Racing: Giving generously at Christmas time means different things to Kauto Star and Brave Inca
Saturday 23 December 2006
In holding some of its most joyous entertainment on these brief, cheerless afternoons, jump racing might trace its Christmas rituals to pagan carnivals of the solstice. But it is not immune to messianic tendencies, either. So it is that those congregating at Kempton on Boxing Day will be asking whether Kauto Star is indeed the new Desert Orchid, the new Arkle even - just as they did, not so long ago, with Best Mate, Florida Pearl, One Man . . .
It is, of course, a fatuous, futile fixation, one that courts disappointment and almost invariably finds it. Racing is like the man who prefers the chase to the conquest, or the woman who can't resist cads.
Remember, a rose is a rose and all that. A bloody good horse is a bloody good horse, and if people better understood its precarious road to fulfilment, they might not be in such a hurry to establish its place in some phoney pantheon. And it is a perennial failing, winter and summer. "Not a vintage Derby winner," they declare, before he has even stopped panting. Well, go find a better one.
That is not to deny that some crops are better than others. But even an average one can get you worthily intoxicated, and fussing over the relative standing of great vintages merely hastens the remorseful hangover.
For every unnecessary hero, people find an unnecessary villain. After all, what makes a good horse?
Consider two of the most accomplished running over Christmas: Kauto Star himself and Brave Inca, the champion hurdler. In terms of running style, they cover the spectrum: Kauto Star does so much on the bridle that he seems impervious to distance, in soft ground at any rate. He does it all himself. Brave Inca, in contrast, always needs to shovel coal demonically on to the fire. The more his rider asks, the more he gives - but you certainly have to ask. Those who cherish both would be unanimous as to which is brilliant, and which brave.
Now would Kauto Star show even better form if one of his rivals managed to get him off the bridle at Kempton? The most realistic conjecture is that he could not. Yet people would still acknowledge, surely, that the ratings he has been racking up this season were forged from generous effort.
When Brave Inca won at Punchestown earlier in the month, he was even more laboured than usual. In honesty, he presented a pretty grotesque spectacle. He was not, as some glibly maintained, gamely finding extra in the finish. He was palpably exhausted - just not quite as exhausted as the runner-up. Brave Inca lacked rhythm, and perhaps interest, even before jumping the first. Is it possible that after all those hard races, he has reached the bottom of the barrel?
He may furnish an answer at Leopardstown on Friday. In the mean time, however, perhaps greater respect is due to horses like Harchibald, who has supposedly been "outbattled" repeatedly by the likes of Brave Inca and Hardy Eustace. Whether his reputation can be salvaged in the new year depends on his recovery from injury, but he has already won infamy for "weak" finishing.
Yet perhaps lazy, dour horses like Brave Inca are the ones really showing resentment. Harchibald is said to curl up when the whip comes out. The chances are that he is simply drained, that he has offered so much on the bridle that he has no more to give. Surely that is as game as a horse can be? Yet he is called a coward.
What kind of freak could match strides with Brave Inca without really trying? Are we really supposed to believe that Harchibald has the ability to surge clear of the last two champion hurdlers, if only he could be bothered?
Come now, enter the Christmas spirit. Horses like Harchibald have been giving generously for years, and all they ever hear is "humbug".
He's The Gaffer can pay for the presents
Perhaps the 2006 racing calendar is the work of Ebenezer Scrooge. With Christmas Eve falling on a Sunday, the industry's traditional shutdown - just for a day or two, in readiness for a hectic Boxing Day - has been abandoned. The general engorgement of the fixture list was never going to tolerate the sacrilege of a vacant Saturday.
Looking at the frugal fare, moreover, you have to wonder why they bothered. Has terrestrial television ever ladled such thin gruel on a Saturday? Still, any kind of winner would help to staunch the financial haemorrhage of these final hours on the high street.
Among the televised races, Nation State (3.40) looks eager for a step up in distance at Fontwell, where Loose Morals (3.10) hinted that she might be fairly treated until blundering at Folkestone last time. But the best bet there is in the conditional jockeys' race, where the top rider in the field can help He's The Gaffer (1.0) beat a less competitive field than they encountered on their last visit here.
Another strong fancy is Norton Sapphire (2.25) at Bangor. She has found only one horse to beat her in three starts for Victor Dartnall. Another mare to have moved stable, Amber Light (2.45), looks the value on a competitive card at Hereford, having her first start over hurdles since joining Evan Williams.
Those still needing to fund last-minute presents after dusk must rely on an Eddie Ahern double at Wolverhampton, through Foreplay (4.20) and Mastership (4.50). Bob Cratchit can count himself lucky that he was not a jockey.
Justice demands a fair deal for Fallon
The British Turf already knows its most portentous date in 2007. Earlier this week, corruption proceedings against Kieren Fallon and others were set for the Old Bailey on 24 September. The sense of ordeal will not be confined to those facing charges.
Fallon's involvement has hopelessly distorted the coverage and significance of this affair. But the Horseracing Regulatory Authority (HRA) knew as much when suspending his licence immediately he was charged, until such time as he clears his name.
It was clear then that this was an audacious decision, at best, and a downright scandal at worst. It raised the stakes pointlessly.
The panel was careful to attempt no judgement of the merits of the case - and quite right too. In fact, it was so scrupulous, in terms of procedure, that there would seem little margin for redress if Fallon does indeed prove his innocence. Yet the decision guaranteed that, for well over a year, he would de facto be punished regardless.
The HRA predicted damaging public perceptions if Fallon and the other jockeys were to ride on. This was thoroughly disingenuous, as the Irish could tell you. (He was permitted to continue riding in Ireland, and several other jurisdictions.)
The recent supervention of a worldwide ban until June, for a failed drugs test, is irrelevant - except as confirmation of Fallon's maddening instinct for disaster. But the HRA might reflect that he is not alone in his weakness for self-destruction.
Nobody knows the strength of the prosecution case. But if it happens to prove too petty to support a criminal conviction, the HRA should resolve now that it will not pursue him anew on its own terms.
It has treated him so inequitably already that the sport cannot fail to be contaminated by this trauma, however things turn out.
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