Sunday, February 13, 2011

Sad Saturday

I enjoyed my trip to Lingfield yesterday, notwithstanding the fact that Asterisk (pictured walking dreamily around the parade ring before yesterday's race) ran badly. Part of what made the trip so pleasant was, of course, the warm sunny weather, but another part was the horrific reminder which we received from elsewhere of what a bad day at the races really is: any day at the races from which all the horses return home safely and at which none of the jockeys are hurt is a good day. If a horse runs badly but walks away happy and unharmed (as Asterisk did) and the jockey strolls back into the weighing room, then any problems or disappointments which one might think one has endured aren't matters of life or death. Sadly, the tragedy of those two poor horses who were electrocuted at Newbury, the fatal injuries to lovely old Money Trix (pictured looking over the door of the stable in Abington Place which he occupied for a time last winter while escaping the Cumbrian arctic) in the Irish Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown and to Kilmurry in the Grade Two novice chase at Warwick, and the death of Glencove Marina after the Irish Hennessy Gold Cup, reminded us of the sadness which can ensue from a day at the races. (And it is possibly worth reflecting that, on a terrible day for National Hunt racing, none of the casualties were fallers). I feel so sorry for the connections of the horses who lost their lives yesterday, and particularly feel for my first employer Andy Turnell and his patrons and staff who lost Marching Song at Newbury, and for Nicky Richards and his team. Even with such a special horse as Monet's Garden in the string which had come down from frozen Greystoke to Newmarket, it was clear when they were down here last winter what affection, respect and admiration Nicky had for Money Trix, whom he is seen riding here just after dawn on the Heath one winter's morning last year (the poor light being my excuse for coming up with such a terrible photograph).

Asterisk's performance was rather frustrating because she was so calm beforehand, really good at the start (I went down to the start and loaded her myself, as I generally do as she was formerly very difficult with the stalls) - and not in the least bit tired afterwards. That last bit gives some hope for optimism as she is clearly capable of better - but at the same time it is rather frustrating to see her under-performing. We'll see what the future holds, even if, on the face of it, it's hard to justify running a horse again after such a weak performance as she put in yesterday. If only she could have taken inspiration from her travelling companion: she went down there with the Gay Kelleway-trained Layline, who won a very competitive 81-95 handicap which was clearly the best race on the card and which, by a bizarre piece of race-programming, was the last race (after which Jamie Spencer is seen unsaddling him in the twilight and his warm black breeches, which probably aren't really necessary on a very mild and spring-like afternoon like yesterday's). That was clearly the best race of the day, but arguably the highlight was the win in a low-grade sprint handicap of Waabel, who provided Paul Doe with his first ride since 10th June and also his first winner. Paul has featured in this blog recently when we were discussing jockeys on the side-lines so it was good to see him back from his back-trouble-enforced absence - not that it looked, as one watched the race, as if he'd been away, as he'd clearly been working hard on his fitness to ensure that he would be ready to do himself and his mounts justice on his resumption.

So that was all very pleasant at a spring-like (although not yet leafy) Lingfield, in marked contrast to the awful events at Newbury and elsewhere. Newbury's card will, of course, be remembered as the day of the electrocution-enforced abandonment, but it will also be remembered as the day which put the nail in the coffin of any attempt by the Horsemen to make a meaningful demonstration of our feelings over the tarriffs. Last week was the first week since the introduction of the tarriffs. (I am aware that that last sentence doesn't actually make any sense, but I think/hope that you may know what I mean). The feature meeting on the first Saturday of the first week was always going to be the highest-profile demonstration of the fact that either people weren't going to run in races of less than the demanded value or that people were going to run whether or not the races met the requested levels. As it was, Newbury, a track which has spent the last several years consolidating a reputation for parsimony as regards prize money, provided the perfect demonstration: the Tote Gold Trophy (which was worth roughly twice the hoped-for amount) was the only race to meet/exceed the tarriffs' figures, while the remaining six races collectively fell short by 68,278 pounds. (Strange but true). This obviously set the scene for a clear-cut demonstration either way - and sadly the demonstration which we got was that, it seems, people are going to race whether or not the tarriffs are met.

Obviously one is never going to get unanimity among trainers, but jumps racing is in a strange situation in that the majority of horses, and the vast majority of good horses, are clustered in a handful of stables - even more so than on the Flat, if that's possible. The top 11 stables in the (financial) table have each run more than 100 individual horses this season, with Howard Johnson in 11th place being the least significant numerically, having 'only' run 112 horses. (These are the only stables seemingly to have massive strings, and beneath them in the table there is a yawning numerical gap, with 12th placed Peter Bowen having run 64 - which, of course, until recent years would have made this stable far and away the biggest in the land! - and 13th placed Nick Williams having run 30). Jonjo O'Neill (9th) is the biggest player numerically, having run 174 individual horses under National Hunt rules this season, followed by Nicky Henderson (165), Paul Nicholls (163), Nigel Twiston-Davies (159), Alan King (153), Tim Vaughan (148) and Philip Hobbs (138). As these stables collectively provide such a large percentage of the runners, and particularly of the more talented runners, how this handful of trainers reacted to the introduction of the tarriffs was going to be crucial. So what happened? Leaving aside the Tote Gold Trophy, in the six races below tarriff levels Paul Nicholls was set to saddle runners in all six races, Nicky Henderson and Philip Hobbs in four of the six, and so on. Last year (when the meeting came shortly after a prolonged freeze-up, whereas this year it came several weeks after a freeze-up, so that the backlog of horses waiting to run has had time to be dispersed) the six races had 12, 18, 6, 5, 3 and 11 runners - this year the numbers of horses declared were 10, 14, 7, 6, 3 and 11, so two of the races this year had slightly fewer runners, two had slightly more and two were set to have the same. So, all in all, I am afraid that we, the "Horsemen", collectively have managed to give a clear-cut demonstration that we will continue running the horses whether the tarriffs are met or not. Previously the racecourses would merely have suspected this to be the case; now they know it.


Nathan said...

Hi John

Surely it should be down to the owners to refrain from running their horses unless the tariffs are met; not the trainers responsibility?


racingfan said...

I think sad saturday summed everything up,very sad day for connections and everyone involved in the horses, at least asterisk came home safe and sound, I saw the race and maybe a smaller field and being ridden more prominent may help, but these are the questions a trainer has to try and solve and I am no expert!

Very pleased to see Paul Doe riding a winner and he didnt look rusty at all,

at least we all get to wake up in the morning and lets hope for a nice day.

Good luck any other entries expected this week John?


Alan Taylor said...

Hi John as trainers and owners are forced out of the game because of low prize money at least those who tried to change the situation will have a clear conscience. In order to have winners there has to be losers. The big guys need the little guys or there is no competition.

John Berry said...

Fair point, Nathan. Any running plans are, obviously, concocted as a joint-scheme between owner and trainer, so obviously both parties have to be happy about the plan for the horse to run (although in practice, generally if any owner said that his horse either must or must not run in a particular race, then the horse would run, or not run as the case may be, irrespective of whether the trainer thought it a good idea). However, in this instance, it has been, by and large, the trainers who have made a stand in saying that they will 'support the tarriffs' (whatever that means), witness the letter to this end in the Racing Post on Sunday 16th January which was signed by 11 trainers (including Nicholls, Henderson and Hobbs), 9 jockeys + the president of the Jockeys' Association, six owners and three racing managers. There is, by the way, a good article by Julian Muscat on the subject in today's Racing Post.

Runners later this week, racingfan: only Ethics Girl on Friday. Alcalde was an intended runner, but there are two horses who seem likely to run who are weighted 12lb and 18lb (Arrayan and Pere Blanc) lighter than they would be if the race were to be run a day later, so it does not make much sense to run against them.

By the way, Nathan, I'm afraid that I missed your ATR appearance a couple of weeks ago. Pity - I'd have liked to have caught that.