Sunday 26 January 2020

Blackmore ready to set new standards

Marcus Armytage examines the British racing scene at the start of a new decade

Rachael Blackmore could easily ride a Gold Cup, Champion Chase or Grand National winner. Photo by Harry Murphy/Sportsfile
Rachael Blackmore could easily ride a Gold Cup, Champion Chase or Grand National winner. Photo by Harry Murphy/Sportsfile

Star power

On the Flat, Frankie Dettori, 49, who enjoyed his best year in terms of Group One wins with 19 last year, remains the sport's biggest box-office attraction - anywhere he goes in the world. Providing he remains on the right side of John Gosden he can probably string out his career for five more years.

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The bad news, however, is that there does not appear to be anyone to take his place in terms of personality - and possibly ability - when he goes.

Oisin Murphy, the new champion jockey, says all the right things and is good in the big races but he could not carry the sport like Dettori has for nearly 30 years while Ryan Moore, the antithesis to Dettori in terms of character, should find life a bit less pressurised again at Ballydoyle now that Donnacha O'Brien has retired.

Over jumps, there has not been a genuine big name since Tony McCoy retired. There has not been a remotely close title race for 25 years but Richard Johnson and Brian Hughes are level pegging and that would provide a good sub-plot to the last quarter of the season.

Great horses come and go. Enable, who just failed in her attempt to become the first to win three Prix de l'Arc de Triomphes, stays in training as a six-year-old in 2020 which should be interesting while, with Altior suffering his first defeat in 20 starts over obstacles, there may be room at the top for a new jumping star at Cheltenham in March or for Altior to regain his crown.

Strength in depth

Jump racing has been dominated by the old guard for some time, but with McCoy retired, Ruby Walsh gone and Davy Russell, Barry Geraghty, Robbie Power and Richard Johnson all late 30s or older and all riding better than ever - but in what must be considered the twilight of their careers - there are going to be some changes.

However, for the first time in a while there appears to be a strong group of young jockeys coming through, already winning big races, and if one of them keeps progressing they could rule the roost. It should also be remembered that Harry Cobden, first jockey - a notoriously hard position to hang on to - to Paul Nicholls, is still only 21 and has a wealth of big-race experience.

Apart from Dettori, the big races on the Flat tend to be shared among the few: Moore, James Doyle, William Buick and Murphy. One always hopes the apprentice champion can go on and make it to the top and, if nothing else, Cieren Fallon, the son of Kieren, has the pedigree to go all the way.

Gosden and Aidan O'Brien in Ireland continue to dominate the best races with the best horses, Mark Johnston dominates numerically while Godolphin and Coolmore are the two big superpower owners on the Flat even if that is no longer a cold war.

Biggest off-course headache

For nearly every year of the four decades I have been actively involved with racing, the sport has been parked one step back from the cliff edge to the financial abyss. Every time, something has rescued it - to a point.

Funding is a perennial problem. The betting levy remains its central funding mechanism and, for as long as it is based on profits rather than turnover, it is susceptible to ups and downs within the betting sector and, after a bad Cheltenham for bookies, there was a significant drop in levy income. The sport will be hoping for a few long-priced winners and a bungee effect on income this year.

There is also the issue of reshaping media rights for the online market between the bookmakers and the racecourses and the various media rights groups.

Welfare is another issue with which racing must grapple. A lengthy report into the fatalities at Cheltenham last year made lots of recommendations which are already in place.

Hottest ticket of 2020

This will be the Grand National on April 4, if Tiger Roll goes for a third win in the race. I say 'if' because he is recovering from a small operation to his joint (ankle) to have a chip removed and his owner, Michael O'Leary, likes to play games with the handicapper, threatening not to run him if he gets a big weight.

However, the fact is, even though the race is much changed, that not even Red Rum won three in a row. Tiger Roll may not match Red Rum for romance but to win it three times would be special and it would spark plenty of healthy debate about which is better.

One prediction for 2020

You would have thought darts had invented mixed-sex competition when Fallon Sherrock reached the third round of the PDC World Championship but ever since Diana Henderson (née Thorne) became the first female jockey to beat the men when she won the Nimrod Hunter Chase at Stratford in 1976, racing has been a level playing field.

On the Flat, Hollie Doyle has just become the third female to ride 100 winners in a calendar year and Hayley Turner was the first to ride a winner at Royal Ascot for 32 years last June and the bar is being gradually raised.

In jump racing, there is a core of women, such as Bridget Andrews, Lizzie Kelly and Bryony Frost, who are all the equal of the best men. But, in Ireland, and therefore Cheltenham, there is the chance of a serious breakthrough in a proper championship contest with the way in which Rachael Blackmore is riding.

Without an injury in the summer, she would be challenging again for Irish jump jockey title honours but, unlike the others, she has what the best male jockeys need; a first jockey's job in a powerful yard. Blackmore could easily ride a Gold Cup, Champion Chase or National winner; if not in 2020, then soon.

Telegraph

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