Sunday, December 05, 2010

Very boring

This I'm afraid is going to be a very boring chapter, so please don't feel obliged to wade through it. It'll be like a few pages of chapter seven of 'Ulysses', only with even less happening. I'll get the interesting thing out of the way first: we awoke to a thaw yesterday morning (Saturday) and, while I doubt that it's only ever been a degree or two above zero since then, the thaw has continued. BUT it's forecast, almost unbelievably, to drop back down below zero during the night to get back down to minus six before peaking tomorrow at a daytime high of minus four. Which is quite a thought.

Anyway, that was the interesting bit, which doesn't say much for what follows. Basically, I'd had a few thoughts bouncing around my head for a while, prompted by this whole RFCgate thing, and also helped along by the extremely strong reaction within Australia to the sale to Coolmore of the four-year-old champion So You Think, which will see him leave the country to race in Europe next season. Which is GREAT for us, but less good for Australian racing and race-goers. (At least, I hope that it will see him race here - were he to do a Denman and just disappear, that would be just terrible from every angle). Anyway, my mind was going in a couple of RFCgate-related directions, into waters as yet uncharted in the debate, and the main thrust of my thinking was that it might be worth RFC's while, if that body really is serious about boosting racing's popular appeal, tackling the major disadvantage of British Flat racing (when compared to British National Hunt racing) which is that the best horses are retired far earlier than is either necessary or desirable. I know that in the post-Gordon Gecko "Greed is good" era, it's considered normal for financial gain to be the deciding factor in pretty much everything, but it's always worth remembering that it is not compulsory for this to be the case. Most recently I was sickened not just by the brevity of Sea The Stars' racing career, but also by the fact that all on-lookers, most notably the press, didn't see anything odd or unacceptable in this. Anyway, I put pen to paper last night - and almost immediately afterwards was made aware of , onto whose site my essay found its way an hour or so later. (This essay might find its way into the Racing Post, but I'm not holding my breath on that one). Anyway, here it is - and please do check out (and sign up to) that website as well:-

The article by Rod Street (Racing Post, 4th December) in which he outlined both the history behind the formation of Racing For Change and its aims was interesting. However, it added little to the on-going debate because there is no dissension on the subject of those aims: all involved in racing are, I think, agreed that we should aim to raise the profile of our sport in the national consciousness, and secure it more column inches in the back pages as well as more slots on the front pages. The debate centres not around whether this aim is laudable, but whether RFC’s current ideas represent an effective way of achieving it.

My view, for what it is worth, is that these ideas will be detrimental to providing an engrossing programme of top-class racing which is (it is believed) what is required to make the sport a more appealing subject in the eyes of the population at large. I fear that RFC, thanks to the policy it is currently pursuing, is worse than an expensive way of achieving nothing: I worry that it is an expensive way of doing harm.

The reason why I feel that the theory behind the re-structuring of our season is flawed is because any attempt to shift focus even more towards the autumn will further undermine the importance of what should be British racing’s greatest assets: its major races in the summer. For the past couple of decades, most years have featured expressions of regret that our crown jewels (in particular the Guineas, the Derby and the King George) are becoming increasing less significant because more emphasis continues to be placed on the major races in the final third of the year, such as the Arc and the Breeders’ Cup. I cannot see how RFC’s current plans could fail to do further harm to the status of our Classics and established summer weight-for-age contests.

In an ideal world, of course, it ought to be feasible for the pool of top-class horses whose presence is necessary for these races to thrive to dominate the big races from late spring until late autumn. In practice, however, as any horseman understands, this is feasible only for a small minority of freakishly tough animals: the majority, and particularly the majority of adolescent horses such as the ones who contest these races, find the physical and mental strains of training and racing very tough. Once he has reached his peak, it takes a very special horse, trained by a very special trainer, to remain at that peak for more than a handful of months (or weeks – or even days).

Rod’s reference to Dancing Brave and the Derby provides a particularly apposite reminder of this fact. Dancing Brave is but one of a host of top-class horses in recent years whose careers have ended in a whimper, rather than a roar, in the autumn. This list also contains the likes of Nijinsky, Shergar, Nashwan, Generous, Galileo, George Washington, Montjeu, Hurricane Run, Authorized, Motivator, Alamshar and Nayef. Many of those whose careers have not ended with an autumnal whimper have only been spared that fate because they had already broken down or otherwise fallen by the wayside beforehand, including such as Mill Reef, Dubai Millennium, Slip Anchor, Singspiel, Harbinger, Golden Fleece, Henbit, Nureyev, Zafonic, Warning, Old Vic, Shamardal, First Island, Cockney Rebel and King’s Best.

Put simply, to achieve its aim, the programme of autumn championships needs to feature horses of this ilk at the peak of their form if it is to do what it is meant to do – and the only way that horses of this calibre can be effectively set for races that late in the year is if they have not yet been brought to their peak in the summer. Which, therefore, is more important: bolstering the appeal of our traditional summer highlights or having our best horses trained to peak in October? Any horseman will tell you that, with all but a small minority of immature horses, this is an either/or situation – and my view is that show-casing the best of our summer races should be the priority. Interestingly, the fact that the Derby features so highly in Rod Street’s racing memory-bank suggests that he might, underneath it all, feel this way too.

Instead of plotting to undermine our summer highlights, my suggestion to RFC is that they take practical steps to improve our top races and to make them more appealing to the general public. There is one simple way in which this can be done: to encourage a reversal of the dismal mindset which encourages the premature retirement of our best horses. It is generally agreed that National Hunt racing has a big advantage by the fact that its stars (soundness permitting) remain on the scene long enough to become household names. When Desert Orchid or Kauto Star wins yet another King George, that is front page news, as it is when Kauto Star and Denman clash in yet another Gold Cup. Similar things should happen in Flat racing, but nowadays do not.

It is ludicrous that Sea The Stars, who was as close to perfection as we have seen in a racehorse in recent years, should have had a career which lasted less than 15 months and which included a mere nine races – but even stranger/sadder is the fact that nobody appeared to regard his premature his retirement as anything other than a normal occurrence. In a previous, more sporting, era, his owner would have been pilloried by public and press alike for depriving the sport of its biggest drawcard so prematurely – whereas modern thinking saw him voted ‘Owner of the Year’, while breeders queued up to reward him with their patronage!

Of course, the financial argument in favour of premature retirement is overwhelming. We know that – but, as the owners of such Derby winners as Mill Reef (who, of course, was set to remain in training as a five-year-old until he broke down shortly after that plan had been announced) and Sir Percy proved, sportsmanship does not have to be come second behind by money-mindedness. We are, I suppose, lucky in that the two biggest ownership interests (ie Godolphin and Coolmore) do race some of their best horses beyond their Classic year, but in general this is only done with horses who have underperformed and whose stud CV still needs to be worked on. While we are unlikely ever to return to the era in which it was axiomatic that a champion three-year-old, such as Bayardo or his grandson Hyperion, would be trained for the following season’s Ascot Gold Cup, is it too much to hope that we could reach the stage where it was the norm for the Classic winners to be aimed the following year at some or all of such races as the Coronation Cup, Eclipse, King George and Arc, rather than at generating the maximum amount of money as quickly as possible at stud? It is unlikely to be feasible to legislate for this, but effective leadership, with help from the press, could create a general mindset in which retirement of sound horses before they had reached maturity was considered so socially unacceptable that nobody would contemplate it. Such a change would massively assist the achievement of RFC’s aims, and yet it is an issue on which RFC and the BHA are ever silent, while the press are worse than useless, abetting the perpetuating of the myth that a horse can reach the stage where he “has nothing left to prove” at the age of three and by failing to speak out against this practice which does so much harm to our sport.

At this point, it is perhaps worthwhile to consider the extent to which we lag behind Australia, a country where racing’s best horses and big races genuinely are front-page news. Australia has been blessed to have unearthed its own Sea The Stars: the four-year-old So You Think, winner of the past two Cox Plates. While this horse, by contesting such races as the Cox Plate and the Melbourne Cup as a four-year-old, has already graced the stage for much longer than would be the case with his European equivalents, the fact that he has now been sold to race abroad has provoked a national outcry – with, remarkably, his trainer (Bart Cummings) being the fiercest critic of the deal.

A letter from a reader to Winning Post, Australia’s principal racing newspaper, sums up the general feeling:-

“… I am disappointed for Australian racing. The industry needs a star, and whilst So You Think was only ever destined to race at high-attendance meetings his magnetism is such that he could attract people to racing per se. The thought sits in my mind that Dato Tan (the horse’s owner) may have owed better to the Saintly Place (So You Think’s stable) team, and to Australian racing overall. Then again, perhaps racing authorities generally could, or should, have made attempts to produce another outcome in the interests of the sport they are administering … Okay, racing is a business and a business decision has been made. But to the regular racegoer it is his/her sport and recreation. Many of these people have waited a lifetime to enjoy another Bernborough, Tulloch, or Kingston Town and it saddens me that when such a horse came along he was taken away from them. I somehow wonder where the next generation of dedicated racecourse regulars (as opposed to the once-a-year brigade) will come from if the stars are taken away.”

Flat racing will indeed return to the front pages when Britain is blessed with a Bernborough, a Tulloch, or a Kingston Town, in just the same way that Red Rum, Desert Orchid and Kauto Star have raised the profile of jumps racing so significantly. We are lucky in Britain in that many horses of seemingly great potential cross our firmament frequently. If Racing For Change (or, indeed, the BHA – or, indeed, the racing press) genuinely wishes to get our sport back on the front pages, it should, rather than trying to shift the focus of the sport from the summer to the autumn, be trying to alter the mindset which considers it acceptable for our best horses to spend the years when they are at their athletic peak covering mares rather than racing.

Lest RFC decide that this project should be consigned to the ‘too hard’ basket, it is worth remembering that it is not without precedent for a good leader to persuade those with vested interests to subordinate their own desire for profit behind the general good. Until the 1930s, it was the case that stallion-masters would book as many mares as they could into their sires, the only limiting factor being, as now, the stallion’s ability to cover. In 1933, Lord Rosebery brought the stud-masters into line to observe a convention (which would remain in place for over half a century) which dictated that no stallion covered more than 45 mares. If peer pressure could be used by a good leader for the general good of the sport then, might it not work now?


Nathan said...

What are your thoughts on this gem John...

problemwalrus said...

That's got to be much better than Ulysses.Some great ideas for seeing more of the stars!