Chris McGrath: McCoy's turn in spotlight leaves no hiding place for other ambassadors of Turf
Saturday 18 December 2010
How very unnerving, that the hysterical promotion of Tony McCoy should have cost his sport precisely those qualities that make him so worthy of its pride and admiration: class, dignity, humility.
Some people within horseracing seem to view BBC Sports Personality of the Year as a distinction somewhere between the Nobel Peace Prize and canonisation. They remind you irresistibly of some wretchedly insecure adolescent, hovering on the edge of the dance floor. He has been drinking too quickly. The immediate vicinity is saturated by toxic hormonal odours and his father's aftershave. Now the moment has arrived at last: the slow dance. Swaying a little as he crosses the floor, he approaches the object of his distant adoration. She turns. How will she respond? Will she be alarmed by the brooding intensity of his demeanour? Will she be baffled by his slurred stammerings? Or will the general public see racing as never seen before, bathed by a sudden, heavenly light?
The sport's ardour for recognition by a broader audience through McCoy's involvement in another of these inane television votes has become quite pitiful. The one thing that every viewer should recognise, however, is that the man himself has only gained in distinction from the contrast with those espousing his cause. Where they depend increasingly on approval from the layman, he towers as one of the great achievers in all sport – and, for what it's worth, as a genuinely engaging fellow. There is nothing needy about McCoy. He does not need to justify himself to anybody. And that, of course, should make him irresistible. There he is: strong and fearless, humorous and reflective. Who could possibly turn him down?
During the week he was interviewed by one of the racing channels standing next to one of the life-size, cardboard cut-outs that have been pressed into service on racecourses by the marketing team at Racing For Change. Characteristically, he suggested that the two-dimensional version would have superior claims as a "personality". And he professed suitable indifference to the outcome tomorrow night, being amply honoured by the company of the other nine nominees.
That must feel anomalous, to a man who owes his unprecedented achievements to an insatiable hunger for success. He has been as obliging as ever, in co-operating with the theory that this trinket might bring broader benefit to his sport. Deep down, however, he is unlikely to share the delusions that have spurred all this excitable publicity. In fact, he may well be wary of the vote becoming too skewed for success to represent any kind of meaningful breakthrough.
But for the intrusion of the weather, he would have been competing at Ascot today for yet another Vote McCoy Silver Cup. Those fretting about the profile of racing should sooner focus on the fact that the race could only be so named, like a similar one at Cheltenham last Saturday, because no sponsors had been found for the prize. Or the fact that the BBC has long since washed its hands of this meeting, along with so many others.
As a rule, of course, racing would get the most cursory of glances on this precious review of the sporting year. Yes, the BBC reliably introduces Aintree to a larger casual audience than other broadcasters, but is that really a fair trade for the damage it is doing to the sport's chances of building up a loyal, organic following? Perhaps broadcasting rights to our "crown jewels" should be sold only to those prepared to keep the rest of the castle in the public eye, as well.
Instead we have this infatuation with the docile, fleeting attention of people whose curiosity about Goodwood – perhaps the British sport's most telegenic festival, likewise contemptuously abandoned by the BBC – is confined to pictures of Shane Warne meeting Liz Hurley.
Above all, the process of broadening the sport's appeal should not weaken it. Many to whom the Turf has been a lifelong passion are already beginning to feel disenfranchised. Yes, perhaps we can tell the story better – but don't try to tell a better story. Better, that is, than those patterns woven from its rich, historic fabric, even during the past few months. McCoy himself, for instance, winning the National; or the climax of the duel for the Flat jockeys' championship; or the epoch-making drama, just a few hours later, of Zenyatta's first ever defeat.
The point is that if you treat the best of racing fatuously, then that is precisely how you must expect the worst to be received, as well. Yes, thanks to McCoy, the National this year provided the most joyous of spectacles. But we all know that the same race can sometimes present us with complex moral challenges, which can only be satisfactorily met by those with a proper grasp of what horses are asked to do, and why, and the reciprocal obligations of horsemen.
It's about respect. And self-respect. Which is what those riding roughshod over the Flat calendar just don't seem to need, when they can instead make do with self-certainty and self-regard.
The sport is hugely privileged, to be able to send a man like McCoy into the nation's gaze. But his standards must be matched by its other envoys, too, in all they do. By all means, let's reach out to a younger audience. Let's just make sure we don't simply end up with a more puerile one.
In the brief thaw between ice ages Cooldine appears on National radar
Exasperating as it is, the renewed freeze at least permits further reflection upon events during the brief thaw. For while there were some really impressive winners, especially the three saddled by Willie Mullins at Fairyhouse on Wednesday, one or two of the vanquished warrant closer attention.
Cue Card's first defeat, at Cheltenham last Saturday, disappointed many. In the end he was beaten pretty comprehensively, albeit by a more experienced rival. Once again, however, he tanked through the race, still going exuberantly on the home turn. While he responded creditably enough to the novelty of competition off the bridle, the suspicion remains that he will produce a better performance still somewhere down the line. Even so, you would like to think connections will favour the bird in the hand, and restore him to novice company at the Festival.
At Fairyhouse, meanwhile, Mullins must have been as pleased with a couple that did not win as with those that did. Bar his luckless tumble at the last, for instance, Mikael d'Haguenet had taken to fences with aplomb and plainly retains his ability after that long disappearance.
But the one who may slip under most punting radars is Cooldine, predictably outpaced on his comeback over two and a half miles. He may never win a Gold Cup, which seemed his manifest destiny when he won the RSA Chase, but the weights should reflect that should Cooldine be aimed at the John Smith's Grand National. This horse has a history of coming to the boil, run by run, and there will definitely be a silver lining should he fail to renew his Gold Cup candidature over three miles at the Leopardstown Christmas meeting. A really good jumper who travels and stays, he is a bespoke fit for Aintree.
Turf Account: Chris McGrath
The Wonga Coup (12.50 Lingfield)
Transformed since returning from a long break, a close third under an inexperienced jockey over this course and distance, then failing only in a photo to run down the favourite when dropped to 10 furlongs next time. Up 3lb here, but the pair finished clear there and return to this trip likely to suit.
Super Directa (12.40 Haydock)
A triple Flat winner in Germany, he showed enough in his first season here to win novice hurdles but is diverted into handicaps, implying connections consider him fairly treated. Form with a flourishing rival at Market Rasen in February suggests they may be right.
One to watch
Mostly Bob (P J Hobbs) developed into a smart novice hurdler last term, his emphatic win at Aintree in May proving solid form, and made a promising start over fences at Newbury on Wednesday, closing powerfully when paying the price for a first mistake three out.
Where the money's going
Mourad did not quite seem to get home when stepped up to three miles at the Punchestown Festival, but the petrol may have been low at the end of his season and his comeback fourth behind Hurricane Fly at Fairyhouse on Wednesday prompted William Hill to lay 20-1 for the Ladbrokes World Hurdle.
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