Saturday, April 13, 2019

Appointments

Plenty of news this week, as usual.  The most arresting was the out-of-the-blue announcement that Brendan Powell had called time on his training career.  This seemed sudden, and it was fair to assume that it was not the plan a couple of months ago when he renewed his license.  It was a sad reminder of how hard it is for any trainer to make the job pay, leaving aside the handful of trainers who have a very profitable business.  Being good at one's job, offering a good service honestly and working hard very often just isn't enough, as this reminds us.  Very unfortunate.

One would hope that Brendan will be able to find a good job within the sport.  Certainly, one would be hard pressed to think of a better CV for pretty much any role within the game, with integrity, decency, reliability and industry to match.  Let's hope that he finds employment as quickly as Fran Berry did, another person who was able to offer a wealth of experience to any potential employer and who was snapped up by Racing TV.  If you don't know the game inside out after several decades of hard work as a professional jockey and/or trainer, then you never will.

The one job for which a thorough background in the game doesn't apparently help is Chair of the BHA, as we were reminded last week when Annamarie Phelps, who has no racing experience on her CV whatsosever, was appointed to that position, to start on 1st June.  Is this a good appointment?  I've read plenty of opinion on this subject, mostly on Twitter, but the truth is that nobody knows.  Only time will tell.  Is the fact that she has no racing background overall an advantage or a disadvantage?  I've no idea.  It's an advantage in one sense in that no one part of the sport can complain that someone from another part has been chosen, thus potentially favouring that other part.

Does that outweigh the more obvious disadvantage of her overseeing a sport about which she knows very little?  Again, I have no idea.  We'll see as the months progress.  She has a very sound civil service behind her, headed by Nick Rust.  Any person of high calibre (as she is) ought to be able to steer the sport in a good direction with the support and guidance which she will be receiving.  I only hope that she will be better treated than Steve Harman was: one of the low points of recent racing administrative history was when a complaint was lodged against him for introducing Alex Frost, whose only crime is to try to help the sport, to a government minister.

That anybody could have been silly enough to be concerned about this was absurd; that anybody could have been malevolent enough to lodge a complaint about it was very disturbing.  That's the problem with racing administration: for every one person trying to do good for the sport (eg Steve Harman) you'll find another trying to do it harm (eg the person who complained about him) and that unfortunate situation can make these top jobs a poisoned chalice.  I only hope that Annamarie Phelps can steer clear of that type of sh*t-stirring.  If there is one thing on which we should all agree it is that we should be united in hoping that her tenure in the role is a big success.
Sunday, April 07, 2019

Responsiblity

What a wonderful Grand National meeting.  The first day was good enough, good enough for a whole meeting.  But then it got even better, with wonderful little Tiger Roll winning the Grand National.  He's such a lovable little horse (all for the more so for being so little) and the presence of Davy Russell on his back is the icing on the cake.  The unlucky and fatal fall of Up For Review did take a lot of the gloss off the race, and it was hard to enjoy the immediate aftermath of watching that.  But, thanks to Tiger Roll, it still ended up as an occasion to savour.

That race aside, Kalashnikov's Grade One victory under Jack Quinlan was far and away the highlight from a Newmarket perspective.  That was just so good.  He's been so well trained all the way through by Amy Murphy, and she and her father (who owns the horse) deserve particular praise for not blaming the jockey and taking the easy way out of using a more fashionable jockey instead when things weren't running smoothly earlier in the season.  Plenty of people would have done so, and it's great that it has turned out that that would have been the wrong way to proceed.

One might say that it would have been the case that there would have been no wrong answer because, while he would have won with A. N. Other too, that's not the point: the taste of victory would have been considerably less sweet with anyone else in the saddle.  That was the highlight of a wonderful afternoon of sport on the Thursday, while Newmarket's two runners in the Foxhunters the same day (one trained by Richard Spencer, one by James Owen) both ran creditably too.  And then, of course, Newmarket had a runner in the Grand National, even if the horse couldn't be said to have been trained on Newmarket Heath.

But does that matter?  Does it matter that Richard Spencer was listed as the trainer of Outlander (or that Phil Kirby was listed as the trainer of Don Poli) when the two horses had only joined their new trainers' teams less than 48 hours before the race, at Aintree, and had never been to the trainers' stables?  The trainer listed is the person responsible for the horse on the day of the race.  How much of the preparation the trainer has or hasn't undertaken doesn't matter.  That's not what the name of the trainer tells us: it tells us who is responsible for the horse on raceday.

It's the same with training partnerships, which we keep being told should be happening here.  I can't understand that.  All they do is make the listing of the information on the race-card and in the papers much more unwieldy.  Telling us that two people, rather than one, are responsible is actually more misleading than telling us that only one person is.  Ultimately you have to have one person in the firing line if something goes wrong.  One person to be fined, suspended or disqualified if a crime or misdemeanour has taken place.

Saying that we have to have more than one name listed because more than one person has played a key role in preparing the horse for the race is silly.  Of course more than one person has played a key role.  Surely nobody thinks that, just because only one name is listed, one person has trained the horse in isolation?  Saying we need the second name to clear up any misunderstanding just makes it more confusing, implying that only two people are involved and that the credit can be fairly distributed by using two names.

Of course there are some trainers who do everything, but very few; and none who train more than about four horses.  You could have three co-trainers listed, without listing the most crucial person in the process, ie the person who rides the horse every day.  This listing of the trainer isn't meant to be a list of credits of those who have played their parts in the horse's preparation; it is the name of the person who will carry the can if things go wrong, the person who will take responsibility for what happens when that horse runs in that race.  In Outlander's case it was Richard Spencer.  In Don Poli's case it was Phil Kirby.   Gordon Elliott had ceased to be responsible for the horses on the Thursday.  Is that too hard to understand?
Saturday, March 30, 2019

Quarter-time

This is only the second chapter of the blog in March, but it is very likely to be the last, I'm afraid.  I hope that future months will have more chapters.  And more runners too: we've had three runners during March, taking the total for 2019 so far to eight (after two in January and three in February).  Not much to show for it so far, but hopefully we might be building foundations.  Sacred Sprite is now eligible for handicaps following her run at Lingfield on Monday, and I hope that she'll find those a lot easier than against high-class horses in novice races.

Roy has had an interrupted preparation this winter, so it was good to get him started at Kempton on Wednesday.  He's still quite fresh so a mile first time seemed far enough, but he is (by his standards) very high in the ratings at the moment after his three wins last year, so he found that his opponents were (again, by his standards) quite smart milers.  Consequently he wasn't fast enough, but he's come home sound and should be better for having gone there.  I'd like to think that he will run three weeks tomorrow (April 20th) at the first Brighton meeting, the problem of course being that he's likely still to be rated on the high side.

Despite Roy finishing last, I really enjoyed the trip to Kempton.  Well, I didn't particularly enjoy the trip to Kempton (a harbinger of another season of travel chaos - 90 miles to Kempton with the first 50 miles taking one hour and then the final 40 miles taking two hours; and then going home the long way, ie via Dartford, because, even at that time of night, there were still serious delays around the top left corner of the M25) but I did enjoy the being there.  And even the tortuous outward journey wasn't the end of the world: as it was evening racing I had the luxury of having left home unrealistically early so wasn't fretting about missing the race.

The time spent there, though, was a real pleasure.  It was a warm and sunny (well, until the sun went down an hour or so before Roy's race) evening with very enjoyable company.  It's usually a pleasure to be at Kempton, and it's pretty much always a pleasure to be at the races when Roy runs.  So that was very nice.  It was also a nice, warm sunny day at Lingfield on Monday (and it's been glorious here the past couple of days, Friday and Saturday) but that was a less sociable trip, not least for the fact that I had an article to write so took my lap-top and spent most of the time there squirrelled away tapping the keyboard.

I hadn't been watching the earlier races so didn't know the results, which was fairly stupid as I chatted with both Nicola Currie and Jean-Rene Auvray (independently) without realising that they had combined for the winner of the second race.  (Well, with Jean-Rene I was relieved of my ignorance during the course of the conversation).  Most of my conversation with him revolved around how pleased I am that he has been able to resume training.  He trained previously but had to give up because of financial difficulties, which was very unfortunate as he is a hard-working and very sound horseman who trains his horses well.  I'm very glad that he now has a second chance.

This got me thinking, though. Unless I was hallucinating, I recall reading a week or two ago that the many criticisms being hurled the BHA's way included supposedly it giving licenses to people whose training business is financially unviable.  That's ludicrous.  You only know in retrospect who is going to go bust, and that's too late.  The BHA shouldn't just say that it suspected that someone's business would fail and so he/she shouldn't have a license.  Any profitable training business can become loss-making overnight if horses depart or a bad debt intervenes; any loss-making training business can become profitable overnight if new clients or horses arrive. 

John Dunlop ended up putting his training business into receivership.  Was the BHA (well, Jockey Club and then BHB) wrong to give him a license?  A former champion trainer and multiple Group One-winning trainer - if his business can go bankrupt, then anyone's can.  Few trainers have made a better start to their careers in Newmarket this century than Mark Wallace.  Plenty of horses; plenty of winners; Group winners; good owners.  He only lasted about five years.  Was the BHA (BHB?) wrong to give him a license?  Of course not.  If it had done, he could have, assuming that he fulfilled all the criteria, sued it for restraint of trade, for refusing him a license simply on a hunch (notwithstanding that the hunch would have turned out to be correct) that he might go bust.  Absurd.

We get this in the Town Council.  There are plenty of restaurants in Newmarket, more than a town this size can sustain.  There are more starting up every year.  Most of the new ones go to the wall sooner rather than later.  We get applications for change of use for a building and often common sense says that the venture is likely to be doomed to failure, but we don't object to the application.  If one person has the right to try his luck, then so has the next man.  The training game and the feeding game are both competitive ones, the survival of the fittest (well, not really the fittest, but you know what I mean).  Market forces will decide.  It's not up to the BHA or the local council to decide, and not only because the BHA and the council probably wouldn't pick the right ones anyway. 
Thursday, March 21, 2019

Getting back to normal. And a grip.

It's been over three weeks since my last chapter, but at least I'm back in harness now.  I wrote a chapter on 26th February, but sadly my father died that night and it's taken a while to get back into my usual rhythm.  Getting there now, but.  And we had his funeral on Monday.  So I'm getting back on track.  The final spur has been that racing politics are getting as shambolic, as idiotic and as nasty as the national situation (well, not quite - we're maybe 2% of the way there, but that's 2% too much) so I felt that I'd try to distill a small dose of common sense to pour oil on the waters.  (Onto racing's waters, that is; as far as the national situation is concerned, that seems to have gone beyond recall, thanks to the deadly duo of Cameron and May, and to the dangerous lunatics whom they have empowered / abetted / encouraged / failed to control - delete as applicable).

We've had a few debacles recently.  The equine influenza epidemic-that-wasn't could, with the wisdom on hindsight, have gone better, but that's water under the bridge.  Lessons, one presumes and hopes, will have been learned; and no lives were lost.  Erring on the side of caution is rarely the cause of a disaster, and it wasn't in this case either.  The next contentious issue (unless I've missed one) was the Sandown photo-finish debacle.  That was a debacle, but it certainly wasn't the fault of either the judge or the stewards.  Or any other BHA employee.  Or the BHA.

At Sandown the hurdles course and the steeplechase course converge on the finish from different directions.  Therefore, if one is to be fair (and it is the racing authorities' duty to be fair), there must be two finishing lines, each at right angles to the racing line on its own course.  This means that if there is one winning post on one side of the track, there must be two on the other side.  We're dependent on the photo-finish being lined up to the correct post on the side which has two posts.  (And we always will be, irrespective of whether there is one post on the near side and two on the far side as at present, or one on the far side and two on the near side, which would be the alternative).

It sounds simple, but humans are fallible and once in a lifetime you will find that the technician responsible for lining up the photo-finish apparatus will get it wrong.  That is what happened on Imperial Cup Day.  I don't know whether the technician works for the racecourse or for Racetech, but the certainty is that he doesn't work for the BHA.  It was 0% a stewarding mistake and 0% a judge's mistake.  In fact, the judge did well to realise so soon after having been given a duff print that it was a duff print, and thus to rectify the error so swiftly.  He did so well in advance of the 'weighed in' - and, frankly, any bookmaker silly enough to pay out before the 'weigh-in' has only himself to blame.

But then we came to the National Hunt Chase.  The fatal fall of Ballyward was tragic, but it was not the result of the race being long or being for amateurs.  It took place the better part of a mile and a half from the finish when Ballyward was still travelling easily, and he was being ridden by the most successful amateur in history, one of the most competent and experienced there has ever been.  He just jumped poorly all the way round, and the writing was on the wall from early on that he looked unlikely to get round.  I've never watched any of his previous races so don't know whether was generally a bad jumper or whether he was just jumping uncharacteristically badly that day.  Whatever, this tragedy should not be used as a stick to beat either racing, the BHA, amateurs or the race.

Unfortunately, the race then produced the debacle of the poor decision by the stewards to suspend Declan Lavery for his ride on third-placed Jerrysback.  This was just plain silly.  It is good to have a rule that says that in jumps races a rider should pull up if his horse is very tired and out of contention.  But this should not have been erroneously applied here: by definition, a horse who finishes third is not out of contention.  What prompted the stewards' bizarre decision is hard to understand.  But at least their mistake has now been rectified, even if Declan Lavery should not have been required to travel from Ireland to London to have the injustice righted.  I hope that he has received an apology and his travelling expenses.

Furthermore, leaving aside that this rule should not be applied in instances like this where it is not applicable (and it was doubly inapplicable because, over and above the horse not having been out of contention, the fact that he was fine after the race - not apparently that the stewards took the trouble to find that out - shows that he wasn't even particularly tired anyway) it is a rule that should only be used with circumspection under any circumstances.  Racing has two inherent achilles heels - ie fatalities and the whip - but, up to now, horses being tired is not a third one.  I think that everyone recognises that horses getting tired is inevitable; and it is not not an issue.  The stewards should be thinking long and hard about turning it into an issue, and creating a third stick with which the sport can be beaten.

So that's the situation.  But that is very, very far from saying that we should be looking for different leadership.  I have been appalled in recent days to read a series of news items detailing people who ought to know better giving the opinions that the BHA is not the right body to rule the sport and/or that Nick Rust is not the right person to head the BHA.  And I have not used the word 'appalled' there lightly.  If you feel yourself getting ready to voice the view that we would be better off without the BHA, or with someone else at its head, then take a deep breath, start counting to a million, and let me know when you've finished doing that.  And get a fu*&in' grip.
Tuesday, February 26, 2019

It's how you tell 'em

Our three runners are down to two, in rather annoying circumstances.  The first annoying circumstance of the week actually concerns one of the two horses who will be running.  The fact that winners are now allowed to run in maiden races does rather irritate me.  (Well, I know that that's not technically true - winners are not allowed to run in maiden races, but it is just that maiden races are no longer maiden races but are now 'novice' races in which previous winners can run, but effectively when you're running a maiden in them because he/she has to run in such races before he/she is eligible for handicaps, in your mind the race still is, or rather should be, a maiden race).

Anyway, Sacred Star runs in a novice race tomorrow against a Melbourne Cup hopeful.  Strange but true.  Verdana Blue, easy winner of a maiden race in the autumn and then runner-up in a listed race before beating Buveur D'Air in the Grade One Christmas Hurdle at Kempton, should start at around 1/10 in this 'novice' race and win with her head in her chest.  Mind you, it would still be a very strong race even without her.  Gumball, runner-up in a Grade One hurdle race at Aintree last April, makes his Flat debut; while we also have a maiden who finished second in a Class Two handicap at Chester last time.  I'm expecting her to run creditably, but as you can probably work out, I'm not expecting her to win.

So that's one rule change that slightly sticks in the throat.  I can understand why two-year-old maiden races became novice races and agree with the theory, primarily because we had reached the stage where there weren't many conditions races, and there are no two-year-old handicaps in the first half of the season.  But all the while this was being discussed, it never crossed my mind that this would be applied to older horses' maiden races too.  The previous system of maiden races worked very well, and all that has been achieved by allowing winners to run in them has been to make them even more uncompetitive than they already were, because the winners all too often dominate both the betting and the race.

Rule change number two was bringing forward declaration time from 10.00 to 9.30, and then re-offering every race until 10.00.  I don't like the idea of re-offering races because my literal mind sees it that when a race has closed, it has closed.  But what is really irritating is that the BHA don't paint the new situation as it is: they say that the race still closes at 10.00, but you can see the other declarations from 9.30 onwards, which was as it used to be after 10.00 if a race was being re-offered.  It annoys me that they misleading portray it thus.

The real give-away that the race closes at 9.30 is that one can't cancel a declaration after that time.  If the race was still open, as the BHA maintains, you would be able to cancel the declaration.  I was reminded of this this morning.  Roy cantered up Long Hill third lot this morning just after 9.40.  He wasn't quite as exuberant as usual cantering and I wasn't totally happy with him afterwards.  He was 100% sound, but he wasn't the Roy who had galloped really well with Sacred Sprite on Sunday.  I was relieved that I had my phone on me and it wasn't yet 10.00, so I went on-line while riding home at 9.55 to cancel the declaration - only to find that I didn't have that option.

So that was annoying.  I ended up making Roy a non-runner at around 10.30, about fifty-five and a half hours before the race and about half an hour after what is officially (but isn't actually) declaration time.  It was so silly.  He should never have appeared among the declarations.  I hate having non-runners, but I'll have one on Thursday (as 'self-certificate: off colour').  If we'd been told that declaration time was being brought forward to 9.30 and that every race was being re-offered, that would have been fair enough. if very annoying.  But being told that declaration time is still 10.00 and no races will be re-offered, when that's plainly not true, wasn't very funny.  As I was reminded this morning and as I will be reminded on Thursday when Roy is a non-runner from a race in which he shouldn't have appeared among the declarations in the first place.