Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Yesterday once more

Another week, another round of entries.  Two entrants last week, two runners: both Hope Is High and Das Kapital ran adequately to finish midfield at Newmarket's Thursday evening meeting on the Rowley Mile.  This week we have three entrants and I hope that all three will run.  If you just read the Racing Post's (or anyone else's) list of entries, you'd think that we only had two entrants: Kryptos and Hope Is High at Chester on Saturday.  Hope isn't certain to get in, but I hope that both will run, ridden by Nicola.  Not that you'd know it, but we do, though, have another entry: Roy in the Air Ambulance Charity Race at Warwick tomorrow.  That will be a special occasion.

The background to this runner goes back a long way.  The win which gave me the confidence to have a stab at training was when Witchway North, trained in this stable by Hugh Collingridge, gave me my first winner as an owner when taking a selling hurdle at Fontwell at 50/1 in February 1994.  I was working for Mr Yong Nam Sen at Wood Ditton Stud at the time and used to ride the filly out every morning before going to work.  That was a wonderful day, a heart-stoppingly exciting moment as she overhauled the Martin Pipe-trained, Richard Dunwoody-ridden 5/4 favourite in the dying strides on her National Hunt debut, having shown nothing on the Flat.

She was ridden that day by my friend Vince Smith, who used to ride Flat and National Hunt.  Vince rode around 250 winners, probably more than half of them in Jersey where he was champion jockey many times.  He rode me another 50/1 winner in 1997 when Supreme Illusion, whom I both owned and trained, won a claiming hurdle at Plumpton.  He retired from race-riding early this century and then trained for a few years, saddling a Group winner when Blitzkrieg beat Dylan Thomas in the Autumn Stakes (run at Salisbury as Ascot was being re-built) in 2005.

Vince is now Victoria.  When I found out that Victoria, having ridden all those winners as a man, hoped to have the chance to try to ride a winner as a woman, I contacted her to say that I would love to help if I could.  The upshot is that we're heading to Warwick tomorrow.  Victoria is a year older than I am so taking out a professional jockey's license again after such a long absence wasn't a realistic option, so a charity race is the obvious way forward.  Happily and unsurprisingly, Roy's owner Larry McCarthy is very much on board for this project, so let's hope for a very happy day tomorrow.

I don't want to labour the point, but it's probably worth adding a final couple of paragraphs to this chapter by saying that one very pleasing aspect of Vicky's transition is how well she has been accepted by those around her in the racing world - much more so, apparently, than is generally the case for transgender people in pretty much any other environment or walk of life.  For me there was no decision to take: when you have known, liked and respected a friend for as long as I have in this case, it would need a lot more than this to make me change my opinion of the person (murder, maybe; or dropping litter; or just anything illegal or anything which does harm to others.  But not something as inoffensive as this).

Happily this seems to have been the case for most of Vicky's friends and acquaintances, which is very pleasing as we're always told that the racing world isn't a very tolerant, caring or liberal one.  This suggests that the general impression is not a correct one.  I suppose this whole thing goes back to one of my basic philosophies of how to live life: never be ashamed to admit that one is a human being.  We're not robots. We're human beings, and being human is normal.  Being human means having feelings and emotions.  Refusing to admit, to oneself and to others, that one feels the way one does, that one is a human and not a robot, because feels that society would expect one not to feel that way is rarely the way forward.  I am at least as proud to call Vicky a friend as I was formerly proud to say the same about Vince.
Sunday, May 20, 2018

Gone, but never forgotten

I can't believe this.  I'd been going on about the Royal Wedding, and saying that I hadn't been this excited about a wedding since Prince Charles got married the first time.  Anyway, what happened?  I didn't see it!  Well, I saw some of it, but only as far as the first hymn.  That was a debacle, but what's done is done.  And I'm sure that I'll be able to rectify at least some of the omission.  I'm told that it's London to a brick on that the American preacher's stint in the spotlight will be on Youtube.  So that's been the excitement of the weekend: the Royal Wedding.  (Post-script: I've now read the text of Reverend Curry's sermon on the internet.  Very good indeed.  All you need is love).

It isn't, though, 100% true that I wasn't this excited about a wedding between 1981 and 2018 because I did attend a few in the interim which I enjoyed.  (Including, of course, two of my own).  As things happen, I've been thinking a lot about one very special wedding over the past couple of days.  In August 2012 I was blessed to attend the wedding at the Curragh of two of the nicest people I know, Wayne and Lisa Smith.  (Lisa, nee Jones, was a huge help to us when she was apprenticed to my neighbour Willie Musson, including riding several winners for us, including one in my own colours, Sangita at Warwick in September 2002, led in by Cliff Rimmer in this Les Hurley photograph).

What has brought that occasion to mind, sadly, has been the death of Joe Byrne, who passed away during week.  I treasure my memory of meeting him there and enjoying his company during the reception in the evening.  No one could have been more friendly, and I count myself fortunate to have made his acquaintance on that very special occasion.  It happens that Joe was one of four men who helped to make that weekend very special for me who have passed away in the past year; and I would like to use this chapter to pay a brief tribute to them.

Arriving at the church ahead of the wedding was slightly daunting as I knew that I wouldn't know many people there.  (Although it wasn't daunting once I'd arrived as it was such a friendly crew, with Wayne leading from the front: he seemed to spend his wedding day with one priority in his mind, ie to ensure that his and Lisa's guests were made welcome and enjoyed themselves, even to extent of ensuring as the night went on that everyone was organised for getting home safely.  That really is the mark of a man of the highest calibre).

However, one of the first people whom I bumped into was someone who had also travelled over from Newmarket: Peter Boothman, formerly one of Ireland's leading riders (after having been Britain's champion apprentice of 1958) who then spent his final years before retirement riding out first for Gavin Pritchard-Gordon and finally Ed Dunlop.  Having chatted with Peter before the service, I then had the pleasure of spending time with two more champion riders.  Firstly I found myself sitting next to Johnny Roe during the service; and then I was delighted to meet Joe Byrne at the reception.  (The photograph which illustrates this paragraph shows them both enjoying the evening together).

It was rather nice as Johnny Roe didn't expect me to know who he was, bearing in mind that he had retired from race-riding in the mid-'70s, so seemed pleasantly surprised that I recognised and quite clearly admired and respected him.  And Joe Byrne's surprise was my recollection of having seen him ride a double (an occasion which he too remembered) at a National Hunt meeting at Ayr in the late '70s when a Northern Irish trainer (I think it was Jeremy Maxwell) sent two horses over to Scotland (one was called Going Straight; I can't remember the name of the other) and they both won.

Anyway, my happy memories of that very special occasion include how delighted and honoured I was to make the acquaintance and then enjoy the company that day/night of these two great men.  Sadly, both now have passed on, as has Peter Boothman.  And sadly too has my host for the weekend: I was lucky enough to stay with (and be welcomed royally by) Vivian and Kathleen Kennedy, patriarch and matriarch of one of the best families in racing, two of whose members (their son William Kennedy and their grandson Jamie Insole) have ridden over jumps for us.  Vivian, of course, died last year - and his friend, neighbour and former colleague T. P. Burns, whom I idolised but sadly never met, is another to have passed away this month.

There are some chapters of this blog in which I discuss racing's big current issues, political or otherwise. And there are some in which I look inwards, giving an overview of the state of play in this stable.  And there are some which follow on from topics recently aired in previous chapters.  And there are some which are just silly.  This chapter doesn't fall into any of those categories.  But it's here because I generally write about whatever is in my mind - and I'm doing that here.  What has been in my mind the past couple of days, since reading of Joe Byrne's death, is how lucky I was to have met him, how much I liked and respected him, and how sad I was to read of his passing.  I wanted to pay my respects, to him and to some of the other great racing men whom we have lost and whom I have also been thinking about this week. Gone, maybe; but never forgotten.
Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Hoping for a turn-up or two

Only two entries this week but, unless something goes wrong in the next 23 hours, they'll both run: Hope Is High and Das Kapital in consecutive races at Newmarket tomorrow evening.  Hope is in the 12-furlong handicap which Indira won two years ago, while Das Kapital is in a 10-furlong maiden.  He's a nice horse, but he was beaten a long way on debut at the end of last month, and he's up against some more real blue-bloods tomorrow (although at least the most blue-blooded of all the many patrician entries, the Frankel half-brother to Kingman, doesn't run).  Consequently it's hard to envisage him making the frame, although he'll obviously be doing his best and I'd love for the form-book to be proved wrong.

I'd also love for the form-book to be proved wrong in Hope's race.  She obviously ought to some sort of chance of making the frame as she is generally competitive, but my reading of the book is that she's up against the best-handicapped horse in training, so all the horses bar the top weight might just be running for minor place-money.  It could well be that the handicapper is right and I am wrong, but the last time I looked at a race we were contesting and thought this was when Silken Thoughts was in a handicap at Sandown set to give a Godolphin handicap debutant 6lb - and I couldn't see how the horse was even eligible for the race.

The horse on that occasion had shown very smart maiden form (he had won a back-end Newmarket two-year-olds' maiden race as the 8/13 favourite by four and a half lengths on his previous start) and was bred to be a top-class middle-distance horse (being by Kingmambo from Irish Oaks winner Shawannda, by Sinndar).  I couldn't understand why he had been let in so lightly, and he did indeed win.  He was called Encke, and two months later he beat Camelot in the St Leger.  It looks as if we might be in a similar situation tomorrow.

Godolphin's handicap debutant tomorrow is a Teofilo half-brother to Red Cadeaux who won a maiden race at Newbury on debut last summer.  Most recently on his third run he was beaten a neck at level weights in a novices' race at Wolverhampton by Glencadam Glory.  Glencadam Glory is currently rated 110; this horse (White Desert) makes his handicap debut off a mark of 83.  Let's hope that his last run, as the handicapper clearly believes, either was a fluke or flatters him; or let's hope that he isn't able to reproduce the form tomorrow.  We'll see.  Whatever happens, Hope will do her best, and that's all one can ask.
Saturday, May 12, 2018

Saturday afternoon isn't alright for fighting

Well, hopefully we're homing in on the target.  Two runners this week: second and fourth.  Roy put in another typically sound Brighton performance when finishing second in a relatively competitive race.  The winner Esspeegee has now won six of his last seven races.  Ironically, three of those six wins have come over a mile and a half at Brighton, and we have finished second to him each time: twice with Kilim (beaten in a photo-finish each time) and now with Roy.  He won off 68 this week.  The two times he beat Kilim, he was racing off 45 and 50, which in retrospect emphasises that Kilim did indeed end her racing career in good form, bless her.

White Valiant ran a nice race.  Sort of.  He finished fourth, but beaten less than four lengths, and closing on the horses in front of him at the end.  That was good.  What was less good was his jumping.  He jumped very nicely in the first half of the race, but his jumping fell apart under pressure when he was getting tired.  The thing is that one doesn't replicate that, ie jumping when tired and jumping under real pressure, in practice at home, and they just have to learn in the heat of battle.

It was good that he ran well despite the bad jumping (his mistakes at the third last and last would have cost him more ground than he was beaten by) but bad that he made those mistakes.  Overall, though, it was promising.  As long as he learns from the experience (which he ought to have done) it suggests he can do better still in future, and it was very heartening that even so he kept running on bravely all the way to the line.  He's a little bit sorry for himself afterwards, not least because he picked up a few bumps and scrapes on his legs for hitting the hurdles, but should be ready to return to Fontwell early next month.

In the wider racing world we have had a couple of rather discomforting stories.  The first was the fracas at Goodwood last Saturday.  The film which has been circulated on the internet of part of the fight is pretty grim.  One would hope that it would be relatively straightforward for the police to apprehend the principal aggressor and then pretty straightforward for the CPS to put him away on a charge of attempted murder.  But that, of course, will only go a small way towards solving the recently-much-discussed problem of violence on the racecourse because he and his friends are not the only potential on-course assailants.

It is easy to go overboard on this one (as plenty of people have demonstrated over the past week) because violence on a racecourse is nothing new.  It's been happening since the early days, and the world hasn't yet stopped turning.  I have tried to find details on the internet but I can't because it's too far back and, of course, as far as Google is concerned, something doesn't exist if it happened before about 1996; but I am sure that I remember an incident roughly 30 years ago when a racegoer (called, I think, Keith Dance) was fatally stabbed in an altercation in the coach park after racing at the July Course.  And I am sure that we have had isolated violent incidents on busy summer racedays every year since then.

Going back farther, of course, I am sure that racecourses in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century were much more violent places than they are nowadays.  And I don't just mean Graham Greene's razor-gangs at Brighton.  But that's not our concern here: what we need to worry about is how to ensure that the Goodwood debacle doesn't keep being repeated.  Probably re-assessing the whole massive marketing campaign of racing being a 'great day out' might be the best way to start.  Of course the great-day-out crowd boost the gate and spend fortunes on the course, but they only do so occasionally.  And they arguably cost too much when they do so.

If a pub regularly becomes a site of alcohol-based violence, it has its license to sell alcohol revoked.  That could happen to a racecourse which regularly hosts punch-ups.  That would be a massive setback to the course and its finances.  One could say the same about one of the alternatives: employing an army of security guards to prevent violence would be really expensive.  Probably the easiest way to minimise the outbreak of drunken brawls might be to sell the sport as a sporting occasion, rather than a great day out (which in 21st-century parlance means an excuse to get drunk). Soccer is invariably sold as a spectator sport rather than a party, and plenty of people watch soccer even so.

This brings me back to something which stuck in my mind at the end of last year.  There was an article in the Racing Post in which someone (I can't remember if it was someone from the Racecourse Association or just a general marketing man) was patting us on the back on the basis that racing had supposedly been the second best attended spectator sport in Britain during 2017, behind soccer (of course).  This prompted a letter in the paper a few days later in which a reader observed that that is inaccurate: it wasn't the second best attended spectator sport, but the second best attended sport-related social gathering.  And that's right.

If you go to the races to watch racing, then you're a racegoer.  But if you go to the races for a party (which has racing in the background) you're not going as a race-goer but as someone who is attending a racing-related social occasion.  If that sounds stupid, think of this.  I have seen Paul Kelly singing live on four occasions: two in concert halls, one in a tent and one in a pub.  On all four occasions, in my mind I have been going to a concert.  When I saw him play in a pub in Cambridge, I didn't go to the pub for the evening: I went to a Paul Kelly concert.  In the same way, there would have been people in the pub that evening who weren't going to a concert, but going to the pub (and just happened to find that there was an Australian singing and plyaing his guitar in the background).  To count the latter as a concert-goer would be as silly as it would be to count someone who goes to the July Course because Paloma Faith (or whoever) is singing there that evening as a racegoer.

I would imagine that there is a pianist playing in the cocktail bar of the Ritz.  If I decide that the Ritz is a very pleasant place to meet some friends for drinks in the evening (its pleasantness enhanced by the live muzak in the background) I am not going to a piano-recital: I am meeting some friends in a bar for a drink (while a pianist tinkles in the background).  But if I and my friends love piano music and meet up in the bar in the Ritz so we can listen to the pianist, and we have a few drinks while we are there, then we've spent a very pleasant evening at a piano-recital.  Shouldn't we just be selling a day at the races as an outing in which watching the racing is king and all the other things are secondary to that?

Of course we should.  We found that out, by pure coincidence, in the Racing Post this week.  This was not connected to the Goodwood incident, but by chance there was an article in which Simon Bazalgette, on behalf of Jockey Club Racecourses, ruminated on what he sees as the way forward (or, rather, what the way forward ought to be).  His ruminations, most of which were pure common sense, were summed up perfectly in the opening sentence (written by Bill Barber, who generally hits the nail absolutely slap-bang on the head when reviewing the state of the racing nation): "Racing needs to seize an opportunity to invest in engaging and converting casual racegoers into committed fans of the sport."

Easy, isn't it?  If that can be done, then we'd be well on the way to solving most of our problems.  How to do it is the hard one.  But selling a day at the races as a trip to a sporting occasion rather than as a 'great day out', as a racemeeting rather than a 'beer festival' or whatever other guises one sees being used at various times of the year, would be a start.  After all, it isn't difficult to love racing as the most wonderful sport: we're not very bright and we manage to do it, and if we can manage it then anyone can.

The other 'issue' to catch my eye was the so-called civil war within the BHA Board.  It was hard to take anything out of the article at all, beyond thinking, "This is nonsense".  It was hard to see that Steve Harman's alleged misdemeanours, as described in the paper, amounted to much of an offence at all; easy to see the affair as Storminateacupgate.  There was one worrying thing, though: the BHA responded by saying that the article didn't tell the story correctly, but it couldn't comment as the Board was (correctly) maintaining "strict confidentiality as any organisation should when dealing with a complaint over a matter of conduct concerning one of its own people".

That's all well and good - except that the BHA Board can't be maintaining strict confidentiality, can it?  If it were, then the Racing Post wouldn't have had any clue that anything was going on.  There had to have been a breach of confidentiality for even a whiff of this to have reached the press.  It might be more worthwhile for the BHA Board to be investigating the leak rather than investigating Steve Harman's conduct.  When I read the Racing Post's report of his supposed misconduct, I wasn't concerned; but it does make me uneasy to find that the BHA Board believes itself to be holding an internal investigation in strict confidentiality, while the Racing Post is carrying a report of that investigation.
Monday, May 07, 2018

Busy - but warm, so that's good

There are never enough hours in the day.  I'm starting to write this chapter at 8.15, and in an ideal world I'd be going to bed around now.  But I must just jot down a few lines because we have racedays tomorrow and Wednesday, so we should just bring things up to date.  But I'll try to be brief.  If I can succeed, that'll be a double blessing: good for me and good for you too.  Roy at Brighton tomorrow shall be our fourth runner of the turf season; White Valiant at Fontwell on Wednesday shall be our fifth.  I'm actually not unhappy with how the season has gone so far, in as much as it can be said to have gone anywhere, with only three runners in the first six weeks or so.

I probably ought to be unhappy because of the three runners, one has finished last and two have finished second last.  So I suppose all that we have learned so far is that I'm too easily pleased (which we knew anyway).  Hope Is High at Chepstow on Friday was the third runner.  She finished second last (ie fifth of six) but that was OK.  Her best form is on faster (it was funny ground, typical drying spring ground and not at all like the very wet good to soft ground which she had disliked on a previous occasion - this time the horses came back with not a speck of mud on them, but in a very slow time) but she ran OK.  Second, third, fourth and fifth all finished fairly close together, so as she was racing off a rating 5lb higher than she has ever won off (and was running for the first time since September) one couldn't call it a bad run.

There might be an argument to say that I should have reported that she was unsuited by the ground; but I didn't.  I never really like doing so.  I don't see that that's the trainer's job: the only person who can tell whether a horse is or isn't suited by the ground is the jockey, not the trainer.  The trainer is only watching the horse, just like everyone else.  I report things which the trainer can know, eg coughing afterwards, lame the next day etc.  The last time that I reported that a horse had been unsuited by the ground, the stewards didn't accept the submission anyway.

On that occasion, I said it about a horse who was racing on 'good' ground whose best form was all on 'good' ground.  When I made the point that the ground that day was bad rather than good, and that it was nothing like the good ground on which the horse had previously won, the stewards (correctly) pointed out that it would only make things too confusing if they started publishing reports that proven good-ground horses were running badly because they couldn't handle "good" ground.  So it's easier just to decide (correctly) that this is out of my orbit.  Especially if, as was the case with Hope Is High, the horse has run well anyway.

(The Racing Post rating which she recorded on Friday, 75, is the second highest she has ever recorded; and she has run 17 times.  That figure is higher than than that which she has recorded on four of her five wins.  So it would have been absurd for me to report that she had run disappointingly because she was unsuited by the ground.  But - and we'll whisper this quietly because it's just between you and me - she wasn't really suited by the ground.  But she still ran well, so that's good - despite the fact that she finished second last.)

Anyway, we're off to Brighton with Roy and to Fontwell with White Valiant.  I'd be disappointed if at least one of them didn't do better than finish second last.  I hope that both will do better than that.  But disappointment is a regular travelling companion so we won't take anything for granted.  And we won't be complaining anyway because the weather is really lovely, and the world's generally good when the sun's shining, which it has been for three glorious days now.  We have other topics to cover too, of course, most notably Goodwood Racecourse becoming a war-zone on Saturday; but that can wait until I'm less tired and less short of time.  So we'll just content ourselves in this chapter with our two standard subjects: runners and the weather.