Sunday, August 18, 2019

(Non-)issues

Another week started.  It's been a quiet enough Sunday, but with three horses set to run in the middle of the week (Roy at Brighton on Tuesday, Hope Is High at Bath on Wednesday, Konigin at Leicester on Thursday) that meant that I had three horses to ride this morning, so didn't finish morning stables any earlier than I would do Monday to Saturday.  Still, I started an hour later so that was a bonus.  I'm looking forward to the week.  If you've read the previous chapter, you'll know that all three horses are fit and well, and all three are being aimed at what I believe should be suitable races.  So we can be full of hope, as ever!

I sometimes like to scan the wider racing world in this column, but I've been studiously avoiding most of the 'issues' recently as we've heard more than enough of them without my augmenting their over-coverage.  We have had the Magnolia Cup (in which our representative - human representative, not equine - Rachael Gowland, pictured here, did really well, failing by a few inches to win on a horse rated 49 who was meeting the 66-rated winner at level weights).  We have had the whip.  We have had the putative allowance for female jockeys.  We have had more than enough of all of them.

It's funny how things can become a 'issue'.  Charlie Fellowes wrote a column in the Racing Post and suddenly the whip, a subject of which we had reached saturation point years ago, was an issue again.  Kevin Blake presumably was short of a topic for his blog one week so decided to resuscitate the hypothetical female jockeys' allowance and hoped that nobody would remember that we'd done this one to death a couple of years ago and, one had hoped, already put it to bed.  Suddenly, once again this was an issue.

Female jockeys collectively are doing better all the time, gradually breaking down centuries-old prejudices, and at last seem to be winning the battle to be regarded as jockeys, rather than as a separate and inferior group or riders.  We shouldn't even have been discussing something so chauvinist as an idea to turn the clock back, to turn them once again into a separate group - to classify them as female jockeys rather than jockeys - and, worse still, to re-write the rules to enshrine the concept that they are inferior by virtue of their gender.  Barmy.

We had some very good discussion of issues on the Racing Debate on Sky Sports Racing this morning, though, as the panel was as good as you could get: Tanya Stevenson, Stuart Williams, Michael Channon, three of the highest-calibre people in the sport.  Unfortunately I only caught the latter stages because the programme was halfway through by the time that I finished morning stables and came back into the house, but what I did see was very good.  One thing with which I did struggle, though, was the idea of 'fitting the racing programme to the horse population'.  That's fine in theory, but in practice would inevitably lead to a phasing out of longer-distance races.  We'd end up like the USA, or Queensland.

We have a great rule to try to protect longer-distance racing - ie the one that each programme has to contain two races beyond a mile whose distances add up to two and a half miles or farther (and obviously can contain more longer-distances races than that if wished) - even if that rule, unfortunately, remains less well policed than it should be.  The 'commercial' market will just push more and more breeders down the road of producing short-distance horses unless there is incentive in the racing programme to race stayers, that incentive being that the opportunities for stayers are too plentiful and too good to ignore.

Thank God we have the EBF doing plenty to encourage the breeding and racing of stayers.  There used to be more races for stock whose parents had raced over a distance, eg the Hyperion Stakes at Ascot, but in time we got down to, I think, only the Chesham Stakes and the Washington Singer Stakes.  The EBF has done a very good job in pushing to have some more of such races introduced, even if I'm a bit doubtful about the condition being that either the sire or the dam can have been a middle- or long-distance runner.  Having it apply as previously to the sire, or to both, might be better: good mares are always going to be bred from, irrespective of the distance at which they were good, and what we want to prevent is them all just going to short-distance stallions.  The condition as it is does not do this.  But good on 'em for trying this initiative.  It's better than doing nothing, which otherwise is the default setting.
Saturday, August 17, 2019

Don't say you weren't warned!

I should have been at Bath this afternoon/evening as Hope Is High was declared to run there.  Ironically, I began the week hoping that there would be some rain so that the track wouldn't be too hard, notwithstanding that she likes fast ground.  As it was, there was a lot of rain, so much so that we declared on Thursday morning on 'good to soft, good in places'.  That would have been fine, particularly if the good places were plentiful.  However, they had another 20mm yesterday so that this morning it is 'good to soft, soft in places'.  I'd run her on that if I had to, but in this case I don't: there's another (more or less) suitable race there for her on Wednesday, when the racing surface is almost certain to be significantly sounder, so it was a fairly easy decision to scratch (on the basis of 'going') and wait four days.

That meant that Roy on Sunday was our only runner of the week.  He ran well: second in a big-field amateurs' race - well ridden by Ross Birkett, as ever - at Windsor, the first time that he's ever come close to winning a race away from Brighton.  That brought to an end a five-day period in which we had five runners, for two seconds, two thirds and one unplaced (who finished last).  It's very rare for me to have a bet, but I did have one bet in that period.  Yes, you've guessed it: I backed Hidden Pearl, who finished last at Brighton!

We'd only had her for four weeks so I'm still learning about her, but she was going nicely in her home-work, nicely enough to suggest that 9/1 in a five-runner race which had very little depth was well over the odds.  Fortunately, I had been told that her work when Ed Walker had trained her had been good, despite the fact that she was running poorly.  Thankfully, this cautionary note, this salutary reminder that the fact that she was working well might turn out not to have meant very much, instilled an element of caution into my strategy, meaning that I didn't have as much on as I might have done.

The observation that Hidden Pearl was the one horse whom I backed in a period in which she was the only horse to run poorly provides a suitable opening to give a plug (which, as you'll see, isn't really much of a plug) to a new website www.newmarkettrainers.com.  It is the website of the Newmarket Trainers' Federation.  On it (I believe - I've never actually looked at it) there is a section in which Newmarket trainers (or some of us, anyway - and again I haven't looked to see who does and who doesn't, which might be interesting) each give a preview of our runners, just as the Lambourn trainers do on their site.

Anyway, the point of this so-called plug is to provide a cautionary note.  Don't be disappointed if the previews aren't very enlightening.  No trainer with any common sense would ever say that his horse is going to win; no trainer with any common sense would ever say that his horse is not going to win (unless, obviously, the horse's owner is planning to have a bet).  It is possibly worth recalling that the one time that the Lambourn previews have ever made the news was when Charlie Mann was outspokenly disparaging about a horse and his chances.  Shrewd punters might taken that as their cue to have a bet, which would have been a good move as, needless to say, the horse won.

Anyway, don't be too disappointed if you keep reading re-worded versions of a statement that the horse is fit and well (which ought to go without saying, because if he was unfit or unwell he wouldn't be running, or ought not to be anyway) and that he is in running in a suitable race (which again ought to go without saying, as the horse wouldn't be in it if it wasn't suitable, or ought not to be in it anyway).  And that's not my being difficult, as my Hidden Pearl bet highlights.  The truth is that nobody knows.  All the horses are in the race because they're ready to run well and the race looks suitable.  One of them will win and the rest won't.  And we won't know which one that is until the race has been run.  No horse is guaranteed to win, and no horse is guaranteed not to win.  Don't say you weren't warned!

Oh yes, good stalls and Shergar Cup thoughts after the last chapter, Neil and Glenn.  Thank you.  Re the fields for the six Shergar Cup races being 10 rather than 12, ie each of the twelve jockeys having five rides rather than six, I would guess that the reason for this is to ensure that there won't be any non-runners if a jockey (or two) is injured.  Normally an injured jockey shouldn't mean a non-runner as someone else could ride the horse, but the 12 jockeys present at Ascot on Shergar Cup Day will be the only 12 jockeys on the course (unless any apprentices were leading up).  Consequently, if there are only 10 runners in each race, one or two jockeys getting hurt (which is unlikely to happen - I can't remember any falls at the meeting - but it could) wouldn't disrupt things.  It might mean a kind of 'Duckworth Lewis' method would be required to decide the winning team, but at least no horses would have to be scratched.
Thursday, August 08, 2019

So far, so good(ish)

So far, so good(ish).  Two of the five runners down, two third places achieved.  Both (Sussex Girl at Brighton yesterday afternoon and Konigin at Yarmouth, pictured in the first photograph, last night) ran well.  Ran well without winning, but that's OK.  It's always OK if they run well, whether or not they win - as long as some of the horses who run well win.  It's like when a bowler is bowling well and is consistently beating the bat, good balls beating the bat but not taking the wicket don't matter, as long as he does actually take wickets at some point.  But, as I say, so far, so good(ish).

It's been lovely weather, but stormy weather is meant to move in over night, albeit while remaining very warm.  The forecasts seem to suggest that the worst of the rain will have been and gone (northwards) by around 6.00 in the morning.  I hope that that's right as the morning will be more pleasant if we aren't being rained on; my afternoon at Brighton (with Hidden Pearl) will be more pleasant if it isn't raining; and Ivona's evening at Chelmsford (with Sacred Sprite) will be more pleasant if it isn't raining.

Further good feedback from Neil Kearns at the end of the previous chapter, by the way.  Some good points there.  I'd be totally with you, Neil, about a proportion of Flat races being run without stalls. Definitely a proportion of maiden races, and arguably some for more experienced horses.  We seem to forget that racing seemed to cope without stalls for many, many years prior to their gradual introduction from the July Meeting in 1965 onwards.  Nowadays I think that it is only the Goodwood Stakes, a couple of 14-furlong handicaps at Salisbury and a conditions (possibly listed) race over the same course and distance.  Plus the occasion one when unexpectedly the weather makes it impractical to use the stalls.

Here's something to think about.  If stalls had not been introduced in 1965, would be be allowed to introduce them now?  I don't think that we would.  We're always looking for ways to make racing safer, so I can't see that we would be allowed nowadays to bring in an innovation which isn't necessary (witness the fact that racing functioned for centuries without stalls) and which clearly makes the game significantly more dangerous, both for the horses and their riders.  Every year there some serious accidents in the stalls; but when was there last a serious accident at a tape- or flag-start?  The odd incident of one horse kicking another, but I can't think of a fatality or serious injury for many years.
Wednesday, August 07, 2019

Testing time

A busy and stressful period coming up.  Five runners in five days.  Today (Wednesday) we have Sussex Girl at Brighton in the afternoon and Konigin at Yarmouth in the evening.  On Friday we have Hidden Pearl at Brighton in the afternoon and Sacred Sprite at Chelmsford in the evening.  And then on Sunday we have Roy at Windsor.  We've been quiet (as regards winners rather than runners, although fortunately we haven't been having too many of those) so we really could do with one or two good results.  Let's hope that we have something to show for it.  By Sunday night, I'll either be relieved or disappointed.  (Possibly both, but the odd disappointment, such as we had at Chelmsford with Loving Pearl, pictured, last Saturday, would be easy enough to take if there are some good results mixed in there too).

Thank you for the feedback after the last chapter, Neil.  Stalls - yes, a constant source of irritation to everyone, trainers and jockeys included.  Just to touch on one point: requesting to be loaded last is not something which one does lightly because once one has done it thrice, the horse has to take a stalls test, which is an inconvenience and a disruption to the horse's preparation, and also comes with the risk of failing it.  (Which obviously is a risk, as you would only be requesting a late load with a horse who is difficult in the stalls).

As regards regular stalls tests, that's not really necessary.  Every time you run, you are being assessed, so effectively you are having a stalls test every time you run.  If you run and play up significantly, you have to go for a stalls test: it is not just that horses are sent for a stalls test if they refuse to go in because I would say that the majority of horses sent for a stalls test have run in the race, but have played up badly before doing so.  So what you are suggesting does effectively already happen.  As regards the length of time given to some horses who are reluctant to load, I suppose the answer is the chorus of indignation which would inevitably ensue (and not just from the connections of the horses involved; from pretty much everyone, including bookmakers, punters and racecourses) if we started to have a significant increase in the amount of late non-runners.
Thursday, August 01, 2019

Level-headedness

Another week, another two runners.  We've had Roy (Yarmouth, Tuesday) and Loving Pearl (Chelmsford, Saturday) is still to come.  Roy (pictured here coming back in after the race with Georgia Dobie) ran well, by the standards of Roy away from Brighton.  Sixth of 16, closing all the way through the final furlong.  That's encouraging for when we go back to Brighton, which is pencilled in for 20th August.  In the interim I hope that he'll have a run at Windsor in an amateurs' race on 11th August.  The run shows how frustrating was his two-mile race at Lingfield.  On this run again you'd say that he'd relish two miles (which he can't have at Brighton) but when he did get that at Lingfield he over-raced and consequently weakened at the end.  Whatever - he's in great heart.  Nine years young.

You'd hope that Loving Pearl would run well on Saturday but I'm far from convinced that I'm ever going to train a winner at Chelmsford.  I'd more or less given up going there with any horse who might be good enough to have a choice in where he/she goes, but it turned out that I selected two horses to go there.  Sacred Sprite went there last week - and, of course, had no luck.  Loving Pearl goes there on Saturday (ridden by Franny Norton, which is rather nice as he won three races on her half-brother Rhythm Stick) so we'll see what happens.  I won't be holding my breath.  Even Indira, Loving Pearl's half-sister, was unplaced when she went to Chelmsford, and basically she was never unplaced.  And the post-script, of course, is that I'll be entering Sacred Sprite for there again at the end of next week.  Some people - you just can't tell 'em!

Great racing at Goodwood.  Two personal highlights today.  Firstly, Rachael Gowland (pictured here galloping Loving Pearl on the Al Bahathri last week) nearly rode the Magnolia Cup winner today (beaten in a photo-finish which, we were told on TV, took three minutes to decide). Rachael has been regularly coming in here before going to work for the past several months and has taken her preparation very, very seriously.  She was more than ready for the race by the time that it arrived, and the fact that she nearly won the race on a horse rated 49, beaten a lip by a horse rated 66 which she was meeting at level weights, tells you all you need to know about how well she's done.

I can't, of course, highlight how well Rachael has done without praising the winning rider Khadijah Mellah.  A couple of months ago I was worrying that this was going to be a story without a happy ending because she didn't look like someone within two months of being ready to ride in a race.  But in the last couple of weeks she's really got into the swing of it, as today's winning ride showed.  The progress she has made in a short period of time really is remarkable.  I'm only sorry that I didn't go down to Goodwood today to 'support' (ie watch).  Goodwood very kindly invited me and it would have been a lovely day, but there's plenty to do here, and the distance and the traffic means that a day at Glorious Goodwood is a full awayday, and it would have been hard to justify.

The other personal highlight of the day, aside from Rachael's good ride, was Deirdre (pictured here in the middle of May, shortly after her arrival) winning the Nassau Stakes.  It has been a highlight of the year seeing this lovely mare frequently on the Heath in the mornings from May onwards.  She's an absolute darling.  She just wanders around, seemingly for hours every day, cantering sedately around Bury Hill occasionally and stopping to admire the view when she comes off the end of the canter at the top.  The people with her, including her rider who walked into the winner's enclosure with her today, are so friendly and so courteous, and I'm delighted that their trip has been so well rewarded.

One other observation.  Yesterday was the final day of the antipodean racing season.  One never used to pay much attention to state-wide statistics because racing in town was paramount.  The champion jockey is the one who rides the most metropolitan winners, and the provincials and the races in the bush didn't count for much.  That's all changed now that racing there has become so much like racing here, in that the big stables have so many horses that they have to send them everywhere.  And now that there's good prize money for every race, wherever it is.  So riding the most winners in Victoria attracts nearly (but not quite) as much attention as riding the most winners in Melbourne, ie at Flemington, Caulfield, Moonee Valley and Sandown.

Anyway, Linda Meech finished, I think, tenth in the premiership but state-wide was the leading jockey.  I've never met her but she's long impressed me as everything a very good jockey ought to be.  There was a very good article about her this week on Racing.com, highlighting her achievement, and one of the things she said was very good.  We often hear about the vile things which people say on 'social media', and those vile things are reason enough to eschew this part of life.  (I'm a Twitter addict, only look at Facebook occasionally; and that's it for me).  But she summed it up perfectly.  It's not just the abuse one is wise to avoid.

"I stay out of that sort of stuff for a reason.  You are either getting told how bad you are or how good.  I like to stay pretty even, so I stay out of all that."  Very good, isn't it?  In this era of mental health awareness, we're very mindful nowadays of the potential harm of verbal abuse, but it's easy to forget that the dangers of being lionised are just as real.  We were all brought up by parents who worked on the basis that excessive praise was at least as damaging to a child as excessive criticism, and I rather enjoyed Linda Meech's reminder that the praise is just as dangerous.  A whole generation of parents could do well to take that on board.