Racing: Shergar Cup is a thoroughbred mistake

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The Independent Online
ONE OF the attractions of racing, now and for centuries, is its capacity to produce outstanding individual performances. The thoroughbred horse, man's noblest creation, is bred to excel as an individual. And when one emerges from the herd to capture the imagination, whether a Sceptre or a Sea-Bird, an Arkle or an Istabraq, a Dancing Brave or a Desert Orchid, he or she will become a magnet in equine form.

A great jockey, too, is a draw, even riding moderate horses at a run- of-the-mill meeting. Lester at Leicester would guarantee an increased gate. But team him with a top horse and the combination becomes irresistible. Nijinsky's farewell appearance in the Champion Stakes created the biggest traffic blockage ever seen in Newmarket.

There is teamwork in racing: the partnership of a rider and horse, the behind-the-scenes effort that it takes to prepare a runner; even the deployment of pacemakers for the star turn. But this is the sort of teamwork that is needed to produce an individual performance. Racing is not itself a team sport, despite occasional efforts to impose the framework of a team element upon it. These usually take the form of international jockey matches, meaningless novelty contests whose only purpose is to get the top men in front of an audience who might not otherwise see them.

It seems, however, that we are being invited to take the latest effort seriously. At Goodwood on Saturday the inaugural Shergar Cup will be up for grabs. Its originators (the British Horseracing Board and specifically that body's chairman Peter Savill) and sponsors (a bookmaking firm) have with gravitas outlined the concept: a team showdown between owners from the Middle East and Europe in six 10-runner races over various distances, with five horses from each side scoring points. It has, oddly but presumably in an effort to imbue it with sexiness and significance, been billed as racing's Ryder Cup by those promoting it.

But any similarity between the two must be purely coincidental. In golf's great team event there is obvious European and US identification and loyalty. In the Shergar Cup, a horse may be owned by an Arab, but it will probably be Irish-bred, trained in England and ridden by an Italian. Some stables are supplying runners for both sides and some jockeys will mix and match too. The owners on neither side care enough about the contest to allow easily identifiable team silks to be used.

The Ryder Cup stirs our nationalistic emotions. All that matters to most Joe Punters is that the horse they have backed wins. Sure, there is sometimes a base feeling of satisfaction if - all other things being equal - a horse owned by the Maktoum cohorts gets stuffed. But all other things must be equal; if the horse is a champion, or the favourite, then it will be howled home with gusto. Owners are the most important, but unfortunately the least charismatic, part of racing's equation.

If racing needs a Ryder Cup, then look to the Cheltenham Festival, where Anglo-Irish rivalry has evolved naturally. But this artificial concept, even with its munificent dowry of prize money and the admirable intention of stimulating interest, is surely wide of the mark.