Racing: One-nil to the Europe but who cares?

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The Independent Online
ANDREW LONGMORE

EUROPE BEAT the Middle East at horse racing yesterday. I am not sure what that means and nor was a desultory crowd at a wet and windswept Goodwood. But anything which provokes the racing industry to think about its future rather than protect its past must have more than a grain of sense to it, whatever the unpromising beginnings of the Shergar Cup, Europe's first horse racing team competition. The result, a late flourish by the Europeans to win by 126 points to 120, was greeted with a few cheers and a slightly discordant fanfare. Nothing too extravagant, you understand. This is still stiff upper lip country.

Glorious Goodwood was not. The sweep of the South Downs might make a mighty backdrop to racing in the sunshine of mid-summer; a bleak spring afternoon is a more bracing matter. Rather more significantly, the late development of the concept, billed very ambitiously by its instigator, Peter Savill, as the Ryder Cup of racing, meant that substantial swathes of the racing public had no idea of its existence. The fixture is not on the British Horse Racing Board list, so the industry was asked to act quickly, not one of its strengths. One disgruntled bookmaker, who had just been charged pounds 100 on top of his annual membership to take his pitch only to report takings as "dismal", claimed he only became aware of the Shergar Cup last week. If the idea was to encourage wider participation from the non- racing audience, the event has some way to go. Most of the crowd were regulars. Cries of "Come on, you Middle East" did not rent the air.

No one can fault Savill for courage or creativity. Ranged against him was racing's highly developed suspicion of gimickry and the relentless rhythms of a sport defined by its selfishness. Total prize money of pounds 400,000 helped the cause, but trainers could not quite grasp the notion of team, even for an afternoon. Winners were greeted with the traditional post- race shibboleths - "nice sort, slow to come to hand, shed a plate last time...", the shorthand on which the sport thrives. Asked what he thought about the concept of the Shergar Cup, Paul Cole's face looked vaguely panic-stricken as if someone had asked him to solve the riddle of the Sphinx. "It's a change and very interesting and prize money down to ninth place is very encouraging for everyone," he said, which fell a little short of the rah-rah required of the occasion. At least he bothered to enter a horse: Henry Cecil, no great admirer of Middle Eastern owners, stayed away resolutely, more preoccupied with the fate of his Oaks triallist Ramruna than some artificial moneyfest at Goodwood. Kieren Fallon, the champion jockey, flew in for the last, just in time to lift the European team to a 1-2-3 which secured victory for the super-rich owners of Europe over the mega-rich owners of the Middle East and at least bequeathed the inaugural year with a near-perfect finale.

The earlier encounters had not been so promising. With points on offer for the first six places in each race, even Savill's heart must have sunk when the opening race in the six-race contest ended in a clean sweep, one to four, for the blue colours of Godolphin. That the white-capped outsider of the four, Opera King, should carry off the pounds 50,000 first prize only added to the bewilderment. First blood to the Middle East by 35 points to four and the prospect of a designer chic show evaporating into the gathering mist.

But the Europeans, led by Robert Sangster, slowly edged their way back into contention, winning the second through a neatly timed late challenge by Jimmy Fortune on Carry the Flag and an equally impressive victory by the former Group 1 winner, Lavery, ridden by Mick Kinane. But Frankie - "Frankie for the Middle East" as the race commentator had it - was relentlessly upbeat both on the track and in front of the cameras and kept the Middle East ahead with a double on Mythical Girl and Diktat. All exciting stuff, right down to the last when the rival captain, Olivier Peslier, rode Handsome Ridge to victory, crowning a profitable week for owner David Platt, whose Elegant Lady had won at Chester on Tuesday, and bringing the European team a victory.

"We've got to develop a different dynamic," Savill said. "I hope there will have been a lot of viewers at home watching for two hours, wanting the European team to win yet not having a bet. We have to start attracting a wider audience to racing. I think the racecourse has presented this too much like a normal day's racing. There has to be more pizzazz to it." And a clearer sense of national identity. Owners' colours might have to be sacrificed to team colours. Some jockeys rode for both sides. It will take time. About a century should do it.

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