If I were to tell you that British racing was the straightest sport in the world you’d probably yawn and turn over the page. If I were to say that every trainer in Britain is trying to manipulate the form book and pull a fast-one on either the handicapper, the bookmakers or both, you might be interested – especially if I hinted that I could let you in on a secret or two…
While the health of the racing industry depends hugely on the integrity of the action, there is also great appeal to be found in stories of intricate plotting, clever deceptions and even skulduggery.
Each year the racing industry spends £16.5 million on essential services that ensure the sport remains clean. The horseracing forensic laboratory is a world leader in anti-doping technology; a network of cameras ensures that any incident on the track can be examined from a variety of angles. Thoroughbreds are routinely micro-chipped to ensure that the horse which appears in the Parade Ring really is the one whose name appears in the racecard. The rules state that every horse must “run on its merits to achieve the best possible placing” and a dedicated team of Stewards ensure that this is the case.
However, just because a horse is trying its hardest, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is running in the most suitable race. This is the grey area of the sport that keeps enthusiasts transfixed every day as they try to spot runners which have been “laid out” for a bigger occasion.
Last Sunday at Musselburgh we witnessed the useful chaser Divers finish third in a handicap hurdle. The fact is that Divers has an attractive handicap mark over fences – one that can’t be altered by this promising performance over the smaller obstacles, which will have put him spot on in terms of fitness for the big day (which will be at Cheltenham in mid-March).
This weekend, the Grand National winner Ballabriggs is also set to appear over hurdles. The weights for the Grand National won’t be published for a few more days, so why risk being raised a few pounds now? Meanwhile, connections of another Grand National entry, Little Josh, are doing the exact opposite. Despite a high rating over shorter distances, he will only qualify to run in the National if he has finished third or better in a steeplechase over 3 miles or more – expect to see him being ridden strongly to achieve this placing.
As for the weekend winners? Paul Nicholls traditionally targets this Newbury meeting and has won the Denman Chase in five of the last ten years. I expect Silviniaco Conti to do the trick for him again on Saturday – and no funny business!