An Ill Wind?

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History was made on Friday when, for the first time the initials ‘W’ or ‘WS’ appeared against a horse’s name on racecards, indicating a first run after a wind operation. If that wasn’t historic enough, yesterday saw the first winner to carry the new disclosure. It was Boite in the 2.15 at Taunton – just in case it ever comes up in a pub quiz.

It’s impossible to say to what extent the markets were influenced by the rule change, but what is clear is that the added bit of information has been welcomed by punters. The views from trainers, on the other hand, has ranged from dismissive – ‘It will just make punters more skint than they were to start with. It’s a complete and utter load of nonsense’ Evan Williams, to questioning the value of the requirement – ‘Punters will find they’re not always as successful as we hope’- Alan King.

Without a doubt wind surgery is not always successful and given that it can involve a range of veterinary procedures, the simple declaration is of limited use, without further detail.  However, as I have previously written I support greater transparency in the sport and welcome the move. I find the patronising view of some trainers unhelpful – ‘they don’t often work, which will confuse the punters even more’ Kim Bailey. By and large those who back horses are not stupid. They will appreciate the limited value of the added detail and will be able to make their own informed assessment as to its weight. As reluctant as I am to be seen supporting any comment from Matt Chapman, I can only agree with his view expressed on The Opening Show, that punters will be able to gauge the importance of the information in time.

The recent quotes from trainers are slightly less hysterical than those that accompanied the British Horseracing Authority’s announcement of the requirement, which was generally greeted with outright hostility. I spoke off the record with a trainer at the time, who after putting the party line of the disclosure requirement being of little if any value, went on to say – rather undermining his previous statement- that if anyone was entitled to detail that may give them an edge, it was the owners. Whilst I may not agree with that view, I can appreciate the wish to make those who pay the bills, feel like they are receiving privileged information. I suspect that this may be part of the truth of trainers’ reluctance to embrace the new regime and, if so, perhaps  they should just be open about it.

 

Working All Hours – Aidan O’Brien and the Labour Court

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The decision of Ireland’s Labour Court that stable staff are not exempt from the Organisation Working Time Act has been described by Horse Racing Ireland’s (HRI) chief executive, Brian Kavanagh, as being of ‘very serious concern’.

The case arises out of an inspection by the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) at Aidan O’Brien’s Ballydoyle’s stables in May 2016. This resulted in compliance notices being served relating to the failure to provide sufficient breaks and rest periods to grooms and exercise riders. Ballydoyle Racing appealed. The case was heard by the Labour Court in July and August of last year, but for some inexplicable reason a decision has only just been reached, with the full judgment due to be published on Wednesday.

In so far as details of the hearing are available, it is clear there was much technical argument about the validity of the notices, but the central issue was whether Ballydoyle Racing was exempt, because the staff were engaged in agricultural activities. Aidan O’Brien gave evidence at length and explained that the relationship between a horse and an individual staff member was unique and couldn’t be replicated by bringing in another worker to cover rest periods. He went further saying that to do so would put both the employee and horse at risk. The case was strengthened by at least one member of staff telling the Tribunal that such was their devotion to the job, they would come into work during what little free time they had.

The Panel of three also heard from the Commission that staff worked up to 19 hours a day and at times 28 days without a break. In reaching its decision that the exemption did not apply, the Chair referred to three dictionary definitions of ‘agriculture’. It is understood that Ballydoyle Racing will appeal to the High Court.

My view, for what it’s worth, is it is not unreasonable that workers should expect a minimum rest period of 11 consecutive hours and a weekly break of 24 hours, in accordance with the statute. I would also question if the welfare of a horse and employee can be guaranteed by having to work the gruelling hours cited at the hearing. On a practical level, I wonder if the recruitment crisis so often complained about by trainers, is going to be addressed by one of their own going to such lengths to try and exclude his employees from basic employment rights.

Of course, my view doesn’t matter, but I do question the authority Brian Kavanagh  had to enter the debate. HRI is Ireland’s racing governing body. Its mission statement is “To Develop and Promote Ireland as a World  Centre of Excellence for Horse Racing and Breeding”. There’s nothing about being a Union representing the interests of trainers. If there’s any doubt where Kavanagh’s loyalties lie, there is a clue in a further statement he made about “working with the WRC ….. to come up with the best practice possible, where the welfare of staff is taken into account”. Not the welfare of the staff  is “paramount” or even “important”, just “taken into account”. I would argue that any industry is only as good as its workers and the better they are looked after the more successful it is, but as for Mr Kavanagh if he wishes to be a spokesman for trainers, I would advise him to join a different organisation.

 

 

 

Teenage Dreams so Hard to Beat

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There’s little racing fans love more than statistics and there was none better than the Welsh Grand National being won by a 16 year old jockey, riding a horse only three years his junior.  If that weren’t enough James Bowen became the youngest jockey to win the race and Raz De Maree, the oldest horse in modern times.

Of rich racing heritage Bowen said after securing his 6 length victory: “It’s amazing. From the age of eight, I knew I would be a jockey”.  Home schooled, presumably to ensure his aspirations, he only rode in his first point-to-point race in March of last year and has already ridden out his 7lb claim in the professional ranks.

Yesterday’s renewal at Chepstow, which had originally been due to be run on Boxing Day, took place on inevitably heavy ground and with a long run to the first fence, it was clear the initial fast pace couldn’t be maintained over the gruelling  3m5f. Only seven of the twenty starters completed the race,  which ended as a battle between Raz De Maree and another 13 year old, Alfie Spinner.

Taking nothing away from Bowen’s ride, the spirited Raz De Maree or indeed trainer, Gavin Cromwell, this wasn’t a classic. But hey, we shouldn’t spoil statistics with the true story.

Taunton – For the Few not the Many

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Maria’s Benefit- convincing winner of the Feature Race

I know that Taunton Racecourse had made provision for the increased numbers expected at their end of year meeting yesterday, but like last year I still found it uncomfortably crowded and poorly organised. For a course that usually gets a crowd of about 1,500, the 5,000 plus who attend for this event, make it a very different environment. I accept that my perception maybe unduly influenced by an interminably long queue for food, where the only prize on offer at the end is a sausage roll of dubious origin and my inability to find a toilet. I must also admit that any objective assessment is likely to be tainted by it being a course where I have a terrible record of backing winners. To complete my bias the fact that I attended yesterday nursing a hangover capable of being photographed, having partied fairly hard the night before, didn’t help.

I won’t list the long roll call of losers I backed, because that would be as dull as it is self indulgent. However, I did back one winner- Dan GcGrue in the 2m3f Novices’ Hurdle. I do have a soft spot for Novice Hurdles and this was a proper race with 14 runners and an exciting finish.  Two from home you wouldn’t have wanted to call it. Dan McGrue was then driven strongly and after the last looked to have it, but a late challenge from the Victor Dartnall trained River Bray threw the win into question. He ultimately  held on for what was recorded as a 3/4 length victory, but to my untrained eye looked considerably shorter.

Speaking with both one of the owners and Victor after the race, they were clearly pleased with their horse’s run and knowing that I was in the market for purchasing a share in a horse, negotiations were opened regarding a six year old who Victor is confident will end up a decent staying chaser. It’s fair to say I’m still keeping my options open.

In between races we were treated to the comments of and interviews from Derek Thompson – or Tommo as I understand he must be referred to as.  I have no doubt that Tommo is extremely knowledgable and skillful at his chosen art. However, I found his slickness combined with a manner which mimics the enthusiasm of a 1970’s children’s TV presenter, did nothing to settle a stomach that was already constitutionally on the queasy side from the previous night’s excesses.

Fair play to Paul Nicholls for turning up and conducting a round of interviews. He could as easily opted for Newbury, where Bryony Frost rode Dynamite Dollars.

Presumably Newbury was Nicky Henderson’s destination, in spite his Sunshade running in the Queen’s colours in the feature race and having been given rewarded by her in the New Year’s Honours List. It turned out not to be much of a contest, with Stuart Edmunds’ Maria’s Benefit winning the Listed Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle by 30 lengths. As impressive as the victory was, it didn’t make for much of a spectacle as a race.

By now Tommo’s excitement had reached fever pitch and try as he did, not even Edmunds could match his exultations during the post race interview. We did learn that he hopes to take her to Doncaster in January, before Cheltenham.

If there is one thing you hope for after an unsuccessful day at the races, it is a quick getaway. However, exiting the car park at Taunton proved only slightly less challenging than securing a path out of the Glastonbury Festival. The operation appeared to be solely conducted by two women, one of whom would seemingly randomly jump in front of a row of cars, while the other would wave her arms around in a series of gestures beyond interpretation.  I had to question whether the words “Events Soultions” emblazoned on their high vis vests were open to an action under the Trade Descriptions Act.

Unusually my son, who has a lot more luck picking winners than me, had drawn a blank all day. As we waited to get onto the M5,  I was obliged to try and raise spirits in accordance with the parental covenant to put a positive gloss on an otherwise bleak situation.  “Hey, we may not have won son, but what price spending some time with your Dad?” I offered. He glared back, unconvinced by the force of my argument.

 

 

 

Kempton – Boxing Day

I really did want Bristol Dai Mai to win the King George yesterday. It was partly to silence  the critics who were a bit sniffy about his distance win at Haydock in the Betfair Chase, but also to keep the million pound bonus alive. As it turned out he was well beaten and if the truth were told, even without his jumping error at the 10th, would still not have got the better of Might Bite. Nico de Boinville gave as an assured a ride as you will see on Might Bite, who displayed none of the eccentricities so evident last season and now looks like a genuine Gold Cup contender.

The meeting began with a win for If The Cap Fits in the Novices’ Hurdle. Arguably the high expectations  many have of Harry Fry this season, have not been met so far, particularly with Unowhatimeanharry no longer bossing the Stayers’ Hurdle division. However, If The Cap Fits looks to be going from strength to strength, with three straight wins since October and offers another name to throw into the mix for the Supreme Novices’ in March.

Part of me hoped that Nicky Henderson would send Buveur D’air back over fences this season, to see what he was capable of following his domination of  two mile hurdles. But over the hurdles he has remained and victory in the Grade 1 Christmas Hurdle marked an eighth consecutive win. His triumph in the Fighting Fifth earlier in the month was the definition of routine and yesterday didn’t look much harder.  There was one slight mistake, but when Barry Geraghty asked the question he cruised past The New One without ever having to engage top gear. All that remains is to see how he will fare  against  the revered but elusive Faugheen in the Champion Hurdle.

I had perhaps been a little unjust about Black Corton’s win at Cheltenham in October, taking the view that it was Sizing Tennessee’s fall that allowed him victory. I was wrong. Black Corton and his jockey Bryony Frost have been a revelation this season. The win in the Kauto Star Novices’ Chase was a masterclass in riding from Frost who had to skilfully avoid fallers to bring her ride home first. She can now add a Grade 1 to her growing list of successes and has proved she doesn’t need to rely on her claim.

The RSA would seem to be the obvious destination for Black Corton and whilst likely to face formidable Irish competition, both he and Frost love Cheltenham. The 20/1 currently on offer is certainly tempting. Frost’s radiant smile after finishing the race was exuberant even by her standards and enough to clear the most dense of Christmas hangovers. Long may it last.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Cheltenham

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I know plenty of people whose Christmas preparations seem to begin at some point around mid August. Although I’ve always rather been a – I’ll sort it out on Christmas Eve- kind of chap, when it comes to the Cheltenham Festival, I am a firm believer in early preparation. I have my tickets, the hotel is booked and during the long nights, the thought of four days at Prestbury Park in early spring keeps me going.

My friends who follow the flat will tell you the thing about the Cheltenham Festival is that it is the be all and end all of the jump racing season. I’m familiar with the argument that the flat has a number of big meetings and races throughout the season, without one dominating all.  In contrast the jump season is just a steady road to one summit. If it were a concert the flat season would allow each instrument in the orchestra to have its solo, demonstrating its individual beauty, but ultimately all sections working together to create a wonderful piece of music. To complete the analogy the critics would say that the jump season is best compared to a long gentle drum roll, culminating in the beating of a big bass drum that echos around the Cotswolds in March.

Whilst I can appreciate this point of view, I don’t entirely buy into it. Cheltenham is the climax, but there are many exciting races along the route. And ultimately the Festival is truly great. From the setting, to the quality of races and the British Irish rivalry, it cannot be equalled. If that were not enough, there are also the post concert parties at Aintree and Punchestown to look forward to.

With the Festival still the best part of three months away,  the ante post markets are already buoyant and there are no shortage of experts telling us whether Faugheen or Buveur D’air will win the Champion Hurdle. My inbox is also beginning to bulge with invitations to buy into Festival tipping services and purchase guides that will direct me to long odds winners. However, even with my enthusiasm, I do have to question whether the frenzy begins a little early. It does feel a bit like receiving Christmas cards before the schools have gone back after the summer holidays.

 

 

 

The Horse Comes First

 

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The Painted Horse

The opening day of Cheltenham’s International meeting, was themed ‘The Horse Comes First’.  A campaign supported by leading organisations in British Horseracing, it aims to improve understanding of the care given to horses throughout and after their careers in racing. This was demonstrated by the parading of a painted horse, displaying muscle groups on one side and skeletal structure, together with major organs on the other.  This was accompanied on ITV by flashing up an impressive array of figures, highlighting the financial investment in horse welfare and low injury rate.

By contrast yesterday’s running of the Caspian Caviar Gold Cup was proof, if proof were needed, that the sport is inherently dangerous. Leading by seven lengths, with two to take, Starchitect, was pulled up by Tom Scudamore. He had broken a hind leg and it was fatal.  The seriousness of the injury was quickly apparent.  ITV race commentator, Richard Hoiles, professionally called the remaining horses home in a subdued and sombre tone, while winning jockey, Ryan Day, showed maturity beyond his years in the respectful comments during his post race interview.

There were no concerns about the horse going into the race and this was not a jumping injury. Also, a post race study of the ground found no flaw which might have been a contributory factor. Whilst the work highlighted by The Horse Comes First is invaluable and the campaign itself is to be congratulated, we have to accept that no amount of investment in equine welfare or implementation of safeguarding measures will ever rule out fatal injuries. All of which will be of no comfort today to those connected with Starchitect.

Brexit – The silence of the BHA

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Whilst the world talks of little else other than the implications and terms of Brexit, the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) appears to be exercising its right to silence. Given that of all sports, racing relies on the need for what David Davies described as a “frictionless and invisible” British/Irish boarder, this might be considered somewhat surprising. If you add to that the number of  overseas Europeans employed in British stables and the difficulties trainers have in recruitment, some might describe it as negligent.

Following the vote to leave, the BHA promptly issued a statement assuring us that it would “work closely with Government contacts … to represent the best interests of British horseracing”. The impression being there was nothing that couldn’t be resolved over a decent single malt in the Garrick Club. At around the same time the BHA published a paper, which talked positively about Brexit- If it wasn’t for the BHA logo at the top of page, it could almost be mistaken for a UKIP leaflet.  Perhaps it was in a state of shock and the sense of denial was no more than a symptom of this condition.

Since June of last year, you will struggle to discover quite how the BHA is representing the best interests of British racing.  The only evidence I can find is from the Irish governing body,  Horse Racing Ireland (HRI), who have confirmed it has had meetings with the BHA.  In contrast HRI has been anything but quiet; its chief executive, Brian Kavanagh, has said “The stakes could not be higher” and fears have been expressed of the industry being decimated. It has quoted an array of figures: a business worth 1 billion euros to the Irish economy (not quite as much as we are paying the DUP to prop up the government, but still heck of a lot of money), 65% of foals born in Ireland are exported of which 80% are sold to the UK and there are 10,000 horse movements between Ireland and Britain a year, making an average of 200 a week.

Free movement is currently ensured by a tripartite agreement between Britain, Ireland and France under a European directive which passports horses with minimum regulatory burden. The fear is that without such an arrangement transporting horses through boarders would become so slow and cumbersome buyers would be frightened off and trainers would be very reluctant to put their finely tuned animals  through a journey across the Irish sea.  Leaving aside the big festivals where the Irish/British rivalry takes centre stage, would Gordon Elliott really want to pop a few horses over for a mid season Thursday at Cheltenham?

There is also the issue of how  racing is regulated between the North and South of Ireland. It was reported that the DUP recently scuppered the government’s agreement with the Republic, because it didn’t want Northern Ireland to have arrangements that were separate from the UK. Well the fact of the matter is it already does. Like other sports, racing is regulated on an all Ireland basis. Nine out of ten horses who race at the two Northern Irish courses are trained in the South and both Downpatrick and Down Royal receive capital development grants and prize money from HRI. It is very difficult to see how they could continue to operate outside the current governance structure and impossible to imagine how they would survive without an open boarder.

Considering the current chaotic state of Brexit negotiations, I’m not convinced it’s ever going to happen, but like the BHA, perhaps I’m just in denial.

 

Nethercott Manor Farm

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Beer Goggles relaxing after Friday’s victory

I remember reading about an author who spent some time with Roy Hodgson, in order to research the character of a football manager who featured in a novel he was working on. The problem was that all Roy Hodgson wanted to talk about was Irish literature so the writer came away with little insight.

It wasn’t quite like that when I spent this morning with South Molton trainer, Richard Woollacott, at Nethercott Manor Farm.  However, having done his research he knew of my interest in politics and Richard was as keen to discuss political issues with me, as I was to hear about training horses from him.  But without a doubt, I learnt more from a short time in his company than I would from hours of watching races and studying the form book.

Richard was as generous with his time, as he was engaging and open. He also exercised an admirable patience in answering my series of what must have appeared very stupid questions.  I got to meet Grade 2 winner Beer Goggles, who now looks set for the Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham in January and the beautiful Born to Size, for whom there are understandable high hopes. Unfortunately the last remaining share in him was not within my budget.

I watched how a riderless horse dramatically responds to quite subtle body language from a trainer and then stood in the middle of the barn as the horse completed a series of jumps around me. What struck was how much closer I felt to him and how better I could study his movements in this naked environment, when compared to the bustle of a race track.

I suggested to Richard that Brereton’s fall, in his only runner at Ludlow yesterday, must have brought them back down to earth after Beer Goggles’ win at Newbury on Friday. He responded philosophically: “There are far more downs than there are ups”. They have Jepeck running tomorrow at Exeter, a horse I remember from his Pointing days, and I wish another up for him and his team.

 

 

 

 

 

Looking at harry through Beer Goggles?

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Unowhatimeanharry wins the Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham in January

I’ve got a bit of a thing about Unowhatimeanharry. It goes back to when he won the Albert Bartlett at Cheltenham in 2016. Until yesterday, he had only lost once since being with Harry Fry. Whilst that one blip was the big one- the Stayers’ Hurdle at this year’s Festival- he quickly bounced back at Aintree and Punchestown.

What I’ve never understood is why the media have such a downer on him. The Racing Post’s David Jennings described him as a fraud, which seems a strange noun to attach to a horse. He’s been criticised for only doing enough to win, which I’ve always found makes for an exciting finish. When the critics are then faced with the reality of his success, the response is that there aren’t any good staying hurdlers to compete against , but you can do no more than dominate your division.

The Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury yesterday, which is as good an early trial for the Stayers’ Hurdle as you will find, was on paper a straight race between harry and Thistlecrack.  What no one factored in was that 40/1 shot Beer Goggles, who had never run in such illustrious company, would boss the race from start to finish and was more than a worthy winner. The pundits were as quick to praise the run as they were to highlight how they were proved right about harry’s limitations. There was very little: “What on earth happened to Thistlecrack?”  who finished a distant fifth.

I didn’t resent Beer Goggles his victory one bit: I love an outsider and he is from a stables local to me. Those I know who work for Rich Woollacott or own horses he trains, speak highly of him as a trainer and describe him as a good chap.

I also have to accept that at the age of nine, harry might be getting to the stage where the best will soon be behind him. However, the more negative comments he attracts, the more loyal I feel and determined to defend him.