Sunday, March 18, 2018

Festival shame

Overtaken by events.  For six months of the year I write a weekly column for Al Adiyat, the weekly racing magazine in the UAE.  I have a free hand in the choice of subjects and the length of the articles, so I cover quite a bit of ground during the season as I cast left and right to find new subjects.  I submit my article every Sunday (or earlier) for publication (I think) two days later.  The past couple of Sundays (ie today, two days after the meeting, and last Sunday, ie two days before the meeting) have seen me writing about the National Hunt Meeting / Cheltenham Festival (of course).

The articles aren't meant to be chapters of a book. One doesn't have to have read the previous one to understand the current one.  But in this case there was an element of connection between the two, between the preview and the review.  Both touched upon the National Hunt Meeting being held at Newmarket (as happened in 1897) and both touched on the disgrace of the fact that the Mildmay of Flete Steeplechase is nowadays run under a name which does not include the words 'Mildmay of Flete'.  I was thinking that that is as sacrilegious as one could get; and I think that I referred to Lord Mildmay as perhaps the greatest figure in National Hunt racing of the 20th century.

If there were a figure greater, I suppose it would be either Fred Winter or Fulke Walwyn - and, b***er me, now Fred Winter's name too is to be removed from the race which commemorates him.  Unbelievable.  The Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle was run this year as the Boodles Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle.  Next year, apparently, it will be run as the Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle because the sponsors seemingly were disappointed when, according to Ian Renton, "they didn't get a single mention on the day".  If that is the case, then their beef should be with Cheltenham, not with Fred Winter and not with the many racing enthusiasts who revere the sport's history and who are appalled by this sacrilege.

The racecourse announcer is presumably employed by Cheltenham.  I would presume also that Cheltenham has some level of control over the choice and actions of the commentator.  Racing UK and ITV are both there under contract with the racecourse.  (And Jockey Club Racecourses is a major share-holder in RUK).  It just doesn't wash to say that whether Boodles were or weren't mentioned is out of Cheltenham's hands.  If there wasn't sufficient (or even any) reference made to Boodles' contribution on the racecourse Tannoy and on the TV coverage, that is Cheltenham's fault.  Cheltenham can control how little or how much reference is made to a sponsor.  If none was made, that is not because the title of the Boodles Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle contained the words 'Fred Winter', but because the racecourse wasn't doing its job properly.  Cheltenham's decision to shed those two words is a disgrace, not least because it's a disingenous attempt to cover up its own oversight.

It is disappointing that Boodles have swallowed what presumably is Cheltenham's line that the fault for Boodles' lack of recognition lay in the presence in the title of the words 'Fred Winter' rather in Cheltenham's failure to brief the race-day announcer and the commentator, to give direction to the TV companies and to liaise with the press.  And it is disappointing that Boodles seem not yet to have grasped that their being made to take the blame for Cheltenham's decision to drop the words 'Fred Winter' portrays them not as the generous and high-calibre supporters of the sport which they are, a company deserving the patronage of the sport's fans, but as a bunch of philistines.  They are not that; they are an excellent firm of jewellers which has long been a great supporter of racing, and they deserve better than to have Cheltenham create a situation which casts them in such an unrealistically unfavourable light.  Still, there are approximately 360 days until next year's Festival (even though I'm sure that media coverage will shortly be making it seem as if it starts tomorrow) so there's still time for common sense and decency to prevail.

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