Racing: Under orders for change

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The Independent Online
SAME FACES, different team name. That would be a cynic's view of the new British Horseracing Board, which is charged in 1993 with arresting the slide of one of our biggest industries into embarrassing self- immolation. Embarrassing because racing's end product is so ridiculously good.

Is that not the British way? Fine merchandise, lousy infrastructure. Vast potential, woeful strategy. All those leader-column moans about the best constantly fleeing these shores are fully justified when you look at horse racing. The big Arab owners are sending more and more horses to California, France, and now Germany, thereby signalling their refusal to accept Britain's ossified conditions indefinitely.

The BHB will have two tasks. To confront the off- course betting industry over its highwayman's attitude to the sport, and to change racing from being a gerontocracy to a meritocracy with some idea of how to market itself against other pastimes. Races like the Derby and Cheltenham Gold Cup must be switched to Saturdays and the logic of Sunday racing must be made to prevail in Whitehall.

Courses like Goodwood and Cheltenham could compete with any modern sporting venue for professionalism, but most tracks continue to operate as if they were staging a jumble sale rather than an activity that generates pounds 4.3bn in betting turnover each year. Those outside the game can hardly believe that its controllers are so routinely squandering the best and most diverse racing anywhere in the world.

If you doubt the validity of that boast, think of how varied our tracks are. Compare York with Epsom with Newmarket with Chester, and then consider how high the quality of British-based racehorse has been up to now.

On the track itself in 1993 four vastly different Flat racers will receive most attention. Lyric Fantasy, the fastest two-year-old filly seen in 50 years, must overcome deficient size and carry her speed into a second season, while the three most gifted members of team Khalid Abdullah - Zafonic, Tenby and Armiger - must prove that the briliance they showed in 1992 was a precursor of Classic success and not merely an expression of precocity.

There is room for doubt, so hold those bets. Tenby was on the small side last year, Zafonic was prohibitively big, and Armiger was unnervingly flashy for a horse who is supposed to have long-term prospects. As with the BHB, guarded optimism is the best approach.