The Jockey Club cared about our sport’s rich history

I’m not sure the same applies to Great British Racing more »

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Feature columnist

I suppose it’s a bit late now to be insisting that the Derby should be run on a Wednesday. That argument was lost 20 years ago, and since 1995 the sport’s most fabled and historic event has been run on a Saturday, invariably having to compete with Test cricket and, every other year, with the finals of football’s World or European Cup.

In its traditional Wednesday slot it always held sway, dominating sports coverage in the media, a precious asset recklessly thrown away by the switch to the busiest sporting day of the week. And that move can now be seen as the thin end of a wedge that has led to further follies. If the traditionalists could be defeated over an issue affecting the nation’s premier prize, we were always going to be vulnerable whenever misguided self-styled progressives chose to stick their noses in areas where they did not belong.

And that is precisely what has occurred. The Jockey Club was not always everyone’s favourite institution, and there were occasions when we could echo George Wigg’s assertion that it resembled ‘a well-kept veteran car.’ The membership then (1969) included its quota of fuddy-duddies who seemed reluctant to move with the times, but they were at least lovers of the horse and of racing, jealous and proud of their centuries’ long stewardship of the sport. They meant well, and sometimes even did well.

It came as quite a shock when the Jockey Club abdicated the role that it had filled for so long and morphed into an estate management company, and we should have feared the worst when marketing men with no background in racing, no understanding of the horse and no respect for the history and heritage of the sport came to occupy positions of power. They have shown a depressing capacity for fixing what was not broken.

We were told that there was no clear narrative to the Flat season, and that changes were necessary. That assertion had to come from somebody with zero knowledge of the sport, as there had been a readily recognised pattern to the racing year for close on 200 years, and recent innovations, such as Sunday racing and competition on all-weather surfaces, had done nothing to disturb it.

Nothing about the time-honoured system was more easily understood than the method of determining the champion jockey

And nothing about the time-honoured system was more easily understood than the method of determining the champion jockey. A five-year-old child would not need telling twice that the champion was the fellow who rode the most winners during the season. That was too easy for the chaps from Racing For Change. In defiance of all logic and common sense, they chose to ignore all that took place before the first turf races were run and everything that came after the last races on turf.

They couldn’t have devised anything more absurd. One year we had the ludicrous spectacle of Kieren Fallon anointing Frankie Dettori champion although he had actually ridden more winners than the Italian. The season when Seb Sanders and Jamie Spencer shared the title did no favours for the former, who was the true winner by a wide margin. And last year Richard Hughes was lauded for having won his first championship, riding 11 fewer winners than Joe Fanning.

Fact or fiction?
Now we hear word that Great British Racing, the re-branded Racing For Change, are not entirely happy with their system. Nor should they be. But can we believe that they are going to revert to what is factual? My money is on their instituting another fictional version, which will probably identify another bogus champion.

Who cares? I haven’t noticed any uproar about this nonsense, so maybe I’m in a minority of one, considering this a serious issue. Isn’t it a matter of some concern that the official record is clearly inaccurate, nothing short of a blatant lie? The media deserve censure for being a party to the lie, giving it credibility and misleading the public.

Of course, the most controversial aspect of all the changes implemented in recent years was the removal of the Champion Stakes from its natural and traditional home over the straight ten furlongs of the Rowley Mile course in Newmarket, where for over 130 years it provided a test unique in the world of racing, and its transfer to a right-handed course with a short straight, thus completely changing its character.

I find it incredible that Newmarket actually colluded with the thieves, but if, as is supposed, it was given no option, it should at the very least have insisted that Ascot found a different title for its mile and a quarter event. The Champion Stakes ceased to exist after 2010 and should have been laid to rest in its historic home.

In exchange for allowing the daylight robbery of the finest jewel in its crown by those apparently conspiring in addition to loot its centuries-old designation as the headquarters of racing, and promote Ascot internationally in its stead, Newmarket was given a number of races it neither wanted nor needed, and, in the guise of Future Champions’ Day, a card on which it was to present four juvenile Pattern races. Ridiculously, two of them were the Middle Park and Dewhurst Stakes, the six-furlong and seven-furlong championship tests formerly separated by two weeks and now to be contested on the same afternoon.

Whoever thought that was a bright idea needed to see a shrink, but we have now suffered that lunacy three times and it’s going to happen again in 2014, when another cock-eyed notion is to become a reality.

The first two editions of Ascot’s British Champions’ Day were blessed by Frankel and agreeable weather; the third remains a few days away as I pen these thoughts, with the expected cast of equine characters somewhat underwhelming, the turf rain-sodden and an autumnal nip in the air. The safest bet for the meeting is a significantly lower attendance than in 2012.

After three years in which Newmarket’s Future Champions’ Day has preceded the Ascot occasion by a week, there is to be a new format in 2014, and the arrangement is one that came under fierce attack as soon as it was announced. That was hardly surprising, because the plan to stage the events on consecutive days, on the Rowley Mile on Friday and at Ascot on Saturday strikes me as less than half-baked; quarter-baked, perhaps.

When I suggested that there seemed to be a move towards marketing Ascot, rather than Newmarket, as the headquarters of British racing, you probably didn’t take me seriously. Think on it. After Friday on the Rowley Mile turns out to be a damp squib next year, as it undoubtedly will, the wreckers will be wanting to have the whole show at Ascot in 2015.

What kind of media coverage is Future Champions’ Day going to get as a Friday fixture? Do these people ever consult anyone who might have an inkling? The public doesn’t like change. It likes continuity, knowing how things are going to be year on year, the way things were in racing for centuries.

If there was an argument in favour of consecutive days – and there isn’t, given that the courses are 100 miles apart and few people will care to attend both – anybody bar a GBR marketing man would see that the only (slim) chance of it working would be for Saturday and Sunday.

I despair.

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About Tony Morris

Feature columnist

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