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Thursday, 13th May 2021

Thoughts on a spectator-free season

Sandown this Saturday signs off the professional season that began on July 1st last year following the first Covid lockdown. It’s a bit early to be reviewing a Point-to-Point season that still has 7 weeks to go, but here’s a personal view of the season from a local perspective.

Warwickshire is now a powerhouse of the sport

Dan Skelton will finish the season in the runner-up position in the British Trainers’ Championship, ahead of luminaries like Nicky Henderson. Although one Paul Nicholls has re-asserted his authority as top dog, without even including a Festival winner in his tally of 172+, the Skelton ascendancy shows no sign of stopping. Drawing on affluent Birmingham for fresh owners, Dan is surely an heir apparent to the top slot.

Notwithstanding that, Olly Murphy has established himself in the top flight, and for a young man going places, it would be reasonable to expect further progress toward the top 10 with a full summer of racing to give him a start over those stables that don’t get going till the leaves are falling. 

The Tom Ellis bandwagon is a dominant force between the flags, and this normally leads to greater ambitions. Although the likes of Phil Rowley have remained among the amateur ranks, I wonder if Ellis has in mind to graduate to the professional ranks.

Resurgence of Gloucestershire’s old guard

It’s been 7 years since Kim Bailey moved to Foxcote, less than a mile from the course at Andoversford, and the move began a process of re-building that asserted itself in splendid style in 2020-21. In terms of prize money won, this has been Kim’s best season since 1994-5, and has included his first Grade I victory in 25 years, when First Flow won the Clarence House Chase at Ascot in January. Kim would hate to have been considered a write-off at a mere 67, but he retains an enormous zest for the sport, which translates both to his horses and owners, who keep buying and having fun doing so.

Further north, the powerhouse of Jackdaws Castle has successfully flexed its muscles this year with a string of valuable handicap victories, starting with the Ladbrokes Trophy last December. The Betfair Hurdle, Grand Annual and Midlands National, all with different horses, illustrate the peerless ability of Jonjo Senior to ready a horse for a specific target. As an honorary Englishman, we were happy to celebrate Sky Pirate’s Grand Annual victory as counting for the British, but it seems unlikely Jonjo will ever lose that Irish lilt, even if Jonjo Jnr and AJ, stable jockey and assistant, have done so.

There’s not a follower of the sport who isn’t pleased to see the success of former Pointing man Fergal O’Brien, whose tally of 101 winners (so far) is a personal best. It’s a precursor to winning some better-bred animals that can compete at Graded and Pattern level on a consistent basis.

Gloucestershire is critical to Jump racing’s success

For a sport which has looked to the South-West as its heartland for the past 20 years, largely wresting that mantle from Lambourn, Gloucestershire is critical to the success of the sport, with 4 trainers in the top 20, more than any other county. 

With the likes of Ben Pauling and Graeme McPherson also enjoying good seasons, the density of Jump horses trained within the county boundary is surpassed nowhere else. 

That strength in numbers has also allowed a new generation of riders to emerge, including Jonjo O’Neill Jnr, successfully graduating from conditional status; Connor Brace and the vegan David Bass, and Max Kendrick. The upward progression of women riders has been well documented, but includes Page Fuller, Bridget Andrews and Bryony Frost, to name but a few of the more prominent.

Ireland is back in the driving seat

Irish dominance of the Festival is not a new phenomenon, but has reached its highest point. Put simply, the British pursuit of fixture quantity over quality is playing against us, and there are too many opportunities for graded horses to avoid each other, including even at the Festival. It’s time to consolidate. 

A survey of the provenance of winners at the Festival is not all bad news however. Whilst Irish-bred horses won 20 of the 28 races (up from 15 in 2020), the French were squeezed out by a stronger British-bred contingent. Led by the able Honeysuckle, a rare Grade I British-bred winner, even if trained in Ireland, British horses won 4 races (2020: 1). Proof perhaps that the glut of mares races and bumpers is beginning to reap a dividend. 

One success for the French was in the only race type not recognized across la Manche. Porlock Bay, winner of the Cheltenham Foxhunter, is a French-bred. 

The the international horse racing calendar continues this and next month when the focus turns first to the 5 day Punchestown Festival, and subsequently to Auteuil for the big Spring prizes that includes the Grand Steeplechase de Paris, France’s Gold Cup. Although First Flow is headed to Punchestown, plans for other British runners are very muted presently, and whilst several Gloucestershire trainers like Tom George and Sophie Leech have enjoyed success in France these past few months, most have not been at the highest grade. Expect to see Willie Mullins represented at both fixtures. 

Racing without spectators has made us ever more reliant upon bookmakers

Although we’ve all been glad and relieved to see racing taking place again, the sport is becoming too heavily reliant upon its betting revenues. The opportunity to welcome back the public from June provides a chance for racing to reset the dial and remind itself that it is not merely a betting product such as greyhound racing has become, but a vibrant celebration of the partnership between man and horse. 

There are few things in life so stirring as seeing a steeplechaser spring from one side of a fence to another in harmony with his rider. Whilst we all love a bet, it is but one dimension of the horseracing experience, and the sooner we can start the process of re-educating our audience of these wonderful animals the better.

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