Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Time to reach for the brandy

I always like to read the Readers' Letters in the Sunday Racing Post.  There are always a few interesting ones there.  This week's edition contained one from Nigel Payne, picking up on an article in the paper a couple of days previously which I hadn't read.  Nigel was explaining the unfeasibility of an idea which, apparently, Tom Kerr had put forward, ie that the Hennessy Gold Cup should still be called the Hennessy Gold Cup once Hennessy has ceased to sponsor it and once its new sponsor - which seemingly might be Ladbrokes - has taken over.  I can see both points of view, and realistically Nigel's verdict will hold true, because it would be an act of remarkable selflessness by the new sponsor to allow it.

But, by the same token, it's neither impossible nor unprecedented.  The Whitbread was inaugurated seven months before the Hennessy.  The Whitbread was formerly the longest-running commercial sponsorship, so the Hennessy took over that mantle the year after the Whitbread ceased to exist in 2001.  It's wrong to regard either of them as the first commercial sponsorship, of course, and one of the earlier ones provides us with a precedent to suggest that Tom's idea isn't totally beyond the pale.

It is hard to say which was the first commercially sponsored race in the UK.  That honour is often attributed to the Middle Park Stakes at Newmarket, which was first run in 1866.  It was sponsored by William Blenkiron, proprietor of the Middle Park Stud at Eltham in north west Kent (ie in what was then a pleasant rural location but which is now part of London’s south-eastern outer suburbs).  The Middle Park Stud was at the time the most significant and successful commercial stud in England, generating a good profit by selling a large draft of yearlings each year.  Mr Blenkiron inaugurated the Middle Park Stakes both to promote his business and to give something back to the sport from which he was earning a good living.

The Middle Park Stakes is, of course, still run (and has actually never missed a year, which makes puts it in a minority of historic races, even if the 1940 renewal was run at Nottingham rather than Newmarket) but, of course, is no longer sponsored by the (long-since defunct) Middle Park Stud.  In recent years it has been sponsored by other studs, eg Juddmonte, Shadwell, Newgate (GB, not Aus) and they have all been happy to have the name of Mr Blenkiron's stud share the billing with their own operations.  I assume that Harry McCalmont did a similar thing when the Cheveley Park Stakes was first run in 1899 (he had bought the stud seven years previously, which then comprised 8,000 acres and included all the land along that side of town, right up to the July Course - Stetchworth road, and including what was the National Hunt racecourse in the early years of the 20th century and which is now the Links) and that race retains the founding sponsor's name too.

However, the story about the Middle Park having been the first commercially sponsored race is one of racing’s myths.  It is easy enough to come up with a commercially sponsored race which predated it - and, in doing so, we can simultaneously debunk another of the sport's myths, ie that tradition dictates that races are not sponsored at Royal Ascot.  Ascot Races have been well attended since the reign of Queen Anne, even if initially getting there was not easy (unless one happened to live nearby, of course).  By modern standards the racecourse is close to and easily accessible from London, but for the first 100 years or so of its existence such a journey would have been a fair hike.

That journey, though, became a lot  more straightforward once the Great Western Railway began to lay its tracks heading westwards out of the capital.  In 1838, the GWR reached Maidenhead (eight miles from Ascot as the crow flies, ten miles by road).  In 1849 rail travel towards Ascot became even easier when the GWR opened a branch-line from Slough to Windsor; while from 1856 onwards there was a direct service from Waterloo to a new station at Ascot.  There was consequently a strong symbiotic relationship between Ascot racecourse and the Great Western Railway, which as early as 1839 was carrying over 5,000 racegoers during the week, who collectively paid over £2,000 for their tickets.

Consequently the Ascot Authority prevailed on the railway company to sponsor a race at the meeting, which meant that for several years in the middle of the 19th century the commercially sponsored Great Western Railway Race was run at Ascot.  In 1847 it was part of the four-timer with which the champion jockey Nat Flatman ended the meeting, a sequence which comprised a sweepstake, a division of the Wokingham Handicap, the Great Western Railway Race, and the Borough Maiden Plate.  (One interesting aspect of this quick-fire four-timer was that Flatman completed it on only three horses, Pic-nic, owned by Lord Chesterfield, winning twice.  By modern standards, this is unusual both because of a horse winning twice in the same afternoon, but also because the second win came in the maiden race -  but that, of course, is explained by the fact that the qualification decreed that horses had to be maidens at time of entry, rather than starting).

Where, then, does this leave us?  Nowhere, really.  But the whole topic does reinforce a point which I made in a recent chapter, ie that the restructuring of our racing programme (in the form of the British Champions' Series) to make the sport less of an irrelevance in the eyes of the commercial marketing men has woefully failed to achieve its objective.  Obviously the Whitbread and the Hennessy were inaugurated at the time when the families owning the companies were keen racing people, so were not necessarily the targets for objective commercial promoters.  Colonel Bill Whitbread was a great racing man and I would imagine owned runners in his own race, even if the best horse whom I remember him owning, Kilbrittain Castle, raced best when tackling one lap of Sandown's steeplechase course, rather than two; while the first Hennessy winner Mandarin was owned by a member of the sponsoring family.

However, these sponsorships outlasted the era of the instigators' control.  They continued to be deemed justifiable sponsorship commitments in the new more commercial world, just as one would hope would be the case with races which gave great exposure to the sponsors.  But one by one they went.  We lost the Mackeson.  We lost the Whitbread.  And now we've lost the Hennessy.  Apparently the marketeers controlling Hennessy's marketing budget deem that the money would be better spent in the 'fashion' world.  Ye gods!  Isn't Hennessy Day at Newbury fashionable?  One would hope that it is, and it even had various celebrities posing for photographs in the Hennessy marquee on the day this year.

I saw some pictures of the guests.  The line-up included the very good actor who plays the nice vicar on the TV in 'Grantchester' (and who is a dead ringer for the jockey who rode this year's Grand National winner); sports TV presenter Kirsty Gallacher; and a woman whom I'd never heard of but who, I discovered, is one of the 'stars' (if that is the right word) of 'The Only Way Is Essex', a programme which I have never watched and am likely never to watch, but which I assume to be one of the worst programmes ever made.  Which is saying something.  Anyway, one can only conclude that the marketeers, despite the great leap forward which we were supposed to be making, now regard 'The Only Way Is Essex' as more fashionable than top-class National Hunt racing at Newbury.  How depressing is that?

Oh, by the way, on a happier note, I've worked out why Cottesloe didn't take up his engagement at Fontwell Park yesterday: he's running in a weaker race at Taunton tomorrow.  That makes sense of his having run at Chelmsford last week.  The form of his last run at Ludlow is working out well (the winner New Member won the other day) and he ought to have a first-rate chance tomorrow.  He has top weight and it's never easy to win under top weight, but he hasn't been harshly treated by the handicapper, and the form of his opponents isn't strong.  I know that I no longer train him, but I'll be proud of him if he does win tomorrow - as Jack Quinlan would be entitled to be too, because he taught him to jump, and he does jump extremely well.  I'm only sorry that it will be another jockey who reaps the benefit of Jack's good work.


Mr D Deveto said...

your historic facts are a real pleasure to read John, Greg

neil kearns said...

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