Thursday, 4 September 2014

Gone to the Dogs?

No sooner does the 2014 racing season finish at Cartmel, than we find ourselves deep in the midst of planning for 2015. Sadly we can’t just schedule fixtures when we feel like it; we have to work with the rest of the racing industry to identify appropriate slots in a process which is administered by the British Horseracing Authority.

The process is usually subject to a large degree of confidentiality, so it is interesting that this year’s negotiations have already generated several furlongs of media coverage. First Warwick Racecourse announced their abandonment of Flat racing, then Towcester Racecourse released the news that they were going to stage less horseracing and more dog-racing – prompting the headline that racing has "Gone To The Dogs".

Now, I love greyhounds and dog racing can be a lot of fun, but the term dog-racing is often used in a derogatory sense to describe horseracing on all-weather surfaces. So it is ironic, as far as that headline is concerned, that the biggest fixture related story is the BHA’s decision to effectively turn down an application from Newcastle Racecourse to stage all-weather racing next year.

Most horses that race on all-weather tracks also race on turf tracks - the spectacle is much the same. But, for a variety of reasons, all-weather racing just isn’t as popular. The fixtures attract much smaller crowds and lack atmosphere. If you have an aversion to crowds and have been missing the horses, an afternoon at Lingfield Park or Southwell is the trip for you. At Wolverhampton and Kempton, they stage evening racing under floodlights – and it was this factor that accounted for Newcastle’s recent reverse with the BHA.

The plans for the Newcastle development included floodlights on just one mile of the track. Crucially, rule 26.1 of the Rules of Racing requires that each fixture must include at least two races with an aggregate distance of at least 2½ miles – so the racecourse would have been unable to comply. The BHA considered granting an exemption to the rule but decided against – stimulating an outburst from the racecourse’s owners who felt frustrated by the timing of the decision.

The fact is that most racing professionals are in favour of developing an all-weather track in the North. The main concerns revolve, not around the distance of the races, but the location of the track, it’s suitability and the facilities that will be lost as a result. The existing turf track at Newcastle is very highly regarded and modern trainers are now appropriately fussy about such things. It is more than 25 years since Jean Campbell, successful with Certain Light in the Cheltenham Foxhunters Steeplechase, told reporters that she had the most fantastic all-weather gallop – a muddy field at the back of her dairy farm in Kent, where Certain Light went out whatever the weather.

While Newcastle’s owners have pledged to press ahead with their plans for 2016, they are likely to face a rival (favoured by some) in the shape of a proposed development at Catterick. It seems likely that one or both will provide additional action for owners and trainers in the North within the next two years. This will help to stimulate more ownership in the North and more equestrian enterprises – so despite being somewhat removed from our own product, the all-weather development could well generate benefits for Cartmel in the future. In the meantime, we continue to negotiate for improvements to our own fixture list and anticipate publication by the BHA in mid-October. 

This week’s selection: Hawkeyethenoo, who has run well on the all-weather at Lingfield, but goes this Saturday to compete on turf at Ascot.

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