Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Racing in the street

From famine to feast: chapters coming in thick and fast now.  (And thank you, Dominic, for your thoughts on the last one.  Much appreciated.  I am glad that you found that it struck a chord and that you enjoyed it).  One might think that this one is going to continue in what one might call my maudlin theme, given that the headline is the title of one of Bruce Springsteen's best songs.  "Some guys they just give up on living and start dying little by little, piece by piece; some guys come home from work and wash up, and go racing in the street ... She sits on the porch of her daddy's house but all her pretty dreams are torn, she stares off alone into the night with the eyes of one who hates for just being born".

But I'm not maudlin.  This chapter has nothing to do with that heart-achingly beautiful song (other that quoting from it in the previous chapter, and stealing its title).  It has, initially anyway, to do with racing in the street, maybe Oxford Street or Regent Street, something which last year we were told might happen.  Of course, anyone with any common sense (one didn't even need to know anything about anything - one just needed to have some common sense) knew that this would never happen.  That, of course, didn't stop some people with exalted positions in the racing world from sounding off as if they believed that it was a realistic proposition.

We all remember the couple of decades from the late '70s onwards when racing's authorities woke up to the fact that having concrete posts and other solid objects next to the track wasn't a good idea.  These solid objects had caused too many deaths and too many catastrophic injuries, so the rails had to be moved in to keep the horses away from them.  And eventually they were all removed.  (Well, that's not strictly true, because even now, 40 years later, there are still a few still in place, but with the rails moved well away from them.).

It would be feasible to make Oxford Street fit for the racing of horses, but one would need to close it, say, six weeks before the race and to have, say, £10 million at one's disposal to remove all the 'street furniture' (one of the good/bad things about being a Town Councillor is that eventually one reaches the point of having attended so many Development and Planning Committee meetings that one can use the phrase 'street furniture' without finding it odd) such as the lamp posts, traffic lights, benches, litter bins etc., as well as putting down the Polytrack or whatever surface.  And that wouldn't be going to happen.  (And then it would probably take another six weeks to return the street to its proper state).  So 'street racing' was just never going to happen.

And now we have the Grand Prix-style thing, with 12 teams of 30 horses apparently set to take each other on on eight consecutive Thursday evenings during July and August 2018.  Will it happen?  I don't know.  But, if it does happen, I'd love to be part of it.  In the initial article in the Racing Post, I read the boss of Championship Horse Racing, Jeremy Wray, quoted as saying, "Hopefully a whole lot of trainers will put themselves forward as potentially captaining a team".  So I've done so: I've contacted CHR to volunteer.  Once we know what the ratings-bands and distances of the races will be, I would be confident that I could arrange for 30 trainers each to put forward one suitable horse so that we had a team of 30 horses which could make a solid challenge for the series.

And that's important.  We are told that this innovation would potentially put £10,000,000 "into racing" (whatever that means).  I think that it is important that, if it were to happen, it would come as close to that aspiration as possible.  In other words, the worst of all worlds would see there being 12 teams with each team containing 30 horses from one stable, which in practice would mean that very, very few owners would be involved as well as merely 12 trainers.  That, to my mind, would be putting money into such a tiny subsection of racing that it would fall a long way short of putting something "into racing".

The ideal would be that these 360 horses would be owned by 360 different owners, and would come from as close to 360 different stables as possible.  If this money comes with the proviso that horses are only eligible for to run if they are trained in, say, the 12 biggest stables in the country and if very, very few owners would be allowed to run their suitable horses in the races, then I would wonder whether it mightn't cause more trouble than it would be worth.  You might ask why I'm saying that.  Well, Gay Kelleway's tweeted reaction on hearing the news of the potential innovation sums it up: "Once again to push smaller trainers out of the game. 20 stables with 500 horses each - that's the future of British racing".

I can't illustrate the downside to this project (if done to make it as exclusive, rather than as inclusive, as possible) better than that.  I actually have grave concerns about any prize money going into any race which only some horses are allowed to enter (leaving aside, obviously, qualifications such as 'for three-year-old fillies only' - a race for which any three-year-old filly is eligible is fine, but one for which only three-year-old fillies trained by an arbitrary list of trainers are eligible, with three-year-old fillies trained by anyone else barred, is totally unacceptable) but this would be fine if the eligibility is as inclusive as possible.  If not, one would have to wonder whether it's actually worth having.

Will it happen?  God only knows.  Ladbrokes' betting suggests that it won't.  That's probably fair.  And will it bring in new sponsors?  Again, Ladbrokes betting suggests that it won't.  The firms priced up by Ladbrokes are ones which already sponsor racing, and are largely ones run by people already naturally disposed in racing's favour - with the exception of Blue Nun.  I'm very pleased to see Blue Nun listed as a likely (well, not that likely, as it's 125/1) potential sponsor.  We don't see nearly as much Blue Nun as we did when concrete posts were ubiquitous on British racecourses.  More's the pity as I remember it as being delicious, although I was only young at the time and my tastes might have changed since then.  But it's good to see Blue Nun getting into racing - and it's already involved, with the last winner at Catterick yesterday, The Some Dance Kid, being owned by 'The Blue Nuns'.

Anyway, the gist of all that is that this, if done right, could be great because it would make racing as popular as Formula One.  Is this, though, saying much?  Is anyone interested in Formula One?  I know hundreds of people well enough to know what their interests are, and I only know two people (Nigel Walker, formerly of this parish, now head lad to Andrew Balding; and James Millman) who follow Formula One. Why would anyone follow it?  It used to be terrific, but in recent decades it has been so completely stripped of its panache and so completely de-humanised that it's hard to see that it has any appeal whatsoever.  A sensible observer made this observation to me today about the project: "It's the analogy with Formula 1 which fills me with dread.  A boring procession of highly paid mechanised adverts where the competition is created by refuelling stops.  Can't see that working with horses."

Of course, Formula One is always going to have a sizeable core-audience: the petrol-heads.  There will always be plenty of them.  But they aren't particularly interested in Formula One as a sport: mainly, I would suggest, they simply love the demonstration of automotive speed and power.  And there will be almost no cross-over between petrol-heads and racing fans, as the core appeals of the two sports are like chalk and cheese.  Over and above that, we have the problem of supposedly a prime-time viewing slot on Thursday evenings.  Thursdays on ITV currently revolve around Emmerdale Farm.  Is Fraser Hines going to be bumped in favour of racing?  It seems unlikely.  And are we really going to capture the attention of the young on a Thursday night?  As I remember it from when I was one of the young, Thursday night was 'Top of the Pops' night.  And that was non-negotiable.

So we'll just have to wait and see.  But if it does happen, I hope that next year I'll be Councillor Berry every Monday night, and Captain Berry every Thursday night.  As ever, we'll live in hope.

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