Tuesday 17 October 2017

Putting Big Four to stud is like retiring Rory McIlroy

Sad to see vintage classic crop denied chance to stake claim to greatness, writes Ian McClean

James Doyle looks for any danger after riding Kingman to win The Tattersalls Irish 2,000 Guineas at Curragh racecourse, May 2014. Photo credit: Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images
James Doyle looks for any danger after riding Kingman to win The Tattersalls Irish 2,000 Guineas at Curragh racecourse, May 2014. Photo credit: Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images

Ian McClean

In the famous scene in the movie Network, a deeply animated and frustrated Peter Finch urges people to go to the window, stick their heads out and yell, "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore."

It is highly unlikely the mild manners characteristic of racing folk would ever permit such a scene, but it would be equally churlish to assume there isn't some disquiet from those who love the sport around the rate at which the current crop of star three-year-olds is being rustled off to stud duty to service (pardon the pun) its breeding in priority to its racing obligation.

The news this week that Kingman is not only going to miss his date at Ascot's Champions Day in the QEII (owing to a throat infection), but is also going to miss the entirety of any remaining racing career that might still have lingered under consideration as a four-year-old will have come as a bitter blow to anyone who loves horseracing.

With respect to early retirement, we harbour a kind of reluctant acceptance with Australia, and a grudging tolerance of Taghrooda, given the respective connections involved and their commercial interests in both cases. However, we were saddened when Sea The Moon incurred the injury that suddenly ended his career, and finally shocked by the non-reappearance ever again of Kingman in spite of the fact that the same owner opted for the opposite policy in the case of Frankel at the same juncture just three years ago.

It means in short that the top four equine stars of this year's classic generation are being summarily whisked away from view without the chance to fulfil their full track potential or, even more regrettably, the opportunity to even come head-to-head before the season end unless the remote possibility of Australia v Taghrooda materialises in the Arc next Sunday. The fact that the current crop of three-year-olds is palpably a vintage one only makes the aftertaste that much more bitter.

Far too often the classic generation fails to come up to scratch. In Camelot's season (2012), the entire field of his Epsom Derby victims managed to win just one race between then and now.

Suspicions early on were that the class of '14 was going to be exemplary. The 2000 Guineas as far back as early May already had clock-watchers salivating. How Kingman and Australia both got beaten that Saturday is still one for the Oracle of Delphi. While Kingman and Australia morphed into Group 1 magnets for the remainder of the campaign, many of those behind in the 2000 Guineas field came to stamp their own authority. Charm School (fifth) remains unbeaten since, winning two Group Ones, latterly defeating his elders in the Prix Moulin. Kingston Hill (eighth) won the St Leger; and The Grey Gatsby (a 66/1 10th in the Guineas) went on to win the Dante, French Derby and Irish Champion.

Meanwhile, Oaks winner Taghrooda flew the flag for classic girl power by rubbing out a high-quality field in the all-aged King George.

In fact, in the major all-aged flashpoints thus far in 2014, three-year-olds are dominating their elders to a near monopolistic degree. As well as the King George, other majors to have fallen to the classic generation include the Juddmonte International, Sussex, Jacques le Marois and Irish Champion, where the three-year-olds (The Grey Gatsby and Australia) cleared nearly 10 lengths away from their older rivals.

The calibre of the crop is what makes their appearance so tantalising. It is also what makes their premature disappearance so gut-wrenching for lovers of the sport. Each or all of the 2014 Big Four could potentially become a racing great, but they won't be around long enough to prove it and they won't compete often enough to achieve it. Sad to say that amongst the Big Four, only two will have met (and on just one occasion in the 2000 Guineas) at the dawn of their three-year-old campaign when we were still just suspecting their talent. Putting them out to early pasture is like retiring Rory McIlroy after he has won a Major or two. Admittedly, McIlroy (for better or worse) doesn't have the allure of stallion duties as an alternative, and he has a calendar programme of Majors where he is guaranteed to have to compete with the best around. In addition to the sport of horseracing's uneasy relationship with the business of horse-breeding, the pattern system also enables horses to easily avoid each other and thereby reduce competition - the very furnace in which greatness is baked.

Reconciling the sporting interest with the commercial interest doesn't come with a slam-dunk solution, but one thing is clear: those responsible for promoting the sport of flat racing are entirely toothless in their ability to retain the very assets that make the sport marketable and that - to the majority with passion for, but no vested interest in the business of it - is as inequitable as it is frustrating.

The announcement of Kingman's retirement ironically comes in the same week as the report of 13-year-old Captain Cee Bee's return next Sunday when he attempts to win the Grade Two hurdle at Tipperary for the third consecutive time. At 13 the gelding ended last season on a career-high mark of 154. Given the juxtaposition, is it really at all surprising that the eight jump-racing fixtures at Leopardstown draw a far greater attendance than the 15 fixtures on the flat?

If lovers of great flat racing are reluctant to adopt the extremes of the Peter Finch brimstone, then they might do well to consider instead the Yeats approach: "Tread softly because you tread on my dreams."

Sunday Indo Sport

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