For a man who shares his first name with a Scottish Earldom and a surname with the kindly King who met a sticky end at the hands of Macbeth, you might have expected the new BHA Chair to have been unveiled with slightly greater fanfare. However, the announcement warranted no more than a few bland paragraphs on the BHA website and just to ensure we didn’t get too excited, the headline made it clear that the appointment was only on an interim basis.
The need for a new Chair of racing’s governing body goes back to May, when it was announced Steve Harman would be stepping down in November. This followed a suggested conflict of interest that Harman had. At the time the BHA assured us that they were not at war, but presumably in an attempt to avoid the fight, it was decided Harman would step down, but not yet. Oh, and there would still be a job for him in racing.
Whilst such a compromise might look like a lesson in the art of diplomacy, the time it has taken to elect a new Chair and then to only do so on an interim basis, has more than a hint of an organisation unsure of its next move. There has been no explanation for the delay and I can’t help thinking that Macbeth hit the nail on the head when he said “‘twere well it were done quickly”. In regard to the appointment being without a fixed term, this is justified by the BHA on the grounds that there is an ongoing ‘constructive discussion’ about the constitution of the Board and role of the Chair.
I am sure such a debate is very worthy, but the problem is that now is precisely the moment the BHA should be seen to give its leader a strong and unambiguous mandate. As well as the Tote – the downfall of Duncan’s predecessor- there’s the new limit on FOTB’s in betting shops, the proposal to limit advertising on betting products until after the watershed, racecourses on the verge of bankruptcy and, of course, let’s not forget Brexit. There are dark forces gathering.
Mr Duncan appears well qualified for his new position, but is being asked to head his troops into battles which will have to be fought on many fronts, without clarity of his authority or knowing for how long he will be in the post.
Two things happened this week to prove that the seasons are finally changing and National Hunt enthusiasts will soon be able to rouse from the tedium of a hot summer and return to basking in the mud, rain and wind of winter jump racing. The first sign the barometer had shifted was the idiosyncratic Bank Holiday meeting at Cartmel being the most valuable card of the day. Second was The Racing Post devoting the first three pages of its Tuesday edition to jump racing stories.
Perhaps inevitably the main headline featured Samcro. The Gordon Elliot trained six year old rightly started last season with much hype and went to the Cheltenham Festival unbeaten, where he won the Ballymore with relative ease. He then ventured out of Novice company at Punchestown and fell in the Champion Hurdle. There are those who say it was just a blip or even that supernatural forces were at play in County Kildare in April – Just ask Paul Townend who inexplicably steered Al Boum Photo clear of the final fence in the Champion Novice Chase or Gordon Elliot who saw an apparent unassailable lead in the Trainers’ Championship vanish in the blink of an eye.
All this seems to have been largely forgotten and to the question “Which horse are you most excited about this season?”, which is currently doing the rounds on social media, the overwhelming answer is “Samcro”. Meanwhile the article in the Racing Post, focused not on if he will have a successful season, but the dilemma facing owners Gigginstown, whether to keep him over hurdles or send him chasing – If you’re interested you can get 4/9 on the first run being over hurdles and 7/4 over fences. Ruby Walsh later joined the debate saying that “Samcro looks a chaser”. For what it’s worth, I think he will go chasing: It is in the Irish psyche to run any horse that is capable of staying and jumping over fences. The counter argument is that Gigginstown who have won just about everything else in the sport are still short of a Cheltenham Champion Hurdle Trophy in the cabinet and their desire to complete the set, might be too much of a temptation.
But perhaps we’re getting carried away with ourselves. I don’t know where Samcro gained the title “The second coming” from and whilst I’m not saying that he’s just a very naughty boy, I do question if he flatters to deceive. He is an exquisite looking chestnut, who has an undoubted talent to go through the gears. And there is nothing more a punter loves than to see a horse they’ve backed come from off the pace only to cruise to the front in the final furlong and humiliate the rest of the field. However, was the Irish competition really that great leading up to the Cheltenham Festival? And whilst taking nothing away from the Ballymore victory, I wasn’t convinced by his jumping, particularly over the final hurdle. Then there was the Punchestown fall, when up against the big boys. A blip it may have been, but at the very least it has asked more questions, that it has provided answers.
I may well be proved wrong in my doubts and will quite happily admit my mistakes should he go on to be a Gold Cup winner. But, whatever the season has in store for Samcro, I’m just excited that winter isn’t far away.