Poor fields take shine off Shergar Cup glitter

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The Independent Online

Perhaps the choice of name for the fixture was ill-starred but it is difficult to regard the response of owners and trainers to the six free-to-enter races worth a total purse of £400,000 in tomorrow's Shergar Cup at Ascot as anything but disappointing. Just 48 horses were declared yesterday for the second running of the team international challenge tentatively styled as racing's Ryder Cup. With prize money guaranteed to ninth place in each race, only the horse that finishes last in the opener, the sole contest to attract the maximum field of 10, will go home empty-handed. Bearing in mind the constant whingeing from industry professionals about poor financial returns, pitiful is another word that springs to mind.

Perhaps the choice of name for the fixture was ill-starred but it is difficult to regard the response of owners and trainers to the six free-to-enter races worth a total purse of £400,000 in tomorrow's Shergar Cup at Ascot as anything but disappointing. Just 48 horses were declared yesterday for the second running of the team international challenge tentatively styled as racing's Ryder Cup. With prize money guaranteed to ninth place in each race, only the horse that finishes last in the opener, the sole contest to attract the maximum field of 10, will go home empty-handed. Bearing in mind the constant whingeing from industry professionals about poor financial returns, pitiful is another word that springs to mind.

The concept of the Shergar Cup, Europe against the Rest Of The World based on the nationality of owners, was always flawed as an arouser of interest, let alone the passions of the golfing model and becomes even more meaningless in the face of the dearth of runners as five "European" horses have had to have their allegiance transferred to keep the team numbers more or less even.

The small fields mean that the notion that tomorrow's so-called equestrian Ryder Cup might have had fascination as a rider cup has taken a knock. A dozen top-flight international jockeys - including Singapore champion Saimee and the young Italian sensation Mirco Demuro, both making their British debuts - were due to be split between the two squads. But with only five fillies in the Oaks and six runners in the finale, the £100,000 Classic, glimpses of their talent may be sadly fleeting.

Ascot chief executive Douglas Erskine-Crum, whose course took over the franchise for the event after its troubled launch at Goodwood last year, is still committed to the tournament's future but acknowledged yesterday that a full-scale review will have to be undertaken to ensure its survival. "We have already identified a number of key problems this year in attracting runners," he said. "It has been a real challenge to frame races that will fit into the racing calendar at the height of summer. And though extremely valuable, none of the races carry black type, something that has had a particular impact on the Oaks. Also, a number of the big stables, which would normally have been expected to have runners in these high-class races, have had a quiet season by their own high standards." There is not a single runner from Henry Cecil's yard and only three from Godolphin, which fielded 12 last year.

Erskine-Crum, however, kept a brave face over the prospects of tomorrow as an entertaining day out, amid the sound of rustling horse bedding. Among the straws being clutched were the weather, the presence of Kevin Keegan as one of the team managers, and a pop group after time.

The idea that the actual racing is incapable of selling itself without extraneous entertainment is, sadly, gaining currency in some marketing circles and the obsession with ''yoof'' and so-called personalities continued apace yesterday with the news that Zara Phillips, 19, has been recruited by Cheltenham to head up the course's new-look junior section, Club 16-24, which will be putting on attention-grabbers ranging from days out at stables to a themed end-of-season party. Phillips, daughter of the Princess Royal and sometime girlfriend of jump jockey Richard Johnson, is, according to the track's commercial executive Rebecca Morgan, "an icon for young people". Which young people has not been specified but it is a fair bet that, despite the fun-packed connotations of the name of the new branding, they would not be holidaying in Ibiza.

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