The turf

Does horse-racing have a future?

4 April 2020

9:00 AM

4 April 2020

9:00 AM

Asked, after his Imperial Aura’s impressive win in the Northern Trust Novices’ Handicap Chase at the Cheltenham Festival, if he had been worried about one particular challenger in the race, Kim Bailey wryly replied: ‘Of course I was worried. I’m a racehorse trainer.’ Trainers now have a lot more to worry about. When we finally resume racing — and few expect it to be after the six weeks originally announced — how many of the 14,000 racehorses in training as the suspension was announced will be coming back? How many owners whose businesses have suffered from Covid-19 will see paying bills for forage, farriers and vets’ attentions as a priority use for their remaining funds? How many self-employed jockeys who were struggling anyway to make a decent living will have departed the sport to seek something more secure? Certainly some will be struggling with their weight: for the few days that racing in Ireland continued behind closed doors after the British shutdown, jockeys’ weights were all raised 2lb because they couldn’t use the on-course saunas.

The only racing figure I know who has contested the inevitability of the shutdown is the former chairman of the old British Horseracing Board Peter Savill. He says that by failing to carry on behind closed doors, racing has missed a great opportunity to showcase itself to a world deprived of so many other pleasures. He argues: ‘If you can’t find a way to keep a small group of people apart on a racecourse built to hold tens of thousands, you can’t be trying very hard.’ But I doubt it would have been worth the PR downside of the perception of racing having been treated as a special case.

As the jockey Barry Geraghty says, it is a question of lives over livelihoods at the moment and the final racing memory for some time will have to remain the sight of jockey Aidan Coleman riding Charlie Longsdon’s Glencassley to a well-judged victory in a Wetherby bumper at 5.25 on 17 March — certain to be a pub quiz question of the future. The finale couldn’t have gone to a nicer jockey. After Aidan rode Put The Kettle On to victory for Irish trainer Henry de Bromhead at the Cheltenham Festival, the trainer confided that Noel Fehily had been his go-to man in England until his retirement last year and that he had been persuaded by an owner to try Aidan on a horse he sent to Aintree. ‘After watching him over three fences, I said: “This is my new Noel Fehily.”’ When I checked with Aidan later that the horse had been Plan of Attack, his modest response was: ‘That’s the biggest compliment I could receive. Noel’s a great man. I’m simply not in the same class.’ Oh, yes he is, which is why Venetia Williams has put him up on so many good horses; why he partners Emma Lavelle’s star Paisley Park; and why he has a 20 per cent strike rate with 82 winners even in this truncated season.

Since the lockdown on British racing I have been deluged with offers from various bookmakers of free spins on their virtual casino roulette wheels and the like. They are wasting their time. As an Oxford student in the Middle Ages, I once played poker all night, at one stage contemplating a hungry few weeks as I was down a sum amounting to my whole term’s grant. Fortunately I finished £25 up, only for the loser, a millionaire’s son, to claim we had only been playing for fun. Since then, the deft flicking of a croupier’s shuffle or a rising pile of roulette chips has held no appeal for me. I bet on horses because they and their riders are flesh and blood. I can identify with them as individuals, make a judgment about their chances, and for a few brief moments, as they race, I can feel a sense of mini-ownership.

This weekend, of course, is normally the biggest betting event of the year, with the world’s greatest jumping handicap at Aintree, and those who are suffering deep withdrawal pains might like to console themselves with Anne Holland’s latest book The Grand National(Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20), a well organised and cheerily anecdotal volume that celebrates the great race by concentrating on the record-breakers: the longest-priced winners, the youngest and the oldest, the luckiest winners and unluckiest losers (a title which for me will always be held by Crisp who, carrying 12 stone and after giving the most electrifying display of jumping ever seen at Aintree, was passed in the shadow of the post by Red Rum, carrying a mere 10st 5lb). Red Rum, of course, went on to win again in 1974 and 1977. This year little Tiger Roll, successful in 2018 and 2019, was favourite to better that by winning three Nationals in a row. Now trainer Gordon Elliott is aiming him at the 2021 Grand National when he will be 11. An impossible dream? Not really. Recently, Neptune Collonges, Auroras Encore and Pineau De Re have all won at that age.

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