Friday, January 29, 2016

The One Great Sorcerer

I probably ought to expand on my semi-throwaway remark in the last chapter about my having become fairly disenchanted with National Hunt racing because of the lack of a sporting ethos among the major players.  Basically, this wouldn't bother me so much were it not for the fact that we're too often told, mainly by National Hunt people wishing to blow their own trumpet, that jumps racing is much more of a sport than the Flat, and that it attracts a more sporting lot.  This is nonsense and is very unfair on people who love Flat racing, and it's particularly nonsense as the facts don't support it.

On the Flat, in recent years some of the major owners have understandably attracted disapprobation by pursuing a policy which means that, having already bred plenty of the best-bred youngsters and bought plenty of the nicest yearlings, if/when they still then find that someone has a horse better than theirs, they make that person an offer for the horse which he or she can't refuse.  In other words, if one says that the major players are engaged in a game of cards with each other over the major races, with the mass of smaller owners hoping to get an occasional look-in, this equates to deciding that if one finds that someone else has been dealt a better hand, one should try to buy his cards too.

If one equates it to owning a soccer team rather than a string of racehorses, it is like asking that if one pays more, can one please put more than 11 players on the pitch?  Or, having been told that one can't, buying the 100 best players in the league, so that each match you can have 11 of them on the field with the other 89 sitting on the bench, just so that they can't play against you.  Or, owning a Grand Prix team, asking to put more than two cars on the track; and then, when one can't, signing up all the best drivers however much that cost, and having all bar two of them twiddling their thumbs in the pits while the race is on.  That's not really how sport works, or is meant to work. For sure, it will always be the case that people with deeper pockets will have an advantage; but, setting that advantage aside, you like to compete against your fellows on something approximating level terms, so that when you say, "May the best man win", you mean it, rather than really mean that may the person who spends the most (ie me) win.

This, of course, isn't based merely on altruism.  The point of winning is that the satisfaction gained by the victory is in inverse proportion to the ease with which the victory was achieved.  This applies in every sport.  In other words, in racing the greatest satisfaction comes from winning a race with a horse you have bred yourself.  Next comes winning with a horse whom you bought unbroken.  Next comes with winning with a horse whom you identified as an under-achiever with his previous connections.  The final category is waiting until the horses have started racing, seeing which are showing the most promise, and then making their owners a huge offer to buy them.  This is the complete antithesis of playing by the sporting ideal of taking on your opponents on roughly equal terms, and hoping to outplay them.

And the point is that it isn't altruism: it's educated common sense that, to get the best pleasure from one's racing enterprises, one competes with a 'sporting' attitude, so that when one wins one can be happy that one has won by playing the game well (in both senses of the word 'well') rather than merely by having spent more than one's opponents. There have been plenty of very rich owners over the years who have realised this, and who have eschewed the option of winning big races simply by outbidding their rivals.  All the great owner/breeders - people such as Lord Derby, Lord Rosebery and Lord Howard de Walden, who were the richest men in the land and who could quite easily have afforded to buy the best horses around - realised this and raced only their homebreds.

Nowadays the likes of the Aga Khan and Prince Khalid Abdullah realise this; and over jumps Trevor Hemmings - who basically races only horses which he has either bred or bought unbroken, such as Grand National and Hennessy winner Many Clouds, whom he bought as a foal for 6,000 euros - realises it.  He's one of the wealthiest people in Britain and could easily wait until the best prospects had shown their merit on the racecourse and then pay top dollar to buy them; but he doesn't.  Instead, he opts for the traditional sporting approach of regarding it as a game of skill, of picking his hand of cards off the table, and then playing the hand as well as he can.  If he's got good cards and plays them well, he'll win; if he doesn't have a good hand, or if he plays it badly, then that's too bad.  And there's always another year.

That's always been the sporting approach to racing horses.  Sadly, though, nowadays the general view seems to be that all that matters is the winning, irrespective of how the victory is achieved - and this seems to apply even more over jumps, where it is now rare to see any of the major players (Trevor Hemmings excepted, plus some of the leading Irish owners including J P McManus and Michael O'Leary) racing a horse who had not already shown good form for someone else before they bought him.  And the really sad thing is that nobody seems to have told them that they would enjoy their success much more if they adopted the traditional 'sporting' approach.  All they would need to do is to ask J P McManus, who I am sure would confirm that one Cheltenham Gold Cup on the shelf won by a horse whom he bred himself (ie Synchronised) is worth any amount of trophies won by horses bought for six-figure sums after they had revealed themselves to be top prospects in someone else's colours.

The point of sport has always been that whether or not one wins isn't really that important.  What matters is that one plays the game in the true spirit of fair competition, that one takes on one's opponents on something like equal terms, and one outplays them if one can.  There might have been a time when National Hunt racing held the moral high ground in this respect, but those days have long gone - and it's particularly ironic that they have long gone, bearing in mind that we are still peddled the lie that it's a more sporting enterprise.  The late New York Tribune sports writer Grantland Rice put it best and most memorably: "When the One Great Sorcerer comes to mark against your name, he writes not that you won or lost, but how you played the Game."

Yesterday, by the way, was a truly lovely morning here, as these photographs indicate.  Today was very mild, but very windy.  And what I probably ought to mention is that this chapter is based solely on generalisations, which isn't satisfactory. What has prompted it in particular was reading the other day that Willie Mullins has again complained that the prize money at the Cheltenham Festival isn't high enough,  We've been over this previously and I don't think that that's helpful, even though he hasn't specified which lower-grade British races which he isn't going to travel over from Ireland to contest ought to have their prize money cut to pay for this rise in the money for the races for which he will be coming.  But what particularly stuck in the throat was his contention that "the biggest prize in jump racing, other than the Grand National" (ie the Cheltenham Gold Cup, which this year has a first prize of £327,462) is "probably about what you'd have to pay for a nice young jump horse at the moment".  Leaving aside that if there were a quantum leap in the prizes for the top races, then the prices asked for these nice young jump horses would rise still further, the point is that it's a bit rich to opt to go down the route of what one might call buying success, and then complain that that route is too expensive.


Jason Hathorn said...

Hi John,
Interesting blog piece, but Trevor Hemmings isn't the beau ideal you suggest. Of his 3 Cheltenham 2016 entries, 2 of those were bought by Trevor after they'd won for previous owners. And didn't he buy Afsoun for £250k after running in the Triumph Hurdle, and remember Lyvius - with winning form on the flat in Germany - whom we tried to buy and he outbid us? My reckoning is up to a third of the horses he has owned were bought broken or possessed previous form. So he behaves much like a Premiership football club - homegrown talent, but adding where there are gaps in the squad. Your football analogy has a glaring hole in it given you neglected to mention the thriving transfer market, which, as with racing, provides a mechanism for smaller clubs/owners to cash in if they so wish and often results in good players, expensively bought, sitting on the bench.

Regarding the idea that the pleasure of a home-bred winning tops that of a recently bought horse, how about considering that each contributor to a horse reaching the track - breeder, stallion owner, mare owner, trainer, owner, sales company etc etc, derives some quantum of pleasure from a horse winning, and whilst the home-bred owner sums a number of those quanta, the total pleasure derived is the same, it's just shared out amongst more people. You could even argue the total pleasure derived is even greater for horses that changed hands, and better for racing as a result, and that is before considering the financial benefit from sales along the way that enables many of those contributors to remain viable.

David Winter said...

Ah, it must be the onset of old age, because your latest blog seems to me to be a metaphor for current society. In other words , instant gratification. See it, want it and NOW !. John you are so right [ maybe you are looking through the wrong end of the telescope of life as well ?] Just to bore you to death I have a simile.
My very Victorian minded father was fair but harsh and made it plain that without work and effort nothing would be forthcoming for free from him. My allowance as a boy was miniscule, it might just buy the odd sherbet dab or a quarter of aniseed twist from the jar, so apart from birthday and Christmas presents no other gifts were forthcoming during the year. So, when I wanted a face mask for snorkelling or a new pair of rugger boots, I had to get weekend jobs to save for them. But after weeks of my nose pressed against the window of the local sports outfitters in expectation [ yes, not "shop" but outfitters.] I would enter the premises shaking with excitement and a little silver in my pocket to buy the object of my endeavours. My, was I proud as I walked down the street and rode the bus home with the trophy tucked under my arm !!. Nothing extends a better feeling of self worth.
Now, we expect to see something that engages with the acquisitive side of our minds and purchase it whether we have the funds or not. It's either the credit card or a bank loan. Then once the short lived thrill has passed we move on to the next "must have".
And so it's the same with racing. In the seventies and eighties, at least in my experience, it was far more Corinthian and my owner colleagues, and I thought of them as such, would be as pleased as me when I won [on just a few occasions] and the reverse was true. Ready to buy a drink in the bar and celebrate a common victory. Of course, there were the big battalions then, but somehow it was more seemly and sporting. I, regrettably, never had the opportunity to breed a horse myself but I can imagine the thrill and contentment stemming from producing with the trainer, firstly a runner, then just possibly a place position in even a auction maiden.
Just the same feeling my new rugger boots gave me.