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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Feature columnist

We had to expect that the British racing scene in 2013 would not match its immediate predecessors. It was always going to have an ‘after the Lord Mayor’s show’ feel about it, if only because after three seasons when we were blessed with Frankel he was now going to be an absentee.

We naturally hoped there would be some compensating factors, but now that the season is history, what can we look back on to remember 2013 for? The quality of the sport was average – from the perspective of British-trained horses, rather below average – and it was the gloomy news that dominated.

The loss of Sir Henry Cecil, undoubtedly one of the greatest trainers of our era, united the sport in grief, and the steroid scandals involving two other prominent members of that profession showed racing in an appalling light.

We had watched the damage done to other sports by evidence of corrupt practices, but if we imagined we were entitled to adopt a ‘holier than thou’ attitude, 2013 told us that we were sorely mistaken.

The revelation that one of the miscreants trained for the hugely respected Godolphin operation came as a bombshell, ensuring that it would attract the widest publicity in every form of media. Racing was off the sports pages, instead filling countless column inches on the news pages. Our game was no cleaner than athletics, cycling, tennis or any of the other sports in which abuse had been detected. (Incidentally, some months after that story erupted, Facebook asked me whether I would care to become a friend of Mahmood Al Zarooni, as we had three friends in common. I declined, but I couldn’t help wondering about the identities of that trio.)

Of course, we have to hope that the severe sentences handed down in the cases of Al Zarooni and Gerard Butler have the desired effect of deterring others from adopting corrupt methods in order to gain an edge – and that the authorities become ever more vigilant in policing the sport. Racing can ill afford to suffer further instances of such wrongdoing.

Longchamp’s Arc weekend is now so well established as Europe’s autumn championship that imitations such as those planned for Newmarket/Ascot and in Ireland in 2014 can hardly hope to compete

The year was by no means all bad for Godolphin, whose five-year-old Farhh notched Group 1 victories in both his starts and probably put up the best performance on a British racecourse when accounting for Cirrus Des Aigles in the Champion Stakes. An admirable athlete, who overcame more than his share of problems in training, he proved equally effective over a mile and a mile and a quarter, though it was hard to forget that he had suffered comprehensive defeats by Frankel at both distances in 2012.

Farhh certainly looked good in his autumn outing at Ascot, though many might argue that the visually more impressive display by Novellist over the same course in midsummer was an equally fine performance. The four-year-old son of Monsun, previously unproven on a surface faster than good, positively revelled on the firm ground in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, trouncing his field by five lengths and more while lowering the course record. It was desperately disappointing that the German-trained colt had to miss the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, in which he would surely have proved a worthy foe for Treve.

Longchamp’s Arc weekend is now so well established as Europe’s autumn championship that imitations such as those planned for Newmarket/Ascot and in Ireland – featuring ten pattern events – in 2014 can hardly hope to compete. Britain and Ireland shouldn’t even try. The European Pattern is a partnership of nations and trying to score points off one another is not what it’s supposed to be about.

Okay, so the French did pull a fast one when they decided to concentrate so many important events into their two-day festival, but they have made a magnificent job of it. We Brits know how good it is, not least because in 2013 our stables came away from Arc weekend with nothing.

As mentioned above, an Arc de Triomphe without Europe’s best colt at the distance was a shame, but it would be hard to take anything away from Treve, the three-year-old Motivator filly who defended her unbeaten record and more than confirmed her brilliance in her first start in open-sex company. It was a display that asserted her right to rank alongside the likes of Zarkava and Allez France and automatically earned her the accolade of Europe’s Horse of the Year.

Females proved deadlier than males
It is good news that Treve remains in training and it will be interesting to see whether her connections will be tempted to bring her under the gaze of British racegoers. That would be a thrill, though the French programme is such that it would not be a requirement.

No sooner had Thierry Jarnet enjoyed sharing in Treve’s outstanding triumph than he teamed up with another female deadlier than the males in the Prix de la Foret. We knew Moonlight Cloud was good and expected her to win, but to see her come from last of ten to scorch past all her rivals in the space of a furlong and register a three-length victory was nothing short of sensational.

Moonlight Cloud had a counterpart in England in the shape of The Fugue, whose wins in the Yorkshire Oaks and Irish Champion Stakes stamped her as the best older filly on this side of the Channel. Sadly, and unluckily, she proved unable to end her year with a triumph in Hong Kong, where Moonlight Cloud also failed to fire and England’s top three-year-old filly Sky Lantern finished stone last. Those December targets are daunting for horses that have endured a long season in Europe.

All of the English colts’ Classics were exported to Ireland, the Guineas to Jim Bolger’s Dawn Approach, the Derby and the St Leger to Aidan O’Brien’s Ruler Of The World and Leading Light. Could we call any of them better than average winners of those races? No. One surprising and – for me – disappointing feature of the Classics was that Newmarket stables achieved nothing better than a solitary placing. That was The Lark’s effort as third in the Oaks. Was there ever a poorer return for HQ yards? Not in the last 150 years, I would guess.

Two-year-old racing rarely manages to quicken my pulse, given that adolescents who excel in all sports frequently fail to confirm their promise in maturity. Naming the best that we saw in England would not be easy, especially as the three who impressed me most indicated different qualities and seem unlikely ever to meet. The American No Nay Never might well prove to be a crack sprinter, while Toormore appears to have the makings of a top miler, and Kingston Hill showed abundant promise for a prospective middle-distance performer.

Toormore will have a new trainer in 2014, though without changing stables. The senior Richard Hannon bowed out as champion at the end of another fabulous season, so the junior version has a hard act to follow, but one can only imagine a smooth transition and no interruption to the regular flow of winners from the Wiltshire establishment.

As notable as anything that happened on Europe’s racecourses in 2013 was the boom in bloodstock prices. We have seen it so often in the past and it seems to defy logic, but when stockmarkets prove volatile and discourage investment, the thoroughbred becomes a more valuable commodity. Many might feel that there could hardly be a riskier form of investment, but who could doubt that there is more fun in owning a racehorse than a portfolio of shares? Long may that attraction persist.

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About Tony Morris

Feature columnist

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