Friday, September 25, 2020

As I see it

As of two days ago, we seem finally to have lost summer, which is a jolt, but we can't complain.  We've had a good run.  It's just over six months since the start of lockdown, and that six months has been pretty much good weather all the way through, bar the inevitable occasional wet spell.  Obviously at the start good weather meant warm weather rather than hot weather, but that's what we had.  The start of the period was notable for queues outside the supermarket, and I remember reflecting that it was lucky that lockdown was starting when it was, ie when it was no hardship to queue outside the supermarket for half an hour or so in the sunshine, and that it in the winter it would be a very different matter.  Even two minutes would be too long if one were queuing in cold rain.  That could happen yet, which is depressing.

So it's been a depressing week all round.  We got up to 25 degrees on Tuesday, but since then we have had three cold, wet mornings.  Today (Friday) it is windy too, with a top temperature of 12.  At least the rain blew over after first lot.  And that's coincided with the (inevitable) resurgence of COVID-19, leading the predictions of potentially another lockdown, with the new restrictions put in place this week pencilled in to last for six months (or more).  The main blow from racing's point of view, of course, is that plans to reintroduce spectators at the racecourses have been shelved, seemingly for a long time.

I'd been hoping earlier in the summer that the attention paid to the problems faced by racing, and in particular its finances, would have focussed minds on the extent to which British racing is fighting with one hand behind its back compared to pretty much everyone else.  But I'm beginning to fear that that might not be the case.  For too long the press has been resistant to the idea that British racing doesn't get much of a return from the betting which it generates, and I'd been hopeful that people might now be viewing things from a different perspective as we faced the prospect of the raw deal received by owners potentially having a meaningful negative impact on the sport's health.  Maybe not, but we'll see.

Basically, the other major racing nations put Britain to shame as regards the return from betting.  In Britain, the return is approximately 0.6% of turnover.  In Ireland it's approximately 1.5% (in the form of a grant from the government, passing on part of what it receives).  In Australia it's 3.9%.  In Hong Kong it's 4.4%.  In France it's 8.6%.  In the USA it's 14.5%.  In Japan it's 16%.  Previously, any calls for Britain's share to be increased have been decried by too many members of the media who ought to know better, echoing the standard line about 'expecting punters to subsidise the hobbies of rich people'.

I was hoping that in the current climate, when there is a genuine likelihood of a significant contraction of the country's ownership base, the people who have generally trotted out that line might start instead to see it not along those lines, but along the lines of not asking owners (who are always going to bare the brunt of the subsidising, however things work out) to bear such an overwhelming percentage of the burden of paying for the sport which we all enjoy, but asking it to be spread out slightly less one-sidedly among the people who get pleasure from it.

The problem, of course, came when the decision was taken maybe 20 years ago to change the Levy basis from a percentage of turnover (as it generally the case elsewhere and had been the case here) to a percentage of bookmakers' gross profits.  At the time, this wasn't a major issue.  Bookmakers had to bet to a certain percentage to make enough profit cover their massive overheads (and racing's share was a percentage of the gross profit, not the net profit which obviously is the gross profit minus the bookmaker's expenses).  Unfortunately, the situation was overtaken by events almost straightaway, courtesy of the invention of betting exchanges.

Until this point, all bookmakers had significant overheads.  On-course bookmakers obviously have huge overheads, but betting shop operators have even greater.  Renting or owning the shops; paying business rates and insurance; paying staff.  The landscape was changed utterly by Betfair as the licensed bookmakers had the rug pulled out from under their feet by the arrival of unlicensed bookmakers who have no expenses.  As long as they had a computer and had the racing channels on the their TVs at home, they could make a book through Betfair - and, having no expenses, they could bet to a tiny percentage, undercutting the licensed bookmakers, who had either to adapt (ie lower their margins and find some way of still making it pay) or go out of business.

This meant that the percentage of the bookmakers' gross profits became a much smaller percentage of turnover than had been the intention at the outset.  And that's why we're in trouble.  Germany and Italy have almost disappeared off the racing radar since they have lost their Tote monopolies and had them replaced by the situation outlined above, and we can only hope that we don't go the same way.  Or, rather, we shouldn't necessarily need only to hope because it doesn't have to be like this - but, while the preferred option remains asking owners to pay an overwhelming share of the expenses of putting on the sport, rather than merely the large majority, hope is all that we shall have.

One thing which could be done to try to address the sport's immediate funding issue would be to allow racecourses to welcome a limited number of spectators.  It is madness that this doesn't happen and that plans to allow this to resume happening have been scrapped.  When we went to Salisbury the other week, we drove past the Imperial War Museum's Duxford branch.  The car park was at least three quarters full.  The hangers must have been teeming with paying customers.  Cinemas are open.  Pubs.  (And I'm not even mentioning things like supermarkets, because they are in a different category as food-shops have to remain open for people to buy food).  Where would you feel safer, in one of those or in the large open spaces of racecourses' enclosures?

Warwick's trial seemed to go very well on Monday.  Ditto the one day of the St Leger meeting when the plans to allow spectators weren't scrapped.  Warwick cracked me up.  Spectators had been allowed in on the first day of its two-day meeting, but not on the second.  Even so, when I watched the second day's action on TV there were groups of people lining the rails up the straight watching the horses galloping by.  How so?  Well, there's a caravan park inside the racecourse and there was a collection of camper vans in there, whose occupants were free to watch the racing in an uncontrolled environment.  But could we have a similar number of people in a controlled environment on the other side of the track?  No way!  You couldn't make it up.  It's the same as at Wetherby and Kempton: you can go there for a car-boot sale and jostle your way through the crowds there, but not to the races.  Madness.

That's enough of that.  We have two runners coming up so we can focus on them, rather than on the insanity around us.  Kryptos runs in the Cambridgeshire tomorrow with Josephine Gordon in the saddle.  He'll have a chance, but then so will twenty-something others, so we won't get too carried away with our hopes and expectations.  And then I hope that Das Kapital will run over hurdles next week with William Kennedy (seen on him this morning in the chapter's final two photographs).  Bangor on Wednesday would be my first choice, but we might not get in there so Fontwell on Friday might have to do instead.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Clear conscience

Another long gap between chapters, I'm afraid.  Eleven days since the last one.  (My excuse is that when we aren't having runners, I don't feel so obliged to update this on-going overview).  We've had one runner since then: The Rocket Park over a mile and six furlongs at Salisbury two Fridays ago, ie nine days ago.  He ran well in an odd race.  The field didn't set off unrealistically fast, but after half a mile or so a couple of horses got into a speed duel up front.  They started to go, to borrow a phrase recently made famous by Darren Flindell in Sydney, 'lickety-split', and the result was that the horses who chased this ludicrously fast pace faded badly at the end, while the horses who laid well back off it dominated the finish.  (Under the circumstances, the run of the race was put in by the horse who finished sixth).

The two horses who beat us came from well back, and we came from even farther back (considerably farther back still).  The Rocket Park has no early pace and just stays on, as he had shown when winning at Thirsk previously, and it was the same here, with the crazy mid-race tempo really accentuating this.  We looked like being completely tailed off for much of the race, but Howard Cheng had judged things well and we were able to finish strongly into third.  (In fact, we probably were only keeping on at the same pace, or were slowing down considerably less rapidly than the others).

To an inexperienced eye, however, it might have looked as if we had deliberately been given too much to do and were flashing home, or that it had just been an ill-judged ride.  The waters were further muddied by the fact that Howard isn't getting many rides and consequently found his fitness sorely tested in the longest race he'd ever ridden in, on a horse who was off the bridle more or less all the way; so he didn't look as vigorous as some might have liked.  And the upshot was that I made my second visit to the stewards' room of the summer for a 'running and riding' enquiry.  Unbelievable.

Happily, common sense prevailed and no action was taken.  I was so obviously telling the truth in my answer to the question of whether I was happy with Howard's ride, the answer being, "Yes, but I wouldn't have said that had I trained one of the horses who made the running."  It's so strange.  The majority of ill-judged rides are put in on horses who go too fast in the early stages, but British stewards never seem to worry about that, instead focussing their attentions on horses who might have gone too slowly in the early stages.

(Not so in Australia, with Hugh Bowman having just received a three-week suspension for getting his fractions wrong by going too fast in the Run To The Rose - which is an odd one because, to my thinking, if it was a genuine error, which I believe it to have been, no punishment should have been given, but if it was intentional the penalty should have been three years rather than weeks).  Anyway, as regards our race, it was in retrospect slightly frustrating, but basically I'm always happy to see a horse run well (which he did) and, after becoming resigned mid-race to him being about to put in a very poor performance, I was actually happy to end up in third.

There's plenty going on in the wider world, of course.  The passing of Pat Smullen has very sadly loomed over the racing world in the past week, while the seeming resurgence of COVID-19 is hanging over the national landscape.  We'll have to wait and see what the consequences of the latter will be, but at least we can be happy that the racing fraternity is more than doing its bit.  In fact, at times I feel that we are the only people taking this seriously.  This particularly struck me when we went to Chester last month.  Things are done impeccably on the racecourse, but we couldn't believe our eyes as we drove away.

Driving down a street in Chester early in the evening, we passed a pub with a beer garden, which appeared to be packed, with people behaving as they used to do in that far-away land where nobody (other than the virologists who created it, prior to its release into the world, intentional or erroneous) had heard of COVID-19.  And the funny thing was that there's a pub within the racecourse at Chester which obviously was empty during racing.  But what struck me was that there were menus and flowers on its outdoor tables.  When I remarked that it was rather sweet that they had taken the trouble to do this, the point was made that presumably it would be open in the evening after the racing was over!

I spoke to someone who attended a recent sale at Doncaster.  Sales are the same as racecourses in that the protocols are very strict - and then he said that in the evening he walked back from the sales-complex to where he was staying and had to pass through what he described as 'the night-club area', and he said that the area was packed with no social distancing, no mask-wearing etc.  So many people in England appear to be either too stupid or too selfish to act in a way which might minimise the transmission of disease (and I gather that plenty of them congregated in Trafalgar Square yesterday) but at least racing's conscience can be clear.

Wednesday, September 09, 2020

The Texas School Book Depository

It's been a while, so I had to look back to the last chapter to see when I wrote it.  That was, I find, in the morning before heading to Sandown's evening meeting on the Bank Holiday Monday, which fell this year on the last day of August.  So today we are nine days later, although it seems more than that.  That trip to Sandown was pleasant, albeit slightly disappointing initially to see Kryptos beaten considerably farther than I'd bargained for.  However, on reflection his run was very respectable.  The ground was still very taxing, more so than I'd expected, and the winner clearly relished it and won easily.  We then lost out in a three-way photo for second, which I think we'd have won if conditions had been slightly less gruelling (ie the combination of 10 furlongs, a stiff finish and taxing ground just making life a bit tougher than ideal for him).

I seem to recall that I ended up with a very busy day on the Tuesday, and then Wednesday and Thursday were long, busy days too.  It was a late race at Bath; and then at Haydock, although it was afternoon racing, it was still the last race and that too is a long way from home.  So I was pretty much exhausted after that, and it's probably fair to say that it's taken me most of the time since then to recover.  We've returned to good weather which helps, and this week we only have the one trip (to Salisbury with The Rocket Park (seen here today, on the right, hanging out with Kryptos) on Friday, which too will be a long day as it's the last race at an evening meeting).  And then I don't think that we'll have any outings at all next week.

The Bath trip was slightly frustrating.  The ground was 'good, good to firm in places' in the morning, but the forecast showers through the day turned out to be significantly more solid than anticipated and, while the official going ended up as 'good to soft', both the jockeys who rode for us (Liam Keniry and Tom Marquand) reported that it felt very adjacent to soft.  Neither horse ran badly, finishing not far behind the place-getters, but I think that both would have run better had the rain not come, or not come so plentifully.  The way the dividing of the race turned out wasn't ideal from our point of view, either, as we had our better chance (Hidden Pearl) in the stronger division.

It wouldn't be fair to say that I'd never seen a divided race in which there was such a marked difference in strength in the two divisions - there must have been times when there has been a maiden race with two or three horses who stood head and shoulders above the rest, and they both/all ended up in the same division - but I'd never expected to see a handicap in which one division was so much weaker than the other.  I thought this beforehand and the times confirmed it, the second division (with Dereham in it) being run about two and a half seconds faster than the first.  I'd like to think that Hidden Pearl would have gone close had they been the other way round - but then again one would say that about each of the first eight in her race.

But, looking on the positive side, being in a weaker race did allow Dereham to be competitive for the first time in his life: having never finished closer than 15 lengths to the winner, including in handicap company, he was beaten 5.5 lengths, having been involved in the race throughout.  That was very promising and, helped by a terrific ride from Tom Marquand, the race will have done him the power of good, physically and mentally.  He is basically a fairly slow horse - which is not surprising for a horse who, physically, could be mistaken for a child's pony - but he is progressing nicely and he's a tough, genuine, sound horse who seems to stay well, and horses like that generally end up putting together a nice enough career.

The next day was Haydock.  Ah yes, Haydock.  I haven't got the energy to spend too much time reviewing the race, so I'll just say that it was slightly hard to swallow that a horse who could cruise to the front within the final two furlongs could manage to get himself beaten by the horse past whom he had cruised.  The further bitter pill was that we were taken back in time to the last century in that it took over five minutes for the photo-finish (reproduced here) to yield its verdict, and nowadays when they take that long you pretty much feel that you know that it will be a dead-heat (which itself would have been slightly disappointing).  

What did help me to feel better about the judge's eventual verdict was this photograph which I accompanies this paragraph.  Anthony and I were standing maybe 30 yards past the line and, as you can see from this snap, the horse who beat us (who was given a superb tactical ride by Will Easterby, really making use of her patently abundant stamina and toughness - and it's worth mentioning that our rider, Ross Birkett, rode really well too) was two lengths in front with her ears forward as she passed us.  Under the circumstances, if she had been your horse and seeing this picture, you would have felt a bit stiff if she hadn't won.

So that's the racing, recent past and immediate future.  What else?  Well, JockeyClubGate rumbles on.  Lee Mottershead has covered this very well in the Racing Post, none of which coverage has altered my opinion, as previously stated, but neither party involved in this sorry story has covered itself in glory, with the Jockey Club coming out of the debacle particularly badly.  I think that I mentioned in the last chapter that I was aghast that the Jockey Club had allowed this dirty washing to be put on public view.  I can now add to that that it's appalling that the identity of the complainant (who comes out of the matter worst of anyone, bearing in mind that more than half the complaints were not upheld and, from the details that we know, even the ones which were upheld border on the trivial) is public knowledge.

If you lodge complaints against a colleague, whether that colleague is your senior or your subordinate, you are entitled to have done so with your anonymity secure.  Your identity certainly should not be revealed to the person about whom you are complaining, never mind your name and details published in a national newspaper.  The complainant has been very badly treated - tongue in cheek, I fear that he has grounds to join Julia Bushell in launching a lawsuit against the Jockey Club - and, while he has come out of this very badly, he should not have done so because we should not know his identity.  I can only repeat my closing observation from the last chapter which questioned the Jockey Club's ability to conduct its business with discretion.

Looking at other angles of the matter, Julia Bushell was clearly grossly unsuitable for the job.  But that wasn't her fault: that's the fault of the people who hired her.  I tend to be like that with jockeys: I never blame the jockey, always myself, because if the jockey gets it badly wrong, I have either hired the wrong jockey or hired the right jockey but failed to brief him properly.  I'd take that view with Julia Bushell, who seems to have been the wrong person for the job and/or not to have been briefed about how she should be going about the job.  Responsibility for either of which failings does not lie at her door.

I'm also very sceptical about this thing which I've been reading about her supposedly unilaterally creating and pursuing a policy of planning to sacrifice the less profitable tracks on the altar of commercialism and for the benefit of the headline-making ones.  Jockey Club Racecourses is to be run for the benefit of racing as a whole rather than for profit, so I can't believe that its directors would both hire someone with no racing background who is not in a position to understand what is good for racing as a whole rather than for profit, and then give her complete power to pursue whatever policy she, in her ignorance of racing's bigger picture, deems fit.  That just doesn't ring true

To support my theory that she was no more the lone gun than Lee Harvey Oswald, I introduce Exhibit A, which is the plan drawn up to sacrifice Kempton Park on the altar of commercialism and for the benefit of the group's headline-making tracks.  This scheme (which thank God appears to have gone quiet, although whether that's temporary or permanent I don't know) was, of course, dreamed up long before Julia Bushell was on the scene.  So I really can't swallow the line that she was single-handedly and without the agreement of her board trying to take Jockey Club Racecourses down a road which it didn't wish to travel.

Monday, August 31, 2020

Dirty laundry

Another week; some more runners.  Quite a few, in fact.  Already declared are Kryptos (Sandown this evening) and then Hidden Pearl and Dereham (Bath on Wednesday afternoon).  It's worked out well for those two as they were in the same race, which is never satisfactory, but fortunately the race has been divided, so they're in different divisions and won't be running against each other.  Dereham's first choice this week would actually have been at Ripon tomorrow, but that will be very soft and he ran very badly on the only time he has encountered very soft ground.  Later in the week we have Das Kapital entered at Haydock on Thursday and The Rocket Park entered at the same course the next day.  It's likely again to be very soft ground at Haydock, which will suit Das Kapital but won't suit The Rocket Park, who therefore may not be declared.

This is all set against the background of the bizarre story/coverage of the Delia Bushell's departure from her job at the Jockey Club.  It's currently impossible to know which side in this debacle has behaved more badly.  As things stand, the Jockey Club has come out of the coverage very poorly, but then we have heard more about what Delia Bushell has to say on the matter than about what the Jockey Club has to say, so that's probably inevitable.  When I refer to the coverage as being bizarre, what I am referring to is the fact that there is any coverage: one would not have expected this to have become a matter for public consumption.  On that basis, just about the only thing which we can (think we can) deduce is that the fact that the story is being covered in the press speaks very badly about the Jockey Club's collective ability to conduct its business with discretion.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Trying to get it right

The plan had been for us to be going to Goodwood today.  Kryptos should have run there, which would have been our second runner of the week, The Simple Truth having run (moderately, continuing to be his own worse enemy by being too headstrong) at Yarmouth on Tuesday.  However, while Kryptos has very good form on soft ground, he ran very poorly on very soft ground at Haydock, so after the recent torrential rain it was an easy decision to make him a non-runner this morning and re-route him to Sandown on Monday, when the ground shouldn't be much softer than good to soft (which is what it was at Goodwood at 10.00 on Thursday morning when we declared).

Today's GoingStick reading (5.1) is the lowest ever recorded at Goodwood.  (Admittedly the GoingStick was only brought into use ahead of the 2011 season, and admittedly it would have been at least as low yesterday had the reading been taken during the afternoon when the racing was taking place, rather than prior to 7.10 in the morning, when it was 5.2).  Every race yesterday was run in excess of a second per furlong slower than standard, with a mile handicap run in 1:49.72 (13.52 seconds slower than standard) and the two-mile handicap run in 3:56.55 (34.46 seconds slower than standard).

Between the trip to Yarmouth and then today's aborted trip to Sandown I did something which I don't do often: I left Newmarket for a reason other than to go to the races.  I went down to Devon to complete the process of sorting out my late father's possessions, which actually didn't require my doing much at all as it had nearly all been done on previous occasions.  Furthermore, my brother had been down there the previous week and had done most of what little remained.  So that was easy, and I consequently treated myself to two very special things, a drive over Dartmoor and a drive over Exmoor.  Hence the photographs which illustrate this chapter.

As regards the wider racing world, I see that we have our usual quota of odd stories.  Across the pond I note that the enquiry into Justify's failed dope test after his Santa Anita Derby win (which took place on 7th April 2018) might be starting soon.  We have observed that these things can take time (witness the enquiry into Walk In The Sun's reportedly positive test after his win at Lingfield on 27th February 2018 still not having taken place) and in this case it's fortunate that it did: had it been concluded swiftly, Justify might not have been able to run in the Kentucky Derby (because of not having earned enough to be high enough up the order of preference) and then we wouldn't have had a Triple Crown winner that year.  A very happy coincidence that the Californian authorities dragged their feet on this one.

The British story of the week has less chance of re-writing the history books.  (What I mean by the Californian case possibly re-writing the history books is that it would be debatable whether Justify would retain his status as the only Triple Crown winner to retire unbeaten if he were to be disqualified from the Santa Anita Derby.  Obviously he will remain a Triple Crown winner come what may.  In one sense, if disqualified from the Santa Anita Derby, he would lose his unbeaten status as he would have run in a race, ie the Santa Anita Derby, without winning it.  In the other sense, though, he would still be unbeaten as, although physically he ran in the race, in practice he will turn out to have been deemed not have taken part.  There is an important distinction between being disqualified and being demoted, a distinction which too many people seem not to appreciate).

The British case in the news has been the two-week period which Ben Curtis is going to have to spend on the side-lines because of having wandered into the owners' area at the races yesterday.  I have every sympathy with him because he clearly did nothing to increase the likelihood of COVID-19 being transmitted (apparently he only wandered in there briefly at a time when there was no one in the area, so came close to nobody), because what amounts to a two-week suspension is a very harsh punishment for a victim-less crime, and because such a transgression is very easy to commit.

I've wandered into the owners' areas at least twice since racing resumed.  And I'm only going to the races once or twice a week.  It's very easy to do it unknowingly.  In both cases, I had no idea that I was going into the owners' area.  (I say that I have wandered into the area 'at least twice'; I say 'at least' because, for all I know, there could have been further occasions when I've done so unknowingly and haven't even realised it afterwards).  In both cases, there was nothing to say that I was going into the owners' area.  In both cases, there was no one else in there.  Ben Curtis' transgression sounds as if it was similarly inconsequential.

On one time (at Haydock) I only walked through the owners' area because, having walked through the parade ring and out the other side to collect my packed lunch from a room near where the weighing room used to be, I felt that I probably shouldn't walk back through the parade ring with a bag of food in my hand.  So I asked a nearby gateman where I should walk to get back to the stableyard, and he directed me to walk along one side of the parade ring, which I did.  There was no one in the area and no signs, but later in the afternoon I noticed a couple of owners standing in it watching their horse in the parade ring, and realised that I probably oughtn't to have been there.

The other occasion was at Yarmouth when I had quite an annoying afternoon.  The horsebox park is not big enough at Yarmouth so one is sometimes instructed to park one's box in the middle of the course, which is always an unwelcome inconvenience.  The first time I had to do this subsequent to the new arrangements having been introduced, it turned out to be a debacle as, once across there, I ran into a gateman telling me that I wasn't allowed to be there as I had the wrong coloured wrist-band to be there because the owners are put in the centre of the course.

That set the tone for an afternoon of repeatedly being told that I was in the wrong place, the irony being that the one time that I wasn't told that I was in the wrong place was when I actually was in the wrong place, ie when I walked through what I subsequently worked out was the owners' enclosure in the middle of the course.  I had no idea that I was doing anything wrong at the time, nor that it was the owners' enclosure: there was no one in the enclosure, and there was neither attendant nor sign to let one know what it was.  The other strange thing is that owners have to walk across the course to get from this enclosure to their area of parade-ring rail - and that makes no sense as the course is clearly a participants' zone.  If it's the case that it's only a participants' zone when there are participants in it, then surely the same applies to owners' zones, which would mean that Ben Curtis did not transgress yesterday as there was reportedly no one in the area into which he wandered?

So, yes, I have every sympathy with Ben Curtis.  And I don't swallow the line that he had to be disciplined to keep the government happy and show them that the regulations are being enforced and abided by.  That's nonsense.  Had whichever official who spotted him merely fetched him out and said, "For God's sake, Ben, you can't go there. That's where the owners go.  Thank God there were no owners there at the time and you didn't go near anyone.  Don't go in there again", then everyone, particularly the government, would be happy.  By (nonsensically) making a public issue of it, all that has been achieved is that we've told the government, which otherwise would have assumed that everything was being done right, that the regulations aren't being abided by.  Madness.