Chris McGrath: Castle is the obstacle as heroic gesture worthy of old soldiers takes high ground
Saturday 21 February 2009
Some believe that the Turf holds a natural appeal to cynics; others, that it simply makes people cynical. The big story at Kempton today proves that there can be another way. Only if there is a happy ending, however, will we wonder why it should be the way less travelled. For there is one outcome – and one outcome only – that could, however briefly, lend an illusion of moral coherence to the random fortunes of the racecourse.
Last Saturday, by whatever blend of luck and judgement is necessary in these matters, a fellow in Suffolk found the winner of all six legs of the Tote Scoop6. That entitled him to the entire contents of the win pool, some £670,000. Critically, however, it also made him eligible for a crack at the bonus pool, which had become grotesquely engorged since last won in August. There is, in fact, £2,755,923 in the pot, and its fate depends on this gentleman’s ability to identify the winner of the Racing Post Chase.
The word “gentleman” is used for a reason. When contacted by the Tote this week, the first thing he told them was that he wished his privacy to be respected. Then he said that, should he win the bonus, he would like the cheque to be made out to the Royal British Legion.
In the process, he achieved three things. First and foremost, in a world increasingly distracted by money, he set an example to which few of us are man enough to aspire, even from the sanctuary of hypothesis. Secondly, he guaranteed a windfall of public curiosity for the sport. And, lastly, he put a sweat into anyone who might be held accountable for the performance of his chosen horse.
You have to hope that his jockey, for instance, will not be intimidated by these momentous new responsibilities. But the stakes are still more excruciating for some who may not be so obviously answerable.
The people at the Tote, for a start. Not everyone is comfortable that so much money has been siphoned into the bonus pool. Though the big syndicate managers take a different view, no ordinary punter can embark on a Scoop6 with a feasible hope of finding not just six winners that afternoon, but also the winner of the hardest race staged a week later. The two processes are too detached for the bonus pool to stimulate significant public (as opposed to professional) demand in the win pool. Instead, the suspicion must be that the bonus is devised to generate another, more puerile kind of interest – the sort we associate with the voyeuristic indignities of reality television.
With that in mind, perhaps the Tote should feel a little embarrassed by the priorities of this man. To retain the moral high ground among bookmakers – not that difficult, you may imagine – the Tote desperately needs this man to find the winner.
Even as things stand, you can envisage some invidious dilemmas. Put yourself in the position of a jockey engaging the chosen horse in a duel to the line. What would go through your head? Doing your duty by the people employing you, and those members of the betting public with their own, trifling interests at stake, you would naturally try your best. But in the process you might be wresting the thick end of £3m from a marvellous charity.
There is potential for all manner of such discomforts. The stewards, for instance, might find themselves obliged to disqualify the winner for waywardness caused by an over- zealous jockey.
And what if our man makes the wrong choice? If things can become so complex when everyone has his heart in the right place, is there not scope for a snowballing pool to create less wholesome predicaments? Say some unprincipled gangster puts together a syndicate and earns a crack at the rollover – perhaps by this stage £5m, more even? What threats or incentives might be made to frightened or corruptible people in a position to influence a single race?
If there is anyone up there, as they say, then now is the time to take a benign interest in this trivial walk of life. Very sensibly, the Tote has chosen a race with an obvious favourite. And that favourite, in his very christening, seems to give impetus to the common imperative.
His name is Big Fella Thanks.
And what else, pray, will be on the lips of the servicemen, past and present, who will be on hand at Kempton today? The horse could not be in better hands – trained by Paul Nicholls and ridden by Ruby Walsh – is progressive and unexposed, and showed improvement in another valuable handicap at Doncaster last month. Indeed, he is early favourite for the John Smith’s Grand National. But he has been raised 13lb since Doncaster, meets a better field on better ground, and made a bad mistake when losing his rider here at Christmas. If that were not enough, he had betrayed an awkward temperament when turned over at odds-on at Taunton.
With a heavy heart, then – assuming our hero goes for the favourite – it is proposed that CONNA CASTLE (nap 3.10) can introduce any curious outsiders to the callous ways of the horseracing gods. A Grade One winner over fences, the Irish raider had come down to a very attractive mark before hinting at a return to form at Gowran last time, fading in the heavy ground after travelling well. With far less emphasis on stamina here, he can show that all is fair in love, war and horseracing. Sorry big fella.
Dovecote can send Ainama flying high
Only novices sorely in need of experience tend to be risked this close to Cheltenham, but there are plenty of those around following the loss of so many fixtures. So it is, for instance, that Zaarito – a top bumper horse last season – seeks his second success over hurdles at Naas tomorrow, while at Kempton today both Paul Nicholls and Nicky Henderson hope to produce a Festival candidate from the Dovecote Hurdle.
Nicholls suspects that Conflictofinterest is transformed by a wind operation, but that must remain a leap of faith against Ainama (2.05), so impressive on his debut over course and distance. Nicholls can comfort himself that Ainama would at least boost the form of Hebridean (next best 3.45), second that day and certain to relish the test of speed on this drier ground.
Shali San (3.50) looks the best bet at Chepstow after catching the eye in qualifying for a handicap mark, while the big race at Newcastle is the Totesport Eider Chase. Jass has obvious prospects now that he has got his jumping together, but Fair Question (3.30) seemed to have turned over a new leaf when winning his first chase since changing stables at Bangor last time. On his best form his revised mark is still a fair one.
3 Questions: Keith Goldsworthy
The Pembrokeshire trainer saddles the fancied novice Hold Em in the Racing Post Chase at Kempton today
1. What chance do you give your horse today?
I’d say he has realistic prospects of getting involved. He ran well over the track at Christmas, and the ground is the key. It should be the best he has met a fence on, and I’ve always felt that would suit him. He didn’t jump that well in the soft last time but stayed on at the end, so when the handicapper left him alone, we thought we’d have a second bite.
2. What was your background before training?
Horses were in the family – my brother used to ride for the Queen Mother – but there was no money in it, so I went into the building game, and then waste management. Then I got sucked back in. We’ve only 12 stables, with cheap horses. It’s a great sport if you can afford to be involved, but you’ve got to be good to survive.
3. You have contributed to a boom for Welsh trainers. Do you enjoy each other’s success, or is rivalry fierce?
It’s the price of fuel that makes us do well! You don’t put a horse on a lorry from here unless you’ve something worth taking. But we’ll have a new course [Ffos Las] on our doorstep soon, and it’s going to be fantastic. We’re competitive on the track, but we can all ring each other if we need any help. Peter Bowen was the pioneer. He helped a lot of us get going.
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