Sport Horse Racing

Monday 20 November 2017

Never more important, never more trivial

Ian McClean

New challenges await everyone in the racing game, says Ian McClean

Perhaps it's the time of year. Perhaps it's the passing away of our editor. But there seems to be more reflection in the air than action these days. I wonder did Phil Bull's description of racing as "the great triviality" first occur to him at this point in the calendar?

Evidence of what I mean is when Tony McCoy is being exercised by anything other than riding 300 winners in a campaign. As part of his recovery from broken ribs suffered at Taunton on December 30, AP has been on a break with his patron JP McManus in Barbados. "Staying with the boss (JP McManus) in Barbados certainly did my head good," he said yesterday in his weekly column.

"Hopefully swimming in the sea and a bit of sun on my body helped the bones knit too. The only problem with it was that I could have stayed there another month."

Racing's ultimate action man retreating to a life of pampering and solemn contemplation? Reaching what the champion himself describes as the "age of discretion", perhaps this dawn of good sense is linked to the retirement of his old pal Don't Push It, whose exorcism of AP's Grand National ghost precipitated a personal and professional paradigm shift that has permanently altered his perspective.

Donald McCain was in reflective mood at his media morning to launch the 2012 Grand National on Tuesday. With the irreplaceable Ginger about to be commemorated with a bronze bust peering into Aintree's parade ring, anecdotes of Donald's father, buried just four months ago, were predictably the topic of much reminiscing.

Donald was just six when Red Rum was winning his third Grand National, but having embossed his own name last year to add to the four previous inscriptions of the name McCain on the world's most famous steeplechase, he will no doubt be hoping that Ballabriggs can have a reasonable bash at a second victory.

"I wouldn't be where I am now if it wasn't for the National," he admitted. "Winning has been wonderful. But taking part has been almost as precious."

Graham Wylie has been a prominent figure in racing since he ploughed some of the profits from the sale of his company, Sage, into racehorse ownership in pursuit of some small slice of "the great triviality".

At his peak he owned over 100 horses with his wife Andrea. However, his enthusiasm for the game seemed to have been seriously tempered by the very public ordeal of the disqualification of his trainer Howard Johnson last year after which he opted to disperse the majority of his stock.

He is down to less than 20 horses now, divided between Paul Nicholls and Willie Mullins. Whilst the Johnson ordeal was a public affair, what has been much more private is the heart condition suffered by his two-year-old daughter Kiera.

"On December 9, Kiera had open-heart surgery for the third time, but we had the best Christmas present ever. Not only was she back home with us but the doctors tell us she should now be fine," Wylie explained at Sandown recently where he welcomed in Hold Fast to win the same handicap chase Master Minded won on his UK debut. "I feel I can start going racing again now, only because Kiera is so much better."

On an entirely different level, two others who will have more on their minds currently than simply the daily diet of racing are the heads of the sport's governing bodies in the UK and Ireland.

Both Brian Kavanagh at HRI and newly-appointed BHA chief executive, Australian Paul Bittar, will be exercised by distinctly different challenges however. Bittar, just four days in the job, has already had to suffer the

personal humiliation of the "Guest Test" on the Channel 4 Morning Line. If sufficiently recovered, he has to deal with the fact that he has arrived right in the eye of the whip storm.

How to square up to a challenge where the goalposts have moved more than a pair of jumpers in a schoolyard, and reconcile the multitude of stakeholders all rowing in conflicting directions whilst understanding the nuances of a whole new culture, will be sufficient to keep his eye off the daily raceform for a while.

Brian Kavanagh, on the other hand, will be curious as to the outcome of the independent review of how racing is run in Ireland, ordered by Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney. Having a set of "independent external consultants" digging in your back garden is never the most comfortable arrangement, particularly when those digging have yet to be appointed.

With the process expected to produce a report and recommendations by the end of April, there may be more engaging the HRI supremo than the arrangements for Cheltenham week.

So whilst racing is our stage, we often overlook the fact that it exists in a particular context -- even for the major players on that stage -- and that there is much outside it. I remember playwright Denis Potter being interviewed by Melvyn Bragg on the South Bank Show shortly before he died at his flat overlooking the Thames. Potter was asked to reflect on the importance of his profession. Realising he was dying, he replied "It is both more important than it ever was and more trivial than it ever was. And the difference doesn't seem to matter."

It seems he and Phil Bull had something in common.

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