Wednesday, February 26, 2014


I got it right about today's National Hunt meeting at Lingfield being abandoned, which I'd predicted after visiting the course last week.  And if you're wondering how I can say that when there is a National Hunt meeting taking place at Lingfield today, it's because the one (on grass with jumps) originally scheduled for Lingfield today was abandoned two days ago, to be replaced with an ad hoc fixture of "jumpers' bumpers", a type of National Hunt racing which is clearly better than nothing when nothing is the only alternative, but which it is surely hard to justify on a day such as today, which also boasts 'proper' National Hunt racing at both Wincanton and Bangor.

So that prediction was correct.  Which was just as well as I got just about everything else wrong.  I was very happy to head up to Musselburgh on Sunday with Frankie/Douchkirk in advance of Monday's meeting there, declarations having been taken on ground described as 'good, good to soft in places' and likely to soften slightly with around 3mm of overnight rain forecast.  I arrived at Musselburgh at around 7pm on Monday, to find the place dry and surprisingly mild.  I've been there on summer evenings colder than that.  However, it started to rain at bedtime, and then rained all night.

Just how hard it had rained through the night became apparent the next morning.  They'd had 15mm of rain by dawn, which went up to 18mm by 7.30, and probably had reached around 20mm by the time it eased off around 10.00.  The track was in beautifully-maintained condition which meant that it remained perfectly raceable - but raceable on ground correctly described as 'soft, heavy in places'.  There was still areas of standing water (and you can see one of those at the entrance to the back straight, at various times through the morning) when the hastily-arranged 8.30 inspection took place, but I'd imagine that all the surface water would have found its way into the soil by the time that racing started.

But, overall, it was no-brainer to bring Frankie home without having run him.  Annoying, but nobody's fault.  It was clearly the correct thing to do to declare him and then head up there, given the information available at the time, and it was clearly the correct thing to do to withdraw him once the going had changed so radically.  And it certainly was no fault of the racecourse, whose ground was in beautifully-maintained condition, and who were only relaying weather forecasts given to them by the experts.  So - a long, fruitless journey, but no lives were lost.  And we certainly we're the only victims of the unforecast deluge: John Ferguson had sent two horses up the previous day too, and they both returned home unraced.  And I noted that one race had seven non-runners out of 10 declared.

My other prediction for Monday's ground would be that, after the best part of a week of drying weather, the ground at Plumpton would be less taxing for Wasabi than the glue-pot conditions to which we had subjected her at Fakenham a month previously.  I'd said that we'd wait until conditions became less extreme before running her again, and I was happy on raceday (monitoring the situation from afar, obviously) that the ground had been upgraded to 'soft, heavy in places'.  However, it transpired that I'd got that one wrong too: the going was still extremely testing and she again found it very hard work.

She actually finished ninth of 14 which doesn't sound too bad, but that means that she finished last (and a distant last at that) as, although there were no fallers, five of the runners couldn't even keep going for the two miles and were pulled up.  Anyway, it's justifiable to hope that things really are set to pick up now (as the photographs in the last two paragraphs, taken this morning, suggest) so I hope that poor Wasabi won't have to face such gruelling conditions next time; and that Frankie can run on some nice ground before too long - next week, if we're lucky.

The bonus of the trip to Musselburgh was the drive because, although the first 250 miles of a drive to Musselburgh (and the last 250 miles of the drive home) aren't much fun, the 100 miles through Northumberland and the Scottish Borders are a delight of which I could never tire.  This was so interesting because, surprising though it is to see the countryside down here so green in February, it was even more startling to see what a mild winter they've had up there, where conditions are usually much harsher and spring much later to arrive than down here.

Everything was, though, just very, very wet, with the fields saturated and the rivers high and fast-flowing - but that didn't alter the splendour of the landscapes through which I drove.  It was a real pleasure, with the border between Scotland and England, the Carter Bar, providing the twin splendours of a magnificent rainbow and the only snow I've seen this winter.  The only shame was that, as the journey is so long, I didn't feel that I had time to stop off to have my lunch in the Scottish branch of Gus' catering empire (pictured in the fourth paragraph) in Lauder High Street.

Anyway, that's enough of looking back.  Let's look forward, albeit not to any more runners this week.  Firstly, Roy was eliminated from his engagement at Kempton tomorrow (32 entries of which 2 were not qualified, and 22 horses declared for 14 places in the field - with those 22 declarations bizarrely including one of the 'not qualified' horses, which had me scratching my head) which was a surprise as he is only rated 4lb below the ceiling (ie he's rated 46 and it's a 0-50 race). And secondly, I've decided not to run Indira at Lingfield on Friday. She was dropped from 62 to 60 for her run last week, but her new rating would not kick in until Saturday, so it would make no sense to run her on Friday off 62, and very probably not win the race but still render her ineligible for an appealing 0-60 mile race at Southwell next month.

We've looked back and we've looked forward, so we can look around us too.  There has already been more than enough written, including on the front page of the Racing Post, about the non-story of Godolphin's PRO changing his job title, so we won't go down that road.  There's been plenty written about Johnny Murtagh's decision to hang up his boots, and justifiably so because he's been one of the great jockeys of this or any other era.  It was good for me that he hung up his boots on a Tuesday, as my deadline for my Winning Post column is bedtime on Tuesday; it was a pleasure to write a tribute to him for that paper, and I hope that I have done him justice.

Perhaps the best thing of all in the Racing Post, though, is Julian Muscat's column today examining the situation of the Philip Fenton-trained Cheltenham runners.  God knows why this case has taken more than two years and still isn't settled, but that's out of our hands.  It should have been sorted out ages ago and we wouldn't have this problem.  But, as things stand, it's a debacle, as it clearly is not in racing's interests to have runners at its highest-profile meeting from a trainer who has been charged with possession of anabolic steroids and who is awaiting trial for that.  It would be seriously bad news for racing if one of them were to win - particularly if one of them were to win the Gold Cup - as it would send the general media into a racing-bashing anti-drugs frenzy.

Obviously a man is innocent until proven guilty and so it would be very hard to justify forbidding the trainer from having runners.  And similarly one would hope that none of the trainers would withdraw their patronage at least until he is convicted of a crime.  Easily the most satisfactory approach, therefore, is the one voluntarily adopted by Barry Connell, owner of The Tullow Tank, whose horses remain in the stable but who has said that he does not want any of his horses in the stable to run at the Cheltenham Festival.  That's not an easy thing to do, but it's the most responsible and correct policy to adopt, and the only satisfactory policy (or, perhaps one should say, 'the least unsatisfactory policy') for anyone mindful of the welfare of racing in the British Isles to adopt.  Julian has rightly hailed Barry Connell for his responsible, selfless and correct actions. Let's hope that his words prick the conscience of the stable's other patrons.


neil kearns said...

The Fenton situation is an odd one do you penalise a guy who is not yet proven guilty but who if he is is going to cause major hurt to his sport it beggars belief that this couldn't have been resolved before tody and in particular the Henderson model wasn't followed by putting the issue off until the close season

I don't think at this point there is a correct or fair decision the authorities can make and hats off to her man for making the decision he has - however I don't think this should mean every one else should be frowned upon for not taking the same decision

Have to agree about the borders one of the most picturesque places on our island

John Berry said...

Yes, it is very tricky. If one used the analogy of the jockeys who had been charged with race-fixing, or whatever it was they were charged with, but the case had not yet gone to court, he wouldn't be able to have runners. Fergal Lynch etc. were not allowed to ride while they were waiting their court appearance, and were paid compensation. And when it was an overseas-based jockey (Kieren) he was not allowed to ride in Britain, while still being allowed to ride in Ireland. I'd say that that is enough of a justification for the BHA to say that the horses can't run at Cheltenham from that stable, but they could run from another stable. And I know that that sounds harsh, but that stable having a winner at Cheltenham would generate a massive amount of bad publicity for racing - and even more if he was then found guilty.

The true debacle is that this has come at the wrong time. If he'd been charged in May and the case heard in July, there would have been no worries (well, there would have been some worries, but a lot fewer, because jumps racing is so much more under the spotlight during Cheltenham and Aintree than at any other time. But to have him charged before the Cheltenham Festival and not have the case heard until after it, bearing in mind that he's planning to have runners there, is just a true debacle. If I read it right in yesterday's Racing Post, the reason why the case was adjourned last week was because his lawyers asked for an adjournment - in which case he's got a lot to answer for, as it was so clearly in racing's interest to have the case heard before Cheltenham that he should have done what he could to make sure that it was heard then, rather than done what he could to make sure it was delayed until afterwards.

neil kearns said...

The jockey analogy is very fair and the way that was done was to my mind the best way to deal with a very poor situation

As regards running horse from other stables seems to me to a very poor solution as if it were retrospectively proved things were administered to these horses then the furore which would follow isn't worth thinking about

This one is probably about leadership have the rulers the balls to say this is unacceptable and ban all horses from the yard - which is what they should do - and risk litigation should all this be unproven . But that demands leadership and that has been in very short supply n recent years
Timing is the problem here

RP McArdle said...

I love your blog John. This one is particularly colourful. As an owner/breeder it is great to gain an insight into the life, thoughts and tribulations of a trainer. It is frustrating to have horses in training and have no idea what’s happening to them other than a phone call to say they’ll be running next week or that they’ve broken-down again. If only trainers could be more open with their owners - at the very least.

As for the rainbows, where were the photos taken.... from inside the horsebox (if so, who was driving)? Surely not from the hard-shoulder of the A1?

John Berry said...

Glad you enjoy the blog. Yes, I've always thought that letting the horses' owners know what is happening and why it is happening is essential, but anecdotal evidence frequently suggests that this is not a view held by all trainers.

Re the journey, when I go to Musselburgh I generally leave the A1 at Newcastle and go A696/A68 through Ponteland, Belsay, Otterburn, Jedburgh, St. Boswells, Earlston and Lauder, cutting off to the right on the A6124 down to Musselburgh after going through Pathhead. It's the most direct route, about 10 miles shorter than sticking on the A1, which takes the circuit along the coast. Obviously one's on single- rather than dual-carriageway roads, but there's so little traffic up there that that doesn't matter, and even going through the few towns/villages doesn't hold you up. And the real advantage is the scenery, both in Northumberland and in the Scottish Borders, which makes a long drive far less dull. I generally treat myself to a leg-stretch for a minute or two in the lay-by on top of the Carter Bar (where those rainbow and snow photographs were taken) where the views over the Borders can be breath-taking.