Chris McGrath: McCoy unhappy at pace of change

Inside Track
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The Independent Online

Its authors were always going to be vulnerable to cheap shots. With that in mind, perhaps their first mistake was to name the project Racing For Change.

Far from suggesting a dynamic transformation, to many professionals this instead represents all too precisely the current state of affairs. Possibly the only improvement they might recommend, in fact, would be Racing For Loose Change.

The Racing Post – the trade newspaper, and main sponsor at Kempton today – yesterday devoted its front page to Tony McCoy's attack on prize-money levels as a "disgrace". The most prolific jump jockey in history isn't complaining on his own account, of course. But he fears that races worth less than £2,000 to the winner represent a curious incentive to owners forking out £300 or £400 every week to keep any horse – never mind one actually competent enough to win a small race every year or so.

By now, the discovery of a disparity between investment and reward is about as astonishing in horseracing as in the sale of parasols to Baffin Island. It would be no surprise, however, were McCoy to have been goaded into reprising the industry's perennial lament by reading, earlier in the week, about the uncomfortable gestation of Racing For Change.

The RFC chief executive, addressing an industry conference on Tuesday, noted that racing tends not only to strangle initiatives at birth, but even to prevent conception. In doing so, however, he essentially traded at the same, unworthy level as those many reactionaries in the game whose instinct is to distrust change, especially when it is proposed in the toxic vernacular of marketing. To anticipate criticism as mere negativity is RFC's own cheap shot.

For the reality is that RFC is becoming disappointing in both pace and scope. Some of the specifics, such as the proposed introduction of decimal odds, admittedly disclosed an artful grasp of the broader media agenda – the very deficiency, in fairness, that gave rise to the project in the first place. But it is alarming to see this revolting word, "premierisation", so far being confined to cosmetic presentation of the fixture list.

McCoy, in characteristic contrast, has cut to the chase. "There is either not enough money or too much racing," he said. There has never been enough money, of course, thanks to a combination of misfortune and misjudgement in the apparatus linking racing and betting. The state's larcenous intentions for the Tote make progress here as remote as ever. For now, then, it can only be a question of distribution.

Racing's pact with the devil means that the fixture list is nowadays tailored to bookmakers' profits. And if these are contingent on betting turnover, then the time has come for racing to generate it on a more efficient basis.

Tiers in the fixture list need to match the horses to their stage. Lesser venues can viably stage mediocre racing by the sort of economies now available in all-weather tracks. Otherwise only racecourses that contribute properly warrant due funding and racing of a corresponding calibre. There is a complicated spectrum in between, admittedly, where you would seek a more respectable niche for cherished local tracks than "flapping". But this can be the only meaningful debate about "premier" racing. So far, staggeringly, all the talk has merely been of gilding the core phases of the fixture list for marketing purposes.

As for the proposed gimmickry of "team" competitions, ostensibly to seduce the same mass market as The X Factor, The Apprentice or Strictly Come Dancing, it is here that RFC fatally betrays the same, essential instinct of glib extrapolation that has discredited so many other innovators in the sport's recent past.

Whatever happens, you may rest assured that McCoy will not suddenly be measuring his seasons between mid-November and mid-March. In the meantime, he has a prize worth contesting at Kempton today – and Sam Thomas, once again, will be an envious bystander. In contrast with Denman a couple of weeks ago, however, Thomas only misses out through suspension. This time, moreover, McCoy already has a successful record on Nacarat, having ridden him to a runaway success in last year's Racing Post Chase.

Only Kauto Star could live with the pace Nacarat set on his last visit here, in the King George VI Chase on Boxing Day, so it was understandable that he should ultimately drop away into fourth. Off an 11lb higher mark than last year, however, and in more testing conditions, he may just prove vulnerable to a rival with a bit of dourness. Kilcrea Castle (3.05) is from the family of two illustrious staying chasers in the Grand National winner Monty's Pass and dual Gold Cup third Harbour Pilot and, having progressed nicely during a light career in Ireland, shaped very well on his debut for Emma Lavelle at Ascot last month. Apparently unfancied after a three-month break, he went sweetly for a long way before just tiring late on.

Trainers' habits have changed in recent years and this card has now become something of a last-chance saloon for Cheltenham horses, on the basis that you would not want a hard race any closer to the Festival. Mille Chief is certain to be a short price for JCB Triumph Hurdle rehearsal but his form does not yet measure up to his reputation and Ultimate (3.40) will be no pushover.

The recent experiences of his stablemates, Zaynar and Binocular, will perhaps discourage anyone taking the odds about Punjabi, on paper a good thing for the opener. After all, there's no point risking a bullion bar to win a copper coin. As McCoy would tell you, there's more than enough of that going on already.

Leopardstown goes ahead, but Festival brakes are still on

Strike action by Turf Club officials at Leopardstown tomorrow has been postponed, pending further talks. As it happens, however, perhaps the most important business for many trainers and jockeys at the track would not have been affected either way.

For this is the meeting where dozens of Cheltenham contenders traditionally assemble for a sparring session after racing. And if those who peer into the gloaming for clues are nowadays wary of what they witness – most horses work with their brakes on, and none with advertised saddle weights – then there should still remain plenty of theatre.

Those who prefer more transparent exertions can see one or two of Ireland's top novices compete for hard cash. Over hurdles, Pittoni receives weight from older rivals at Navan today as he tries to confirm himself one of the more glamorous members of a plain juvenile crop. And over fences Citizen Vic, who broke into steeplechasing big time on his last visit to the track, drops back in distance at Leopardstown tomorrow.

His trainer, Willie Mullins, sent out Kempes to beat the flourishing Jagoes Mill at Thurles yesterday, but time is surely running out for Mikael d'Haguenet, who misses another comeback opportunity today, to join the stable's novice chasers this term.

Turf Account: Chris McGrath

*Nap

Babe Heffron (4.10 Kempton)

Might have needed the run when contesting a fierce pace at Taunton last time, having looked capable of further progress in rallying bravely at Wetherby. This track could suit his bold style.

*Next best

River D'Or (1.30 Kempton)

This French import warrants a close look after catching the eye going smoothly for a long way at Doncaster last time.

*One to watch

Fleur De Vassy (Venetia Williams) rediscovered the ability she had shown in bumpers when third on her handicap debut at Huntingdon on Thursday, not quite lasting home behind another miracle after pulling hard in demanding conditions.

*Where the money's going

Drumbaloo, winner of all three starts, is 16-1 from 25-1 with Paddy Power for the Weatherbys Champion Bumper at Cheltenham.

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