Saturday, March 07, 2015

Cheltenham Preview (sort of)

Every cloud has a silver lining.  And the silver lining to the fact of both the horses whom I declared this week being eliminated was that I was able to go to bed last night at around 8.00, whereas it wouldn't have been until after midnight had Magic Ice got a run at Wolverhampton.  We'll have another try at running her next Friday, but the disappointing thing is that, looking at the entries for the race which closed this morning, we look odds-against to get in then too.  Ah well, che sera, sera.  But it's hard to match that up with the refrain about the problem of small fields.

In Roy's race this week there were 31 entrants, of whom 25 were declared, with 14 getting a run and 11 being eliminated; in Magic Ice's race there were 21 entrants, of whom 18 were declared, with 13 getting a run and five eliminated.  And, looking ahead at the scarcity of low-grade races programmed over the next three months (and there are plenty of low-grade horses in training who will be trying to get a run) this situation is likely to intensify.  Small fields an insoluble problem, eh?  Could've fooled me.  Still, while one of the two horses whom we shall declare next week looks likely to be eliminated, the other (Fen Flyer at Wolverhampton on Tuesday) is guaranteed a run, thanks to being a two-miler.  (There being generally fewer horses running in long-distance races).  So that's something to look forward to.

Tuesday, of course, is also Champion Hurdle Day, but that's a lesser excitement from this point of view, notwithstanding that I think that I will have six horses in my XII to Follow running at Cheltenham that afternoon.  Regarding Cheltenham, I've been following various Twitterers issuing snippets from this evening's post-racing Cheltenham Preview at Sandown and I'm very glad that I'm not there, as even hearing the discussion condensed into 140-character soundbytes is overkill.  One other pre-Cheltenham topic which is showing no sign of letting up is the debate following Willie Mullins' call to riches, suggesting that the prize money distribution ought to be significantly rearranged so that an even larger slice of the pie goes to the handful of top races.  This topic was still filling the op-ed columns in the Racing Post this week, nearly three weeks after his uncharacteristic outburst, so I might as well add my contribution, as published in Al Adiyat a couple of weeks ago.

I WANT IT MY WAY

Ireland’s perennial champion National Hunt trainer Willie Mullins has always seemed a man of great intelligence and, more importantly, humility.  He is also a top-class conditioner of horses.  It was, therefore, very surprising last week to hear his uncharacteristic call for the British racing authorities to re-structure the financial policies of the sport in Britain (by doubling the prize money for the best races, which could only come about by lowering the money available for the lower-grade races) to suit his stable at the expense of pretty much everyone else.

A typical example of the reaction which Mullins’ words evinced came from Peter Thomas in the Racing Post, who wrote, “I haven’t heard anything as brass-necked, at least on the face of it, since the National Association of Foxes demanded their private entrance to the chicken run, with complimentary sage and onion stuffing for anybody with a big, bushy tail.”

It would have been one thing if Mullins had merely restricted his call to Irish racing.  While that would obviously have put the noses of pretty much every other Irish owner or trainer out of joint, at least nobody could have said that it was not his place to air his views.

As it was, though, his attempt to tell the authorities of another country how to run their sport was very cheeky.

If one doesn’t like the prize money on offer in another country, one stays at home.  British trainers used to run a lot of horses in Italy, until Italian prize money went through the floor – so British trainers, rather than making ‘helpful suggestions’ to the Italian authorities about how they should run their business, vote with their feet instead, and no longer send horses there.

The logic behind Mullins’ call to riches appears to be that the prize money for Grade One jumps races is lower than that on offer for the Group One events on the Flat.  To back up this line of reasoning, he cited the fact that his owners pay astronomical sums of money to buy the jumpers which they send to him, sums so large that there is almost no chance of these horses recouping the outlay even on the rare occasions when they do turn out to be as good as had been hoped.

This, of course, misses the point completely.

For a start, the costs of production of a top-class National Hunt prospect are considerably lower than for such a horse’s Flat counterpart, notwithstanding that the young jumper has a longer wait before the start of his racing career.

The stud fees of the top Flat sires are many times higher than the sums charged for a covering by the leading National Hunt stallions.  For instance, the stud fee of the best Flat stallion in England (Dubawi) is currently £125,000, while the fee for the best jumps sire (Kayf Tara) is £2,500.  In Ireland, the fee for the best Flat sire (Galileo) is listed as ‘private’, which in practice means that it is almost certainly in excess of 300,000 euros; while the best Irish-based jumps sires of recent years (the deceased pair of King’s Theatre and Old Vic, the veterans Oscar and Flemensfirth, and the up-and-coming stars such as Yeats and Westerner) have generally stood at around the 10,000-euro mark.

Those figures alone suggest that there is little basis for applying similar principles to the finances of the two codes.

Even more pertinently, though is the fact that it is not the modus operandi of the leading jumps owners (ie the ones on whose behalf Mullins has issued his plea) to breed their own horses, or buy them unbroken.  Only one of the major National Hunt players (Trevor Hemmings, who bought his leading Cheltenham Gold Cup hope Many Clouds for 5,000 euros as a foal) still favours the traditional sporting approach to ownership: his competitors prefer to buy their jumpers second-hand, once they have already demonstrated that they are abnormally talented.

This method is fine if one’s object is merely victory, but to put it into practice one needs to have very deep pockets.  The sums paid for the most obvious National Hunt prospects – which means, say, four-year-olds who have demonstrated stunning potential in their early races over jumps in France, or in Irish National Hunt Flat races or point-to-points – are, as Mullins has observed, astronomical.

One might assume that, because prize money is much higher in France than in the British Isles, the best young jumpers in France would remain in their homeland.  Far from it: the leading owners in Britain and Ireland are prepared to pay several hundred-thousand euros for any horse who looks to have a realistic chance of winning at the Cheltenham Festival, irrespective of how big a cheque a horse might collect for winning there.

In essence, to buy sound young horses of proven ability, one has to make their connections an offer so unrealistically high that they will not refuse it – because if it were merely realistic, they may as well keep the horse and race him themselves.

To complain, therefore, that the sums which one’s owners chose to pay for their horses is unrealistically high compared to the prize money on offer is silly: if this is the method of recruitment which they favour, the prices they pay always will be unrealistically high set against the prize money on offer.  Raising the prize money at the Cheltenham Festival would not correct this imbalance, it would merely push the prices asked for these horses even higher.

And, of course, it would push even more of the battlers out of the sport.  Which surely cannot be Mullins’ aim.

1 comment:

David Winter said...

John, I am afraid that once again the gap between the have's and have not's in racing will continue to widen. I hate to talk in negative tones but everything that has happened in racing these last twenty years, has been to the detriment of the smaller owner/trainer combo. The crux of all the symptoms is LOW prize money which works directly against those with a small budget.What Mullins should be saying, if he has ANY interest in the sport rather than himself and his owners, is that the lower rated races. [groups 5,6 and 7]should be doubled and the higher rated races proportionately reduced.I say this because the owners of group 1,2 and 3 horses generally are extremely rich people who will remain in the game whatever the return, as there very rarely is anyway. If any effect would be noticed at all it might be that some sanity might return to the sums paid for yearlings and two year old's which has become monopoly money. I saw a £230,000 gns horse run last week in grade 5 Wolves race, which he won the grand sum of £2.500.00 after a number of poor tries.I am sure the owner will be returning to the ring with his advisors and paying similar money for another hopeful, whatever the prize money.
The other thing which beggars belief is if we have so many low grade horses needing races why doesn't the racing program reflect that ???. Is it me ??? or do the powers that be not want this type of racing and the lack of these races are an intentional culling system? Another reason for the chasm between the top and bottom.