Monday, May 13, 2013

"Good jumping ground"???

Yesterday was a very disappointing day, I'm afraid.  I was silly really.  The last time I'd gone to Worcester was 16th June 2010 and I'd said then that I'd never have another runner there.  The ground was as firm as I've ever seen at a jumps meeting and even Ex Con, who needed fast ground, couldn't cope with it.  I came away thinking that horses should never be asked to run over jumps on such conditions, and that any course which provided such conditions should be avoided.  Anyway, time passes; and with Worcester claiming that its ground was "good, good to firm in places" early in its summer season when the weather hasn't been hot, I thought that we'd be OK.

I'd avoided Wincanton, who had honestly admitted its ground to be "good to firm, firm in places", and I'm sure that that was the correct thing to do.  But, really, conditions couldn't have been any worse than at Worcester.  And what should have set alarm bells ringing in my head was the fact that, when the ground was very firm in June 2010 on a day which had what looks like Worcester's highest (ie firmest) ever Going Stick reading, the official ground description was a relatively innocuous "good to firm, good in places".

Anyway, Hugh and I arrived there yesterday feeling rather sorry for ourselves as it was raining - but after I'd had a walk out on the back straight, I came back and observed, "Thank God it is raining, because it's bloody firm out there.  It's proper good to firm ground even by Flat standards".  Things became even stranger when we went over to the other side of the course - and found the ground soft, a real sodden mess.  When William came to weigh out, I posed the question, "Is this ground soft, firm in places, or firm, soft in places?".  Anyway, these were conditions on which one ideally would never even canter a horse, never mind gallop one, never mind race one, never mind race one over jumps - so we got what we deserved, I suppose.

William had schooled Frankie the previous day and the horse had been tremendous.  Neither he nor I saw any similarity between the Frankie who had topped off his preparation on Saturday and the Frankie who ran at Worcester the following day, yesterday.  He looked tremendous beforehand, but soon after the start of the race it was plain that he wasn't comfortable.  He jumped tentatively and raced sluggishly.  Amazingly, he battled to the front at the third last hurdle, but was back-pedalling shortly after the second last.  He dropped right out and, with William easing him, he finished tailed off, William reporting that he'd been hating it.  The exact problem was not immediately apparent, but when he got home I found that he'd put a splint out on his near-fore, which makes his feeble performance easy to understand as every stride, never mind every jump, in the race must have hurt him.  You don't expect that with a mature horse who's had a bit of racing, but then again with racing we know to expect the unexpected - and if ever something like that was going to happen, it would happen on ground as was put on yesterday.

Anyway, no permanent damage done.  This'll settle down and he'll bounce back.  Where does it leave us?  Well, it re-affirms my vow (sadly temporarily lapsed yesterday) never to run a horse at Worcester again.  If that's the best they can do about producing a surface for horses to race on, I'll leave 'em to it without feeling that I'm missing out.  And if that woefully misleading description of the going is the best they can do, ditto.  But a couple of interesting points.  We're often told that to assess the ground, one should just look at the times.  But if 50% of the course is firm and 50% is soft, one very well might get good ground times, even though there's probably not even a square metre of turf on the track which fairly deserves to be called 'good'.  Similarly with Going Stick readings, which are an average of something like 40 readings taken from different points around the track: if half are for soft ground and half are for firm ground, you'll probably get a (shockingly misleading) official reading to tell you that the ground is good.

And where does it leave Worcester?  It leaves it staging plenty of jumps racing through the summer, I'm afraid - and it's hard to see that the racing surface is likely to get better rather than worse.  In June 2010 I'd concluded that it probably shouldn't be staging jumps racing in the summer, and yesterday has again directed me to this opinion.  Worcester used to be a great National Hunt track in the winter, providing 'proper jumping ground', and it used to stage Flat racing (until maybe the late '60s) during the summers - and it mightn't be a bad idea if it (or the BHA) were to re-assess its role, and change its status in the summer from a National Hunt track to a Flat track.  The ground is important on the Flat, but it's far more important for jumps racing, so it would be less worrying if conditions such as those on offer yesterday were presented merely for Flat racing.  You can be absolutely certain that a racing surface such as yesterday's would never be presented for racing at, say, the Cheltenham Festival, as there would be an outcry if it were.  And it's just not good enough to say that it's more important to get it right at the big meetings than at the smaller ones: granted the horses who run at summer jumps fixtures are not so valuable, but they are horses all the same, and putting on ground which would not be deemed acceptable at a major meeting is not acceptable under any circumstances.

And I'm not just saying this because our horse came home sore: I was saying it even before the race was run.  You might ask, then, why I didn't scratch him?  The answer is that, had we had an accurate picture of the ground beforehand, we wouldn't have gone there.  But, having gone, it's awkward to get into the mindset of scratching one's horse: if one starts going down the road of not running because conditions might be dangerous, that's only a stone's throw from never having a runner.  After all, to quote the brahmatic Claude Charlet, "How can you call off racing for being dangerous?  When is it ever safe?".

Illustrating this chapter are photographs of the home straight at Worcester yesterday (this bit of ground is presumably the bit deemed to be "good" - and I didn't take any pictures in the back straight, because photographing firm ground is rather pointless as one just sees grass); of Douchkirk and William before the race; and of the front view of the horse's near-fore leg in the evening, with his new splint clearly visible on the inside.  And then we've got three photos of the aforementioned Ex Con.  One is one of the last times I rode him (eight days ago) and the other two are taken by me during my last ride on him - which was this afternoon, when I rode him down the Snailwell Road to the British Racing School, where he is starting a new life in the company of Our Vic and other lovely horses as a useful part of the education of the next generation of racing lads.  Fingers crossed, it'll transpire that he was made for the role and the role was made for him. He's a wonderful horse who has been a much-loved part of the family here for several years, so it was an emotional journey - but one made exciting by the knowledge that a good new chapter is beginning for him.

3 comments:

bigalp said...

Shame Ex Con has gone John we used to love to see him on our visits down to Newmarket. Alec & Jayne

David Winter said...

Firstly, my heart goes out to you to see your old horse move. At least he has a great future for himself and being able to help bring on the next generation of young jockeys.

Regarding Worcester. Telling lies about the going [ and they are really] is unforgivable, especially nowdays with the cost of transport being what it is. Furthermore, if the going is so variable, why not say so ???. Its not an excuse but i di believe that the course has been under a few feet of water a few times these last few years through flooding. Maybe the powers that be should inspect the course and suggest that fresh drainage and new sward be allowed to establish before allowing racing of either code be allowed to continue. I do hear of so many trainers complain of obfuscated reports by Clerks of Courses in their going reports. Surely they must realise that the professionals will soon be wary and, like John, give the course a miss.

David Winter said...

Firstly, my heart goes out to you to see your old horse move on. At least he has a great future for himself and being able to help bring on the next generation of young jockeys.

Regarding Worcester. Telling lies about the going [ and they are really] is unforgivable, especially nowdays with the cost of transport being what it is. Furthermore, if the going is so variable, why not say so ???. Its not an excuse but i do believe that the course has been under a few feet of water a few times these last few years through flooding. Maybe the powers that be should inspect the course and suggest that fresh drainage and new sward be allowed to establish before allowing racing of either code be allowed to continue. I do hear of so many trainers complain of obfuscated reports by Clerks of Courses in their going conditions. Surely they must realise that the professionals will soon be wary and, like John, give the course a miss.