Racing: Freak incident fells Robson

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The Independent Online

One of the most controversial suggestions in a newly-published blueprint for the revival of jump racing is that the Cheltenham Gold Cup should become a contest for which qualification is necessary via a golf-style order of merit. Yesterday Toby Balding, trainer of one of the longer-priced winners in the race's history, the 25-1 shot Cool Ground, gave the notion the thumbs-up, for the sake of the bigger picture.

"Sure, there must be romance in the sport," he said. "there always has been and it is one of the attractions. But the jump racing product is under threat and this idea has to be seen in the context of how we make the best use of the available herd, particularly at the top level, in promoting it.

"We want to create a structure to get people to run horses and an order of merit, with a prize fund of its own, would provide a decent incentive to qualify, even without actually winning a Gold Cup. In practice we'll have to look carefully at how it is worked but in principple I'd approve of restricting entry to horses who have proved a certain level of ability."

The Gold Cup is much less liable to be won by an apparent no-hoper than the Grand National, or even the Derby. Only three horses - Norton's Coin at 100-1 in 1990 and two 33-1 chances, Gay Donald in 1955 and L'Escargot in 1970 - have won at more lucrative odds than Cool Ground, who took the Blue Riband in 1992. Another 25-1 outsider, Cool Dawn, won in 1998.

"A horse has to be pretty bloody able to win the race," said Balding. "I certainly wouldn't want to stop a horse like Norton's Coin running but who's to say that he wouldn't have qualified if he'd had to. And although he was a long price on the day Cool Ground would have more than qualified, he'd won the National trial at Chepstow and the Greenalls at Haydock."

Balding, 46 years with a licence, has one of the keenest brains in the sport. But it is one in which alarm bells are now ringing for his favoured branch, visibly under fire on several fronts, notably the expansion of winter all-weather racing in any OFT-inspired free market environment.

"The enemy, for want of a better word," he said, "is ideal from the bookmakers' point of view, a guaranteed card of large fields every day come frost or rain. But equally, it is a fact that the betting industry seriously wants premier jump racing. The major festivals are huge earners written in stone for them.

"They are businessmen enough to know that they cannot have those without the day-to-day stuff. But it is absolutely up to us to serve them with an attractive product that will interest and stimulate the public. We are very aware of the problems we face and we must work to turn around any negativity towards jump racing. We cannot just sit back and rely on a Best Mate to come along."

Given his sparing annual programme (the first of three planned outings is scheduled for Saturday week at Huntingdon), Best Mate might not even be a contender on any putative equine Grand Prix circuit. "We must use what horses we have to our best advantage," added Balding. "I can see what Hen [Knight] is doing with the horse but it isn't in the best interests of National Hunt racing as a whole. Even one more run would be a 25 per cent improvement in his appearance rate."

Best Mate is due to meet fellow premiership contenders Valley Henry and Jair du Cochet on his seasonal debut in the Peterborough Chase, a race targeted for transplant to a Grade One track under another section of proposals in the review document put together by the Racecourse Holdings Trust, a Jockey Club subsidiary that is the largest owner of racecourses in Britain. Its 13 tracks include, as well as the likes of Cheltenham and Aintree, Huntingdon, which has limited capacity. "Those horses should be playing to a 20,000 crowd," said Balding.

Grudgingly, the Cambridgeshire track's clerk of the course, Michael Prosser, agrees. "I'm not just toeing the party line," he said. "Things are at the stage where we have to see the bigger picture."

PAUL ROBSON was lucky to escape injury after being kicked out of the saddle by colleague Tony Dobbin in a freak incident at Kelso yesterday. The mishap occurred at the fifth fence in a four-runner handicap chase, where Dobbin's mount Ballystone tried to refuse in the lead.

The gelding's antics catapulted his rider from the saddle into the air and feet first into Robson, who was alongside on Pillaging Pict. "I couldn't believe what was happening when Tony caught me with both barrels," Robson said. Neither jockey was lastingly damaged.

* Dalakhani was crowned Horse Of The Year at the 2003 Cartier Racing Awards in London last night. The Aga Khan's Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe and French Derby winner, trained by Alain de Royer Dupre, also claimed the 3yo colt award.