Sport Horse Racing

Saturday 20 January 2018

Monday Outlook: Racing isn't doing itself any favours

Fleeting cameos of star three-year-olds will not inspire potential fans

Tiggy Wiggy powers home for jockey Richard Hughes to hold off Eddie Lynam's Anthem Alexander (Pat Smullen) in the Connolly's Red Mills Cheveley Park Stakes at Newmarket on Saturday. Photo: Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images
Tiggy Wiggy powers home for jockey Richard Hughes to hold off Eddie Lynam's Anthem Alexander (Pat Smullen) in the Connolly's Red Mills Cheveley Park Stakes at Newmarket on Saturday. Photo: Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images
Richard Forristal

Richard Forristal

Racing is embroiled in an ongoing struggle not to be marginalised by the mainstream media.

That is an inescapable fact, and it is a battle that is being lost in places. Across the water, a number of national newspapers now pick and choose what - if any - race cards to carry and the amount of editorial coverage to allocate to racing.

The BBC, which for so long was synonymous with everything great about the sport, has abandoned it completely. Like a parent that gives up on a troublesome child, the Beeb simply decided that it wasn't getting enough out of the relationship to persist, for all the time and money that it had invested over the years.

We like to think that we might be immune from such indifference in Ireland. Our historic affinity with the horse is unquestioned, and it is a sport in which we are justifiably lauded as a world leader.

At the same time, racing is a niche domain comprising an array of intricacies that don't readily lend themselves to the sort of lowest common denominator, mass appeal of the GAA, rugby, football or golf. From the complexity of the handicapping system to the intangible quirks of each individual horse, it is not the simplest of disciplines to grasp. That is something which is cherished and embraced by devotees of the game, to the point that there is a hint of an incidental anorak about many of us.

Reluctance

At its core, though, horse racing is based on as simple a premise as any sport - the ability of one horse to run faster than another. Or at least it is in theory, for a regrettable reluctance on behalf of some of the sport's most influential figures to engage their horses in any more meaningful competition than is absolutely necessary is undermining racing's basic ethos.

Never has that been more lamentable than this year. Flat racing has been graced with an exceptionally talented three-year-old crop, yet a glorious opportunity to capitalise on the enormous potential of their heavyweight appeal has largely gone abegging.

Kingman was hurried off to stud last week, his career promptly curtailed after an innocuous throat infection. His owner Prince Khalid Abdullah was lauded for his decision to keep Frankel in training as a four-year-old, and Henry Cecil's star duly gained his place among the immortals because he was given the opportunity to do so.

Kingman will never get that chance. He was an enormously precocious horse, but he still had plenty left to prove. He will be crowned champion three-year-old, but it is impossible to say definitively that it is an accolade he truly deserves. When he and Australia touched gloves in that dramatic 2,000 Guineas in May, we got a taste of what might have been.

Sadly, the showdowns that we hoped might subsequently materialise never came to fruition. Aidan O'Brien has hinted that he might go for the QEII with Australia, but Kingman's absence means it won't be what it might have been. With Australia and Taghrooda both beaten, it's hard to avoid the sense that a decision was made to preserve Kingman's enormous reputation while it was still intact. That is racing's loss.

The commercial element to the Flat game is undeniable, but the throat infection was a convenient cop-out. John Gosden and Hamdan Al Maktoum deserve credit for pitching Taghrooda into the King George during the summer and were rewarded for their bravery. The Ascot heroine got chinned by Tapestry at York, but her legacy will be assured if she plunders another famous triumph in next week's Arc.

Still, she is also set to be retired this year, by which time we are unlikely to know whether she, Kingman, Australia or The Grey Gatsby was the best three-year-old. Kevin Ryan and Frank Gillespie are also to be applauded for pursuing an ambitious agenda with The Grey Gatsby, but their hand was more forced. Once the other trio claimed the perceived right to be called title-holder in their preferred areas, it was up to the challenger to dethrone one of them. He did so with aplomb at Leopardstown.

As such, we were unwittingly handed the sort of absorbing treat that we hoped might come to pass after the early Classic skirmishes revealed such a rare crop. In between, though, rather than racing living up to its name, we got an exercise in the art of avoidance.

Of course, we can all appreciate virtuoso brilliance, but Ali versus Frazier, Kilkenny versus Tipperary or Denman versus Kauto Star is what engages the public. The best should be compelled to take on the best on the highest stage.

Yet the ease with which the best horses can now be kept apart will be the ruination of the game if it is not addressed. Racing cannot exist in its own vacuum. It relies on the outside world for funding, and the inflated level of television rights money helps to disguise the real consequence of the broader media's indifference to the sport.

This is an issue that this column has lamented in the past, but the proliferation of opportunities for horses at the highest level is a backward step. The Pattern programme is being swelled, and this decreases competition, dilutes quality and deters both established fans and floating voters.

It is a regressive policy that allowed Quevega - for all that she was a fantastic horse - farm a farcical mares' race at Cheltenham. It resulted in cheap domestic Grade Ones for Adriana Des Mottes and Annie Power this year, and in 2015 things will get worse, with the Cheltenham mares' race becoming a Grade One and the addition of a three-year-olds' only Group One at Royal Ascot. Eventually, it is a system that will backfire.

You can't blame trainers for seeking to maximise their horses' potential as efficiently as possible. They will do what is best for their horses and owners, not what is best for racing. It is the structure that is all wrong. At the moment, it is a race to the bottom.

Some have suggested revolutionising the way that pedigrees are displayed to include official handicap ratings rather than just the increasingly misleading black type. Others would like to see races confined to horses that have been sired by stallions that raced as four-year-olds, or a revision of the weight-for-age scale that has tipped the balance in favour of the three-year-olds that do tackle their elders.

More still would simply like to see an end to the bloating of the programme. In this instance, less is surely more. Racing needs to create an environment that will encourage owners and trainers to pit their most accomplished equine commodities against each other and inspire people to engage with its protagonists. In short, it needs to stop marginalising itself.

 

Abbaye on agenda for War and Wiggy

Ballydoyle's Ruler Of The World could be the only Irish runner in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp, with neither Australia nor Free Eagle expected to line up.

Frankie Dettori excelled aboard last year's Derby victor when making all to coax him to a first triumph since Epsom in the Prix Foy over course and distance recently, though it remains to be seen whether he or Joseph O'Brien will ride on Sunday. After The Great War (10/11 fav) completed the middle leg of a short-priced Curragh treble for the O'Briens yesterday in the Blenheim Stakes, Aidan O'Brien suggested that he would consider supplementing the pacy colt for a tilt against his elders in Sunday's Abbaye.

Richard Hannon is considering doing the same with Saturday's Cheveley Park heroine Tiggy Wiggy. Eddie Lynam's Anthem Alexander again had no answer to Tiggy Wiggy's searing speed, though Lynam hinted that the new sprint at Royal Ascot would be her chief target next year.

He also intends to saddle Sole Power in the Abbaye, while Willie McCreery's Fiesolana and Tom Hogan's Gordon Lord Byron are Foret-bound.

Qualify (9/4) and the exciting Ol' Man River (1/2 fav) won yesterday's two other big juvenile races for the O'Brien duo, with Ol' Man River trimmed to 12/1 from 16/1 by Paddy Power for next year's Derby after a straightforward win in the Beresford Stakes.

O'Brien was non-committal as to whether the €2.85m colt would turn out again for the Racing Post Trophy.

The outgoing champion jockey went on to complete a four-timer aboard Takashi Kodama's 20/1 shot Elusive Time in the finale.

Jessica and Kate Harrington took the amateur riders' derby with recent dual chase winner Hurricane Ridge (5/1), while Prince Connoisseur plundered a valuable pillar-to-post win under Fran Berry in the Joe McGrath Handicap for rookie handler Johnny Feane.

Prince Connoisseur supplied the Kildare trainer with his first win at Dundalk in January, and his fourth victory in six outings in yesterday's €50,000 dash was the stable's 10th in all.

Today, Feane bids for a breakthrough cross-channel win with Best Be Careful at Bath.

Tweet of the weekend

Davy Russell (@_Davy_Russell_): This has to be the greatest comeback of all comebacks #corkladies - Dual champion jump jockey and Youghal native Davy Russell sums up the Cork ladies' footballers' Lazarus-like recovery in Croke Park.

Numbers Game

7 - Number of horses that have won the Cambridgeshire twice in the race's 175-year history after Marcus Tregoning's Bronze Angel (14/1) emulated its 2012 success on Saturday under apprentice Louis Steward, who enjoyed his first major handicap win in the Ebor aboard Johnny Murtagh's Mutual Regard.

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