Cheltenham Festival – Supreme Novices’

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With Trials Day done and dusted and the curtain down on the Dublin Festival, it’s not too early in all decency to start talking about Cheltenham. As always, the only place to begin is with the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.

The consensus  seems to be that if Samcro is chosen for this race, he will be hard to beat. After the season he’s had and victory in yesterday’s  2 mile Grade 1 Novice Hurdle at Leopardstown, that’s difficult to argue with. However, the noises coming out of the Elliott camp are that the Ballymore is the most likely destination and I would have thought the longer distance would give him the opportunity of show off his sublime ability to move through the gears. It would also avoid a showdown with Getabird, who Gordon Elliott is quoted as saying that he “Would be frightened by”.

Working on the premise the two horses won’t meet, I don’t believe Getabird will represent value, at what will probably be an extremely short priced favourite. Untested over hurdles on the sort of going he is likely to encounter at Cheltenham, his times are also arguably not consistent with a race where speed is a key component. Further, the size of the field will be a new challenge, as will the opening Festival atmosphere.

The horse I would make a case for is Harry Fry’s If The Cap Fits. If you’ve seen him run, there are good reasons to be put off. He can probably be politely described as quirky: he can hang to the right or the left, depending on how the mood takes him and you’re never sure if he’s going to leap a hurdle like a chaser or gracelessly  clip it. I also have to accept this will be a jump in class.  However, since finishing 4th in the Aintree Bumper back in April, he’s won all three races this season as a Novice Hurdler, on a variety of ground. With impressive times, the victories have come as a front runner and also having to make up significant distance. If you add to that a stables that seems to be finding form at the right time, the current 8/1 – although shortening as I write- looks like a decent punt.

If The Cap Fits is also entered in the Ballymore, but Harry Fry has made it clear the Supreme is the likely target and given he has never jumped further that 18 furlongs, that would seem to make sense. On that basis, I can see no reason to be tempted by no runner no bet.

It might be worth noting that all rides have gone to Noel Fehily this season and suspecting he is a horse that is far from straight forward, I might have concerns should a less experienced jockey end up on him at Cheltenham.

And one final word of caution, picking out a winner in this race can be far from easy. I wonder how many tipped the serial race refuser, Labaik, to win last year at 25/1.

 

A Cautionary Tale

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After experiencing glory on outsider Splash Of Ginge in the BetVictor Gold Cup at Cheltenham in November, Tom Bellamy’s visit to Prestbury Park on New Year’s Day was not quite so auspicious. Booked for three rides, including another partnership with Splash Of Ginge, he was stood down for the day having provided an on course positive breath test.  Found to have an alcohol level in excess of 17 micrograms per 100 millilitres of breath – a touch under half the legal limit for driving- the matter was also referred to the British Horseracing Authority (BHA).

It is now reported that the BHA have cautioned him for the matter. Whilst the comment that he only had two or three drinks the night before and was in bed by midnight, might cause an expert in alcohol back calculation to raise an eyebrow, I have sympathy with Tom. Having already lost valuable rides on the day, I believe the outcome is proportionate. What I do question is the length of time it has taken the BHA to reach a decision, on something which doesn’t involve rocket science.

Fearing a suspension must have been difficult enough, but as a freelance jockey you must suspect trainers got twitchy about booking him whilst the matter remained unresolved. The facts are Tom had 50 rides in November and December and only eight in January. That must represent a significant financial loss.

In response to the outcome Tom has made a statement expressing his regret and adding: “I was never looking for sympathy. The reality is I’ve learned from my mistake. I shouldn’t have had a drink at all, and it won’t be happening again. I hope it doesn’t affect my career in the future. I haven’t had a drink  since  and won’t anytime soon.”

I too hope it won’t have any negative consequences on his career, and in the absence of Tom being able to do so, will quite happily raise a glass to his future.

Richard Woollacott

 

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It was with disbelief that I read yesterday of Richard Woollacott’s death at the age of 40. Only 10 days ago we were exchanging messages on Facebook and I was looking forward to Cheltenham on Saturday, in the hope that I could witness Richard’s infectious smile as he led Beer Goggles back after victory in the Cleeve Hurdle.

As always statistics don’t tell the full story. Nine times Devon and Cornwall point-to-point champion, national champion in 2010 and trainer of two Grade 2 winners, is a record to be proud of. But when I was a guest at his stables in November, I met a man who was welcoming, engaging and generous with his time. I wrote about it on this blog and joked that whist I wanted to talk  about horses, all he wanted to do was debate politics with me. This was someone devoted to and highly skilled in their profession, but keen to discuss intelligently and informatively  issues beyond the bubble of the horse racing industry.

As well as a lengthy tour of the stables, I sat in Richard’s kitchen drinking coffee, while he showed me how to enter a horse for a race and how to book a jockey. He told me the trainers who he particularly respected and the jockeys he favoured. My view of trainers was of being rather stuffy and reluctant to disclose that which wasn’t necessary.  Richard’s friendliness and openness could not have been further from this stereotype.

And the media loved him. Always good for a quote and willing to be interviewed after a race, he was not afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve in front of the camera. There are pictures of him tearfully leading Lalor back after victory in the Champion Bumper at Aintree in April. When asked how he felt after Beer Goggles’ demolition of a class field in the Newbury Long Distance Hurdle, he replied “Flabbergasted”. Beer Goggles is still entered for the Cleeve Hurdle on Saturday. I don’t know how I’ll feel when I watch him run.

For someone I only ever met once, any rational person would say I was disproportionately saddened to learn Richard had died. But that is a mark of the impression he made on those he met.

 

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.