Friday, June 14, 2019

Shut up and race!

It's been a very wet week, Monday to Friday (today) inclusive but happily the rain petered out this morning and this evening the sun has come out.  Which is wonderful.  Hopefully the tally of lost meetings this week won't rise about the five at which I believe that it currently stands (ie Uttoxeter and Haydock yesterday, Newton Abbot and Chepstow today, Leicester tomorrow).  We had heavy ground and rain for our trip to Yarmouth on Wednesday with Loving Pearl, but I hope that it will be no wetter than good to soft at Bath tomorrow for Das Kapital.

I definitely don't want fast ground for Das Kapital, but I don't want very wet ground either as he floundered in the heavy at Catterick last autumn.  There's more rain forecast for Bath tomorrow, but it looks as if they're having a nice evening, so hopefully our being in the first race means that the current reading of good to soft will apply.  That should be fine, more helpful than our wide draw anyway.  But it looks a suitable race for him, and one would hope that if he can reproduce (or improve upon) his performance when third at Nottingham nine days ago, then he would be one of the main chances.

One could argue that Loving Pearl appreciated the heavy ground as she had finished eleventh of eleven on fast ground at Newmarket but 'improved' to finish eighth of twelve on the heavy at Yarmouth.  She was, admittedly, beaten ten lengths farther at Yarmouth, but the margins are always much lengthier on heavy than fast ground.  But I'm working on the assumption that she will prefer it less wet, and will try to find drier ground next time.  One would hope that finding drier ground won't be difficult, assuming that she runs at some point between now and Christmas!

I only hope that racing's finances won't be terminally harmed by the loss of the five meetings this week.  The Racing Post carried a feature on the new RCA Chairman David Armstrong the other day, in which he asserted that if the fixture list were reduced by one meeting per week, it would cost 'racing' (whatever that means) £3,000,000 per year.  Under the circumstances, how bad a week has it been with five gone in three days (although, admittedly, it is a rare week which sees five fixtures cancelled)?

When one gets into the realms of seven-(or more) figure sums, I find things hard to follow; but, even so, it is hard to work out where all the money goes if such a tiny contraction of the fixture list causes such a reduction in income.  (And I'm presuming that we're talking about £3,000,000 loss of net income, rather than gross income: if it costs, say, £90,000 to put on a fixture and it generates £100,000, one would say that its cancellation would lead to a £10,000 loss in income for racing, rather than a £100,000 reduction).  Unfortunately we won't find out, as the paradox of the article was that Mr Armstrong asserted that criticism of the RCA over an alleged lack of transparency is unfair, while maintaining that it is important that the facts and figures of the media-rights income should remain confidential.

It's always been hard to work out how the bumble-bee of racing can actually fly, but it's becoming even harder nowadays.  The Levy figures are public knowledge, but we're told that the Levy is an ever less significant factor as media-rights income becomes an ever more major factor.  The only trouble, of course, is that nobody seems to know what it is.  It seems to be the case that attempts by the NTF or other trade bodies to find out are met with a racing version of the unintentionally amusing instruction given to the Dixie Chicks and then turned by them into the title of an album: "Shut up and sing!".
Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Musings at the end of a grey, wet day

A week since I last posted a chapter.  Since then we have had two runners last week (Das Kapital at Nottingham on the Wednesday; Roy at Brighton on the Friday) and probably will have two this week, ie Loving Pearl at Yarmouth tomorrow and then Das Kapital at Bath on Saturday.  Das Kapital ran very nicely last week, a strong-finishing third of 15.  That was great, a big relief to see him finish in the first three for the first time. Let's hope that he can progress from that promising start to his year.  I'm hoping that Bath will have ground not too far from good, probably just on the soft side, but heavy ground would be a concern.  They had 26mm of rain yesterday which eased the previously-very-firm ground significantly to 'good to firm, good in places', and it's sure to rain further there.  We'll see.

Roy again didn't cut much ice last week, but Rob Hornby was at pains afterwards to tell us not to be too concerned as the horse felt really well.  That's how he's been feeling to me in everything he does at home, so I'm keeping the faith too.  I'm also keeping the faith with Loving Pearl, despite her failing to beat a horse on her resumption at Newmarket last month.  I hope that she'll run considerably more competitively tomorrow, not least because the race is over a couple of furlongs farther, although very soft ground (which it is certain to be) will be an unknown.  Of her two siblings whom I have trained, Rhythm Stick relished soft ground and Indira was hopeless on it.  Once again, we'll just have to wait and see what happens.

There are just a few current topics at which I might take a brief look.  Firstly, David Redvers' blog post this week was very interesting and made perfect sense.  It is something upon which I have touched at various times: that our sport is currently teetering on very flimsy foundations, much flimsier than probably many appreciate, as the extensive patronage of a handful of overseas billionaires, patronage which cannot be expected to last forever, is papering over the extensive cracks created by the fact that the domestic ownership base is contracting severely.

That's the problem, and I don't profess to know the answer.  However, one thing which can only have been exacerbating the problem (again a topic which I have visited several times previously) is the policy which has been generally adopted in recent years of widening the gap in prize money between the higher and the lower tiers.  Nick Rust has seemingly stood alone as someone in authority keen to rectify this flaw.  The other observation which I would make is that the two-tier market at the sales (ie that the prices for the more obvious lots are jaw-droppingly high while the prices for the less obvious ones are jaw-droppingly low) is a very bad thing (in every way, not just this one) in that the headline prices make the health of the game seem much rosier than it is, which is of no help at all in trying to persuade our overlords that action might be required.

Two pieces of sad news in the past few days have been the recent retirement of Mark Brisbourne and the impending retirement of Jeremy Noseda.  Mark's unplanned exit from the ranks is a consequence of the collapse of the domestic ownership base referred to above because that's what his ownership base has always been, ie domestic, local.  He and his brother Anthony are the archetypal hard-working, supremely skilled and totally honest horsemen on whom the sport is built, and it's a sad day for us all when they are found to be superfluous to game's requirements.  It's a sign of the times, I'm afraid.  The days when Mark was training more winners than Henry Cecil seem a lifetime ago.

Jeremy's days of glory also seem a long time ago.  His news was less of a shock, for me anyway as I see his string every day and have seen it dwindle from the better part of 20 horses per lot to five or six, and have seen him go from having several stakes-class horses every year to only the occasional one.  He's always been very open about his ambitions to operate in what one might term the premier league, so it's understandable that he is calling it a day - not, of course, that that has been the full extent of him: he is 100% immersed in the training of his horses, and ambition alone can't make you that single-minded over an extended period.  You have to love the job itself, and not just its rewards.

Jeremy has been around high-class horses all the way through, and I'm sure that he would describe Lammtarra as one of his favourite horses.  If I recall the events correctly, Lammtarra's King George victory was the occasion of our finding out that he was going to start training.  My recollection is that after racing at Ascot that day, Sheikh Mohammed called an impromptu press conference to say how much he appreciated all the good work which Jeremy (who was Saeed bin Suroor's assistant trainer at the time) had done to help with Lammtarra's training and how sad he would be to lose him at the end of the season as Jeremy was planning to branch out on his own then and start training in France.

I didn't know Jeremy well enough (well, at that time I didn't know him at all ) to know whether this news should be surprising, but I seem to recall that the story came as a surprise to some, most notably to Jeremy himself.  The French part of the plan apparently caught him particularly off-guard as he doesn't speak a word of French!  Anyway, he did indeed leave Godolphin later that year and did start training, albeit in America rather than France.  And then he came back to Britain a couple of years or so later.  I seem to remember that his first runner and first winner (in separate races - I think that the horse was placed first time and then won the next time) was a well-built dark brown horse called Nautical Warning, by Warning out of Night At Sea, owned by Benny Schmidt-Bodner, at Lingfield.

I'm pretty sure that I had a runner in at least one of those races, or possibly just at at least one of those meetings.  Nautical Warning was a nice horse but not a particularly good one, but Jeremy had some very smart horses right from the outset and has had more than his share of very decent ones since then.  Off the top of my head, winners that stand out have included Sixties Icon in the St Leger, Araafa in the Irish 2,000 Guineas and St. James's Palace Stakes, Sans Frontieres in the Irish St Leger, Wilko in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, Proclamation in the Sussex Stakes and Fleeting Spirit in the July Cup.  And that's all without extensive patronage from the sport's biggest owners, without whose support it is very hard to make any impact at the highest level nowadays (see above).

As with Mark Brisbourne's winners, those seem a way ago now.  Jeremy will leave a big gap in the town's training ranks.  I'll miss his reassuringly professional presence on the Severals every morning, and I'll miss the reassuringly constant presence of his staff (who'll still be around as presumably they will be working for someone else, but they won't be happy about that as they'll struggle to find a better boss).  In an era in which staff move around a lot, Jeremy's staff don't.  The people who occupy the key positions are ones who have been there for donkey's years, including some who joined him from Godolphin at the outset; and the only way they would be moving on would be (reluctantly) on his retirement.  Very few trainers treat their staff well enough to inspire the loyalty which he has clearly inspired in his.  And I don't think that I could give a trainer any higher a compliment than that.

The saddest news of all, though, came today with the fatal injury which Lady Kaya sustained this morning.  She isn't the first top-class horse to suffer a fatal injury and she won't be the last.  However, it is hard to think of one whose death has made me feel sadder.  She was a cracker, all the more so for the fact that she was owned, trained, ridden and looked after by some of the sport's best people.  There's so much all around us to make one question whether there is any future at all for the sport's more workday participants (see above) but she and her connections gave us hope that one always has a chance.  Today's news was heart-breaking.  My most sincere condolences to all those around her, who will have been hit for six by today's disaster. 
Tuesday, June 04, 2019

The Galileopoly - what's the problem?

Two runners this week: Das Kapital at Nottingham tomorrow (Wednesday) and Roy at Brighton on Friday.  Hard to know what to expect from either.  Das Kapital was disappointing last season but he showed the odd glimpse of promise, particularly when he finished fourth at Pontefract in the autumn, and he was still a tall, weak horse who looked very likely to improve when he got a bit older.  Let's hope that that does indeed happen.  One couldn't fancy him tomorrow on his form of 2018, but I hope that he can improve on that, starting tomorrow perhaps.  I'm hoping that it's been raining there this afternoon.  It's been raining on the TV at Southwell and that's not far from Nottingham, so that's encouraging.

I would be less vague about Roy's prospects, but for the fact that he hasn't quite seemed at his best yet this year.  I think that he ought to come good at some point in the summer, and that his failure to cut much ice so far in 2019 is not because of his advancing years, because obviously if that was the case, it wouldn't really be reversible.  (He's nine now).  I have been and remain very happy with him at home, and I think that his slightly uninspiring runs so far this year have their roots in nothing more sinister than that he began the season unfeasibly high in the handicap and then found himself in a very curiously (and from our point of view very unsatisfactorily) run race last time.

Epsom was terrific.  I've read too much since then that we should be worrying that we're not far from having a 'Ballydoyle first, the rest nowhere' situation - even a BHA pronouncement on the subject - but that's nothing to be concerned about.  The situation won't last forever, and even if it did that wouldn't be a problem.  The three dominant stallions of the modern era - Sadler's Wells, Danehill and Galileo - all stood (or, in Galileo's case, stand) at Coolmore.  At present, Galileo is in a league of his own.  Racing has become a numbers' game.  Two operations operate on a bigger scale than anyone else: Coolmore/Ballydoyle and Darley/Godolphin.

Coolmore have always had plenty of sons and grandsons of these horses.  It has enjoyed particular success with horses by Galileo out of a Danehill mare.  So have other people, most notably Juddmonte with Frankel, a superior horse to any ever raced by the Coolmore team.  But Coolmore have had so many horses bred on this cross or variations of it, dozens and dozens and dozens rather than just the odd one - while Darley spent a lengthy period eschewing the progeny Coolmore stallions, which led it having a dearth of sons and daughters of Galileo and a dearth of Danehill mares.

Darley has managed to overcome its previous inexplicable aversion to the progeny of Coolmore stallions, but the damage has been done and will take years to undo.  The result is that, while others such as Juddmonte and the Aga Khan are going to come up with Derby horses some years and so is Godolphin, Coolmore is going to come up with significantly more than anyone else.  But this won't last forever, and we don't need to worry about it.  We have more than enough things that we genuinely do need to worry about without worrying about things that are not a problem, for us in particular or for racing in general.
Monday, May 27, 2019

And then there were two

I think that I might have intimated in a recent chapter that we might have six runners this week.  I certainly had that outline plan in my head.  Predictably, we won't have six.  We'll have two.  But that's fine.  That's the way it is: when one picks out a race a few weeks in advance for a horse, it's odds-against that he or she will actually run in it.  That's why you see, say, 24 entries in a race and ten runners.  And that's with the entries only being taken six days in advance of the race; if they were taken, say, four weeks ahead (as used to be the case) you could have those nine runners coming from at least twice that number of entries.

The two who (assuming that nothing goes wrong in the interim, which can never be guaranteed) will be running are Sussex Girl at Brighton tomorrow and Sacred Sprite at Wetherby on Thursday.  Of the other four who had been pencilled in, two of the four were ruled out of contention even before the entries were made.  But that's fine.  I just decided to give Loving Pearl a bit longer than a fortnight between her first and second runs of the season, so she should run in a couple of weeks' time; and Dervish, who hasn't run for nearly two and a half years, can just wait a bit longer before receiving confirmation of the realisation which has been creeping up on him that he hasn't actually been retired.

Of the two who were entered but didn't make it as far as the declaration stage, Das Kapital was all set to be declared until the umpteenth consideration of the weather forecasts made me conclude that not enough of the rain which was hovering around various parts of the British Isles was going to make its way to Redcar in time to ease the ground as much as I'd like; and Konigin can just wait another couple of weeks before resuming from the spell which she enjoyed during the second half of the winter.  So this week we'll head to Brighton tomorrow and Wetherby on Thursday.  We'll hope for the best but expect nothing, as ever.
Saturday, May 25, 2019

Chop chop!

We've had some great evening racing on the TV over the past couple of days, with Sandown on Thursday and the Curragh on Friday.  Horses being late into the parade ring seemed to be a big issue at Sandown.  This is something which is close to my heart (and which has featured on this blog a few times in the past) as it's something which always plays on one's mind on raceday.  In the great scheme of things, getting the horse saddled quickly is not a major concern as it is not a matter of life or death (as opposed to getting it done well, which is).  But in general the saddling is a stressful and important enough part of a stressful day without the extra stress of feeling obliged to rush.  The threat of a fine is one part of it; but, leaving that aside, you don't like to be late anyway.  And often that's not easy.

One might ask why horses being late into the parade ring is a more pressing issue nowadays than previously.  I think that the main reason is that there's much more pressure for races to be off on time than there used to be.  It is not just that there are now TV schedules to be adhered to; another factor is that the TV schedules are often tighter than they used to be because there are more races.  Whatever - much more importance has been placed on off-times in recent years than ever used to be the case.  The facile answer is that more horses are saddled in the stables nowadays (largely because at some tracks one no longer has to ask for permission to saddle in the stables, so most people do it because it is generally much easier doing it there) but I think that that's hardly a factor.

At, say, Sandown, the pre-parade ring is right next to the entrance to the stable-yard, so the post-saddling walk to the parade-ring is probably only about a minute longer if it starts in the yard rather than in the pre-parade ring.  For sure, a minute is a minute, and when one is tight for time a minute is the difference between being late and not.  But, set against that, the fact of saddling in the stable will often shorten the procedure by more than a minute: horses are so much more relaxed in the racecourse stables that they generally just stand there while being saddled, just like at home, whereas many of them are more (often much more) restive and pushy in the saddling boxes.  That can easily add more than a minute to the time taken to saddle.

Obviously this is not the only factor so certainly isn't always the deciding factor, but when I'm booking a jockey, if all other factors were equal (which they rarely are) I would always choose one who is likely not to be riding in the previous race over one who is.  That just gives you a bit of extra time.  Or quite a lot of extra time, often.  If you're waiting for your jockey to come back in from a ride in the previous race, what you don't want is for the race to be a long one and for the jockey to win it (as then he is likely to be interviewed).  If it is over jumps, you really don't want his horse to fall or be pulled up.  But what you really want, more than anything else, is there for there to be 35 minutes between races rather than 30.  That always makes a massive difference.  When there are 35 minutes, you pretty much never have a problem.  When there are 30 minutes, you're always rushing, and that's when mistakes are made.  And mistakes made when saddling can be fatal, albeit not for the saddler.

The one time I was fined for being late into the parade ring was at Towcester.  The jockey was in the previous race (which was over three miles and had been late off; and there were 30 minutes between races) and by the time he weighed out, we were 15 minutes from race-time.  I ran out of the weighing room to saddle her, but that wasn't enough, unfortunately.  Mind you, even if your jockey isn't in the previous race, it can be less easy to get him weighed out early (and I have used 'him', rather than 'him/her' deliberately) than you would think.  There have been times when I have asked for a jockey to weigh out 40 minutes before the race, only for the weighing-out to take place 25 or fewer minutes beforehand.  I've known cases of a jockey not riding in the previous race and still being the last to weigh out.

A further complication, of course, is that you might want to watch the previous race.  And not just for the fun of watching it, but because one of the ways of working out the nowadays-seemingly-ubiquitous but ever-changing track-bias is by watching the previous races.  And I'm not just being over-particular here: I would say that, to my reading of the situation anyway, appearing not to have watched the previous races cost West Coast's connections dear in the 2018 Dubai World Cup.  The only way you would have instructed the jockey to ride him as he did would have been if you hadn't watched the earlier races.

I think that Sandown was an unusual example because apparently a horse was re-shod at the start before the first race, which meant that that race was six minutes late off, so they were under pressure throughout after that.  And then the winner of the fourth race, Regal Reality, apparently was very difficult in the preliminaries, firstly refusing to enter the parade ring and then being unwilling to walk out onto the track.  I've probably spent too much time analysing a meeting which I didn't attend, but it does annoy me reading or hearing (as I did after Sandown) overviews of meetings which seem to be written or spoken on the assumption that trainers whose horses are late into the parade ring are either slack or bloody-minded, because I promise you that, in my experience, that is very, very far from the case.