Thursday, 23 February 2017

For the Love of the Sport

Tell me that you’re an amateur musician and I might (politely) decline to see your show; tell me that you’re a professional dancer and I probably won’t be permitted to see your show. There’s a prejudicial assumption that amateurism stands for not-very-good, whereas professionalism is all about the unseemly chasing of money.
The word amateur is derived from the French word meaning ‘one who loves’ or ‘lover’ – which in turn comes from the Latin word ‘Amator’. So an amateur jockey is someone who participates in horse races because they love the sport, but without pursuing it for financial gain – which, in my experience, is a bit like most punters.
Amateur jockeys can ride against professionals if they wish, although they’re not entitled to a share of the prize money if they win (this rule doesn’t affect the owner of the horse or the trainer – who get their usual share of the spoils). There are also a number of races which are restricted to amateurs and some (called Hunter Chases) which are perceived to be for amateur horses.
So how do we define an amateur horse - is it a four-legged beast that loves horses so much that it wants to gallop for 3 miles over obstacles? Or is it a horse which declines any reward, barring the odd carrot, for winning? It’s difficult to say because, for the time being, professional racehorse trainers are allowed to enter any horse in their yard in a Hunter Chase as long as it has taken a defined break from racing in ‘normal' races under 'rules’. The break might only be a couple of months - or up to a year for the winner of a Class 1 or 2 race.
The entry criteria for Hunter Chases has caused a bit of chatter in recent weeks, particularly in the north following Wonderful Charm’s victories at Musselburgh on 4th February and Haydock a fortnight later. Wonderful Charm is a 153-rated chaser trained by Paul Nicholls and, having been campaigned at graded level until last season, is now qualified to run in the amateur riders equivalent of the Gold Cup: The Cheltenham Foxhunters’ Steeplechase. Is it in the spirit of the sport, ask some of the grass-roots jumping folk, that a top-trainer like Paul Nicholls can enter horses in the amateur sphere?
But there are difficulties in ruling against horses like Wonderful Charm. Firstly, if he had changed hands and entered an ‘amateur’ yard, would there be any objection to the horse competing in Hunter Chases? And then, what if he stayed in the yard, but was sold to an enthusiastic owner-rider – like the Nicholls trained Mon Parrain, who’s entered for a Hunter Chase at Fontwell Park on Sunday. Isn’t it a good thing for amateur riders to have professional mentors to guide them on their way? I think it was the right approach for Victoria Pendleton - and she definitely qualified as an amateur jockey, despite her professionalism on the saddle of a bike.
Hunter Chases and Point-to-Points are recognised as providing valuable experience for both young riders and promising young horses. It’s usually considered better if they aren’t paired together – young riders are often mounted on older horses, sometimes referred to as school-masters, many of which have previously shown reliable form under ‘rules’. Somehow, it therefore seemed appropriate that the brothers Sam and Willie Twiston-Davies (both now successful professional jockeys) started their careers riding as amateurs on the same reliable horse – the fantastic (but not top class) Baby Run, who was of course trained by their Gold Cup winning father.
It’s difficult to write rules that cater for the spirit of the sport. However, having listened to several respected people that know and love the sport (Amo, Amas, Amat - I love, you love, he /she loves), I think there should be a new rule whereby every horse that runs in a Hunter Chase has to run in at least two Point-to-Points first. Once the horse is qualified one season, it should be able to continue running in Hunter Chases in subsequent seasons – unless it has a run under ‘rules’, in which case it should have to qualify once again.
Regardless of the rules, there are some reassuring statistics for defenders of the Corinthian spirit: in the last five years, just three professionally trained horses have made it into the top four placed horses in the Cheltenham Foxhunters Steeplechase and there have been no professionally trained winners – which suggests that, in racing, love really does (usually) conquer all.
This week’s selection is The Dutchman at Newcastle on Saturday.

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Revealing All - at the Grand National Weights Reception

First of all, an apology: If this column seems a bit all over the place it’s probably because I’ve lost track of where I am, having moved house earlier in the week. I’m taking consolation from the fact that I’m not the only one that’s found a new home – with the Randox Health Aintree Grand National weights being revealed this week, for the first time, at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.

It is an inspirational venue – the World’s leading museum of art and design – a fitting place to reveal the creative endeavours of the BHA’s senior handicapper Phil Smith. It’s also currently home to a highly informative exhibition entitled ‘Undressed – a brief history of underwear’. Which means that early arrivals at the drinks reception had the option of viewing items as diverse as bloomers worn by Queen Victoria’s mother and a pair of ‘butt-lifters’ designed to bestow the bum of Kim Kardashian on any wearer. Apparently pairs of Queen Victoria’s knickers sell for sums of between £600 and £12,000, which seems like quite a lot of money until you realise that some of them can be re-purposed as marquee linings.
All is revealed at the
Victoria & Albert Museum

I’m not certain whether the exhibition features any displays of jockeys wearing tights, as most of them do beneath their breeches. However, there is a ‘waist belt’ constructed from a fine mesh of metal wires, designed to help Victorian men keep a straight spine whilst on horseback – a forerunner, perhaps, to modern day back-protectors.

But I wouldn’t want you thinking that everything at the Victoria & Albert Museum is pants – Tuesday night’s event featured a host of knowledgeable guests with lots of interesting information about the World’s most famous race. Unfortunately, it turns out that you can take the Grand National out of Liverpool, but you can’t take Liverpool out of the Grand National Weights Announcement – hence the fact that most of the interviews were drowned out by the lively banter of booze-quaffing attendees.

I wasn’t invited to the drinks reception, but I do know someone who is very knowledgeable about pants – who happened to be visiting the museum earlier this week. She thinks that she might have overheard some interesting conversations which haven’t been reported in the racing media. Apparently there was a girl with an Irish accent who said she’d like 'more of that'. It's possible that she could have been looking at one of the photographs of male underwear models, or it might have been Katie Walsh (likely to be on board Foxrock) commenting on Jonjo O’Neill’s More Of That, who has been allocated just 11st 1lb.

There was also a man in a duffle coat, who might have been Nigel Twiston-Davies or possibly just one of your common-all-garden museum-goers. Either way he’s reported as having said "If Blaklion doesn’t win the National Trial this weekend, I’ll eat my pants." Blaklion is our selection for Saturday’s meeting at Haydock and is another who could be of great interest at Aintree in April.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Man's Best Friend & Punters' Pal

Dogs are way better than cats. It's been proved on every continent on the planet. After all, I don't think anyone has ever said, "I've got a good idea - let's rope a bunch of cats together and see if they can pull this sleigh to the North Pole."

Now it has been proven that dogs are able to make moral judgements about our friends. According to scientists from Kyoto University in Japan, dogs show a 'highly developed social competence'. A report in The Times, explained that 54 dog owners had been given a task in which they pretended to struggle to open a container. An actor was then employed to enter the room and either help the dog owner or ignore them. The dog was then offered two treats - by the actor and another stranger simultaneously.
Apparently most dogs took the treat from the actor if he had assisted the owner - or took it from the other (neutral) stranger if the owner had been ignored. No dogs were fool enough to decline the treats altogether, which just goes to show how important it is to offer biscuits at every available tea-break. Preferably chocolate digestives if you're visiting my office.
To test the theory further, I've allowed my dogs access to The Racing Post and asked them to select a jockey to join our panel for the Cheltenham Festival Preview Night on Thursday 9th March. They appear to have selected Brian Hughes - or at least he's the name that attracts the most muddy paw marks if I leave the newspaper on the floor.
As one might have expected from Man's Best Friend, the dogs have made an excellent choice. Not only was Brian crowned the top jockey at Cartmel last season, with 7 winners and a strike rate of 17%, but he is now the most successful jockey in the North with 105 winners this season already.
He has an 11% strike rate for Jimmy Moffatt, one of the few people who has both ridden and trained a winner at the Cheltenham Festival, who will also be on the panel - together with form expert Marten Julian.
I can't tell you whether Brian will be riding anything for Jimmy at Cheltenham - you'll have to come to the preview night and find out - but he's likely to have some interesting rides. I'll be keeping an ear out for any mention of horses like The Dutchman, who could feature in the Novice Handicap Chase or Cyrus Darius, who was beaten quite a distance by The New One in a Champion Hurdle Trial at Haydock recently. Second in that race, not beaten far at all, was Clyne, who runs in the Betfair Hurdle at Newbury on Saturday and is our selection for the weekend.
I'm sure Brian will come to our preview night armed with lots of top quality information. If not, I'm sure he'll bring some decent biscuits. And if there are no treats of any kind, I'll just have to set my socially aware dogs on him...

Friday, 3 February 2017

Tall Tales of Small Horses

Last week the National Army Museum in Chelsea was accused of fakery - when news that they were reassembling the skeleton of Marengo was greeted with an assertion that Napoleon’s horse, famously painted crossing the Alps by Jacques-Louis David, never actually existed.

According to popular history, Marengo was an Arabian horse standing at just 14 hands high – not overly big but quite tall enough for the 5 foot, 6½ inch Napoleon. We all tend to think that Napoleon was rather small, but 5½ foot was about average for a Frenchman two hundred years ago and I dare say the extra half inch was important to him. Marengo was acquired by Napoleon, in Egypt, in 1799. He was already 22 years old by the time he was captured at the Battle of Waterloo, which gives me hope that my old favourite Knockara Beau, trained by George Charlton, will still be going strong eight years from now.  

Except now it materialises (according to The Times) that Jill, Duchess of Hamilton, scoured the official records of 1,762 horses belonging to Napoleon, only to discover that no such animal existed – not the name, nor a horse which matches the skeleton’s age and size. Which begs the question: whose horse have they got in the museum?
Copenhagen in Glasgow
There has always been room for interpretation when it comes to the description of historic horses. Take for example, Copenhagen – the mount of the Duke of Wellington, who occupied the opposite corner of the battlefield at Waterloo. There are two large bronze statues of him in Scotland, one in Edinburgh, the other in Glasgow. The Edinburgh version gives him the appearance of a noble steeplechaser – think Strong Promise, Sprinter Sacre or Dublin Flyer. The Glasgow version, where the Duke’s head is almost permanently augmented with a road traffic cone (perched at a jaunty angle), portrays Copenhagen as small, narrow and unimpressive.

As you might expect from a city known for its gritty realism, it is the Glasgow version which is most likely correct. According to contemporary correspondence, Copenhagen was about 15 hands tall, had a scratchy short stride and a cantankerous temperament. Sired by Meteor, a winner of the Kings Plate and Prince of Wales Stakes, Copenhagen had at least ten outings on the Flat, winning just two matches without impressing. He wouldn’t have been a match for a horse like Aristo Du Plessis, this week’s selection at Musselburgh, who is seeking his eighth win under rules.
Copenhagen in Edinburgh
The entries for the 2017 Grand National were published this week, sadly without Many Clouds whose name deserves to be remembered for two hundred years or more. A quick scan of the entries reveals that Highland Lodge is well placed to get into the race this year. If the Jimmy Moffatt trained gelding wins at Aintree, perhaps they’ll erect a statue of him in Cartmel village square - if so, I hope that racegoers will refrain from adding a traffic cone to Henry Brooke’s attire.