Thursday 29 September 2016

Lack of big-race players a concern

Season proves underwhelming for Flat stables further down food chain

Published 26/10/2015 | 02:30

Winner Devilment ridden by jockey Aidan Coleman (left) jumps the final hurdle to beat the favorite Hargam ridden by Barry Geraghty (centre) who finished 4th and 3rd placed Lil Rockerfeller ridden Trevor Whelan (right) in The Masterson Holdings Hurdle Race during day two of The Showcase at Cheltenham Racecourse. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Saturday October 24, 2015. See PA story RACING Cheltenham. Photo credit should read: Nick Potts/PA Wire
Winner Devilment ridden by jockey Aidan Coleman (left) jumps the final hurdle to beat the favorite Hargam ridden by Barry Geraghty (centre) who finished 4th and 3rd placed Lil Rockerfeller ridden Trevor Whelan (right) in The Masterson Holdings Hurdle Race during day two of The Showcase at Cheltenham Racecourse. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Saturday October 24, 2015. See PA story RACING Cheltenham. Photo credit should read: Nick Potts/PA Wire
'[Victoria] Pendleton's first couple of rides on the Flat passed without incident. Some noted that she was tidy, but she was being damned with faint praise'

An underwhelming domestic Flat season that saw the established order consolidate their lot came to a muted close yesterday.

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There is still time for a spectacular climax on the international stage, with the Breeders' Cup and Melbourne Cup among the major international events soon to take place.

Gleneagles, Found, Legatissimo, Free Eagle, Max Dynamite and Bondi Beach all have big-race claims to stake, so there is time for another flourish.

Still, without meaning the slightest disrespect to any of their respective handlers or the habitual manner in which they conquer all corners of the racing world, they are all proven masters of their craft.

We will continue to revel in their perpetual excellence, but there is also a constant desire to see others progress. Of course, it isn't easy to disrupt the old order in Irish racing.

That is a well-established fact, but, in the recent past, Tom Hogan, Mick Halford, Ger Lyons, Eddie Lynam, Willie McCreery and Jessica Harrington enjoyed memorable breakthroughs at Group One level, albeit Harrington is long recognised as one of the most accomplished of her profession.

While Tommy Carmody and Barry Lalor also plundered famous Group One triumphs, their respective assistants at the time, Johnny Murtagh and Evanna McCutcheon, subsequently assumed control of their equine stalwarts.

Mick Winters' heady exploits with Missunited were other treats that elevated what is, inescapably, the more commercial and less romantic discipline into a realm more synonymous with jump racing. We didn't have the same variety in 2015 and broader levels of interest suffered as a result.

Superlative

Ballydoyle or Coolmore horses annexed three of the five English Classics. In short, Aidan O'Brien, Dermot Weld and Jim Bolger executed some superlative raids with horses like Gleneagles, Qualify, Free Eagle, Pleascach and Fascinating Rock.

Notwithstanding Saturday's shock outcome at Doncaster, the Ballydoyle juveniles have carried all before them. We should never take for granted what the Holy Trinity of Irish Flat trainers achieve as a matter of routine, but sadly it takes something more to excite or even engage a public consumed by lower common denominator sports like the GAA, rugby and football.

It would be naive to expect new names on the Group One roll of honour on an annual basis, but there is a fear that the golden spell for handlers like Hogan, McCreery and Carmody will prove impossible to replicate, let alone sustain.

Lyons and Halford deservedly knock on the door at the highest level thanks to their Arab patrons, likewise Lyons' Co Meath neighbour Lynam, who is such a deft hand at producing sprinters.

Young Curragh handler Michael O'Callaghan is on an upward curve and McCreery has just completed his best season in a numerical sense, 27 winners leaving him seventh on the trainers' table, a place behind David Wachman, whose feats with Legatissimo and Curvy deserve special mention.

However, given the alarming manner in which the figures for horses in training, ownership and licence-holders continue to plummet, and the stagnancy that has prevailed in the major races this year, the likelihood now is that the stronger are simply getting stronger.

It is something that we are also seeing over jumps, as the pool of owners shrinks and levels of competition disintegrate.

Moreover, the inexplicable demise of the talent at John Oxx's disposal does nothing for that reality on the Flat. On the riding front, 2015 has seen Pat Smullen's brilliance embraced abroad, while Colin Keane and Connor King were among those to enhance their stock, likewise Graham Lee at a higher level in England, where David O'Meara is establishing himself as a relentless training force.

In truth, the most enduring moments of the 2015 Flat campaign were the product of foreign regimes. Gleneagles and Legatissimo did their bit and there might yet be another ace or two to be played, but, right now, Golden Horn, Muhaarar and American Pharoah are the horses that really captured the imagination. There is no point saying otherwise.

Pendleton stunt makes little sense

This corner has kept its counsel on the Victoria Pendleton affair.

It was announced in March that Britain's most successful female Olympian would be "switching saddles", the ultimate objective being for her to ride in the Foxhunters' Chase at Cheltenham in 2016.

At the time, I observed on Twitter that it smacked of a publicity stunt and that the end goal would not transpire.

Reluctant to feed the beast for the promoter funding the whole thing, I opted to let it slide here. The sponsors were already throwing fortunes at it and I didn't think they needed any help from this quarter on a pro bono basis.

Besides, much of the debate became pretty undignified. I was particularly surprised at some normally right-minded commentators whooping and hollering at how good Pendleton would be for racing.

It was all a little desperate, though it is maybe less surprising to note that some of those in hysterics are in the pay of said promoter.

I called it as I saw it on Twitter back in March and left it at that. To recap, the root of my scepticism was that I felt, to expect someone to ride over fences in the cauldron of intensity that is the Cheltenham Festival within 12 months of first sitting on a horse was both delusional and dangerous.

In response, I was told that Pendleton was an athlete with the drive and determination to make it happen. However, there is a difference between being fit and being fit to ride in a Foxhunters.

Pendleton's first couple of rides on the Flat passed without incident. Some noted that she was tidy, but she was being damned with faint praise.

As a jockey, she is weak, lacks coordination and her balance is precarious. We saw that at Newbury on Saturday when she fell off her mount, the favourite Satanic Beat, inside the final furlong. It was a Flat race. Satanic Beat took a false step, and Pendleton simply dropped off her.

Thankfully, she was unhurt, but she shouldn't have been anywhere near the horse in a competitive environment. She is already a sporting icon but she is being asked to do the impossible.

While I appreciate that I will be vilified as a naysayer for saying as much, it needs saying. The sponsors have put a lot of money into employing high-profile coaches and consultants, but I would seriously question the decision by the British Horseracing Authority to grant Pendleton a licence with such haste.

The whole thing is a charade that fails to acknowledge the skill and groundwork required to ride capably over fences, and it should be discontinued before Pendleton - or someone else - gets hurt.

Maybe it has been filling a void for Pendleton, who seems to genuinely enjoy riding, and we know exactly what it is doing for her backers.

She is soon due to start riding in point-to-points, but that will end in tears, as it would in the Cotswolds next March, were it to go that far. It won't, so the sooner the sorry episode is terminated, the better.

What jump jockeys do deserves more respect, as does Pendleton.

Raiders out of luck on overseas missions

It proved to be a rare blank weekend for the Irish abroad.

In the early hours of Saturday morning, Highland Reel could manage only third in the Cox Plate. Aidan O'Brien's colt ran well behind two good horses in Winx and Criterion, but he wasn't good enough on the day.

The winner, a four-year-old by Street Cry, is unbeaten since May and was winning her third Grade One. She absolutely pulverised the field and looks a filly of real calibre.

From 10 raiders in Britain later in the day, O'Brien's Johannes Vermeer was the only one to make the frame, giving the 33/1 Racing Post Trophy hero Marcel most to do.

Mullins big guns bypass Down Royal

The first Irish Grade One of the season takes place on Saturday.

Down Royal's JNwine.com Champion Chase has attracted some excellent entries, including Silviniaco Conti, Many Clouds, O'Faolains Boy and Dynaste from Britain. There is no Willie Mullins big gun engaged, but Don Cossack and Road To Riches are in the mix.

Tweet of the weekend

Natasha Fehily (@tashfehily)

"5 more winners till @noelfehily gets to the big 1,000"

After Whats Happening's win at Cheltenham on Saturday, the wife of the west Cork native begins the countdown to an elite jump jockeys' club that still numbers fewer than 20

Numbers Game

12 Profit a €1 stake on yesterday's Fahey double at Galway would've paid. The Monasterevin brothers Peter and Jarlath won with their only runners, Deputy Marshall and Jennies Jewel.

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