Wednesday 17 January 2018

Stoute defence sheds no light for punters left in dark

Michael Stoute could learn a thing or two from Paul Nicholls' PR skills, says Ian McClean

S hort of welcoming Workforce's Prix de l'Arc win with champagne corks, there were elements in racing whose reception was infused with a grape variety distinctly more sour.

While many applauded the victory as an artful piece of training wizardry on the part of Michael Stoute, a notable faction felt the communication concerning the horse's participation right up to the eve of declaration had more in common with the black arts.

The unease even invaded the connections' post-race press conference in the Longchamp gazebo, where the line of questioning veered into the discomfiting area of transparent disclosure on the run-up to the race.

Punters and media felt ill-informed around Workforce's participation in the Arc, while the trainer and owner believed they had been as open as possible in the circumstances and that their allegiance in any case was to the welfare of the horse, not to public or media enquiry.

The incident only served to reinforce how trainers, owners, media and the betting public make for uneasy bedfellows under racing's giant duvet. One must have sympathy for the trainer's plight in this instance. Here we had a horse lauded by the normally muted pedigree column in the Racing Post the Wednesday after Epsom under the headline 'Exceptional Epsom display hints at greatness'. Resisting the temptation to take in the Irish Derby after Epsom, the trainer prudently allowed Workforce a further month's recovery before running instead in the King George.

His performance at Ascot -- trailing in a yawning 17 lengths behind his stablemate -- left connections baffled. It is not clear if anything concrete came to light following Ascot's aberration. A combination of the training regime being too hard and the tactics too aggressive were the best the public could deduce from the mutterings at Freemason Lodge.

We can be fairly certain, however, that it took all (and more) of Stoute's abundant guile meantime to charm the talent that was evident at Epsom in June to return in time for Paris in October. And that, in spite of Stoute's 30 years' experience training racehorses, Workforce was his own special edition -- delivered without the instructions manual.

In short, it is eminently conceivable, probable even, that Stoute was not certain himself whether Workforce would make the Paris party right up until the last. Andre Fabre has always been of the view that to have a horse cherry ripe at the end of July and ready to peak again in the Arc was a feat not worth even trying. Dylan Thomas confounded the view -- but he won the King George and remained at the top of his game by taking in the Irish Champion Stakes for good measure. Workforce, in stark contrast, was at the bottom of his. Like the Six Million Dollar Horse salvaged from the wreckage of Ascot, Stoute had the technology to rebuild him amidst the most inexact of sciences. Having done enough to earn the green light on the Thursday before the Arc, Stoute was still gloomy over his chances -- the comment "I wouldn't be confident he'll reproduce his Epsom form" reflecting the probability that the decision went right to the wire.

While Stoute was busy cracking the combination for Workforce, he was certainly a lot less distracted with keeping the public in the light of his intentions regarding the horse's participation in the Arc. The most informative update we got in the build-up to the race was Teddy Grimthorpe telling us after the colt's Sandown workout that he had now got "the amber light". The fact is it was never clear right up until declaration time whether the horse would turn up in Paris or not. It wasn't even clearly stipulated that he was an intended runner should he cross the various examinations connections had in mind. Even that much would have helped. Stoute's attitude towards a trainer's obligations in this regard are clear in his post-race defence "We didn't want to say we were going and not go. The punters understand that. They knew where they stood. There were a few little tetchy journalists but they'll get over it."

The "tetchy journalists" Stoute refers to are nothing less than the primary artery the sport has for promoting itself. Without promotion, the public are unaware. Without awareness, the public loses interest. Without the public interest, betting turnover drops. Lower turnover means less money for racing. Which means less prizemoney. Which means fewer owners and fewer horses. Which spells bad news for trainers. So even if a trainer is reluctant to act in the interest of the sport, he should consider acting in the interests of himself and his peers.

And as for the punters -- rather than knowing "where they stood" they were instead confronted by the Racing Post headline that Workforce was on the drift, touching a high of 19 on Betfair at one stage last week. Whilst allowing that precision updates are impractical in the delicately inexact conditioning of the racehorse, public relations is an attitude, and one that can easily be blunted by decades of training millionaire thoroughbreds for princes, aristocrats and tycoons.

Stoute's counterpart champion over the jumps, Paul Nicholls, is no less successful at his discipline, but in stark contrast he has grasped the PR nettle with both hands. Not only does he write a feature updating the public on his horses (formerly in the Racing Post, now on Betfair) he can be followed on Facebook and Twitter.

To survive in a thoroughly modern world, horseracing needs a thoroughly modern industry. And for a thoroughly modern industry we need at minimum thoroughly modern and transparent ambassadors.

Sunday Independent

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