jockey Club Racecourses is a major share-holder in RUK).  It just doesn't wash to say that whether Boodles were or weren't mentioned is out of Cheltenham's hands.  If there wasn't sufficient (or even any) reference made to Boodles' contribution on the racecourse Tannoy and on the TV coverage, that is Cheltenham's fault.  Cheltenham can control how little or how much reference is made to a sponsor.  If none was made, that is not because the title of the Boodles Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle contained the words 'Fred Winter', but because the racecourse wasn't doing its job properly.  Cheltenham's decision to shed those two words is a disgrace, not least because it's a disingenous attempt to cover up its own oversight.

It is disappointing that Boodles have swallowed what presumably is Cheltenham's line that the fault for Boodles' lack of recognition lay in the presence in the title of the words 'Fred Winter' rather in Cheltenham's failure to brief the race-day announcer and the commentator, to give direction to the TV companies and to liaise with the press.  And it is disappointing that Boodles seem not yet to have grasped that their being made to take the blame for Cheltenham's decision to drop the words 'Fred Winter' portrays them not as the generous and high-calibre supporters of the sport which they are, a company deserving the patronage of the sport's fans, but as a bunch of philistines.  They are not that; they are an excellent firm of jewellers which has long been a great supporter of racing, and they deserve better than to have Cheltenham create a situation which casts them in such an unrealistically unfavourable light.  Still, there are approximately 360 days until next year's Festival (even though I'm sure that media coverage will shortly be making it seem as if it starts tomorrow) so there's still time for common sense and decency to prevail.