To horseracing purists – a constituency that extends, you may be surprised to learn, a little beyond those who don't bother with the soda water – it is only fitting that the trainers' championship may be determined, once again, by the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes next Saturday.
Last year, in saddling the first three home, Sir Michael Stoute in effect sealed the title for the tenth time since 1981. This time round, he trains both the colts who dominate the market: Workforce, the spectacular Derby winner, and Harbinger, a flourishing older horse in the classic Stoute mould. As such, Stoute will stem a chronic decline in precisely the quality that long defined Ascot's midsummer championship. Three-year-olds have taken on the older horses only once in the last four runnings, and even then only in a supporting role. This time, however, it will be just like old times, with Derby winners arriving from both Epsom and the Curragh.
And that is the whole idea behind settling the trainers' title according to prizemoney. To measure his resources against elite competition, Stoute (like Aidan O'Brien) must sometimes run his best horses against each other. As such, his genius flavours the legacy of particular races, courses and – through stallions – the breed itself.
To the cognoscenti, then, it might seem wrong that Richard Hannon could maintain his lead in the table largely by winning the sort of valuable juvenile prize that provides the focus of today's action. The Weatherbys Super Sprint at Newbury carries a first prize of nearly £100,000, and the race conditions favour those horses bought inexpensively at auction. Hannon has six chances for a fifth success in eight runnings. Even this purse, of course, is vastly exceeded by those contested by graduates of specific yearling sales, later in the season – again, races in which Hannon has a fine record.
These latter, undoubtedly, offer distorted, disproportionate rewards. It is grotesque that a sales race, funded very largely by entry fees, should be worth more than those open contests that crown the juvenile Pattern. Increasingly, moreover, they will dilute the quality of that Pattern by seducing horses with cash instead of kudos.
It would be quite wrong, however, to be at all prudish should they help Hannon add to the championship he won in 1992. For a start, neither Stoute nor O'Brien can match his stable's breadth across the top races for all generations. Admittedly he will never have much depth in staying races, because he and his owners tend to shop for sharper, commercial types. But Hannon already has the favourites for both the 2,000 and 1,000 Guineas, as well as the top British milers at both three and four, in Canford Cliffs and Paco Boy.
But there is a point of principle, too. For these big purses – especially the less artificial model, of the sort we see at Newbury today – do reward a professional excellence. If the trainers' title is supposed to be about the bottom line, then so, too, are the dividends the best of them offer their patrons. And middle-market investors get no less remarkable a service from the Hannons – his son, assistant and namesake, clearly warrants some credit for what is happening – than do the breeding superpowers who stock Stoute's stable with so many Classic pedigrees.
It is maddening, of course, that some of these emperors of the Turf don't throw a bone to those who excel with lesser resources. Never mind Hannon, why on earth haven't the Maktoums or Juddmonte or Coolmore taken a chance with Richard Fahey, whose prolific success has launched Paul Hanagan on an exciting (and very edifying) crack at the jockeys' title?
It's very wholesome, of course, that big investors back young trainers such as David Lanigan, whose palpable talents could be rewarded with a first Classic success as early as tomorrow, when Meeznah seeks to avenge her Epsom defeat by Snow Fairy in the Darley Irish Oaks. But the problem is that some perceptions can be self-fulfilling, and that infects the whole pyramid.
Take the egregious example of Mr Graham Regan, who this week got it into his head to transfer Niche Market from Bob Buckler to Paul Nicholls. Here was a horse whose success in the Irish National confirmed that Buckler, with a fraction of the resources that underpin Nicholls as champion trainer, was a match for anyone – given the right material. Buckler, with his expert eye for a slow- burning, chasing type, had picked out Niche Market for just £20,000. And he turned him into one of the most irresistible steeplechasers in training, whose exuberant jumping and indefatigable gallop contributed to the downfall of Denman himself, when he refused to buckle at Newbury in February.
He will have been treated like royalty in Buckler's yard. With Nicholls, he will find himself among the proletariat. While wishing him no ill, very few would now find Niche Market winning at Aintree very palatable – though it must be said that Nicholls, himself readily exonerated of any blame in accepting the horse, is notoriously unproductive in the National.
You often see horses improve for a change of stable. But they will often do so when apparently dropped a tier or two, from yards that owe their reputation to the lavish loyalty of the biggest spenders to street-smart trainers such as Fahey or Kevin Ryan. And you suspect such men would greet another title for Hannon as a reminder to investors that excellence has many different forms.
Authorities show paranoia in being wild about Harry
Kieren Fallon. Guilty of one or two ingenuous indiscretions. Dragged through the Old Bailey itself, tarnishing his own name and that of the sport.
Harry Findlay. Guilty of an ingenuous, and fairly tenuous, breach of racing's rules. Held to account with strict liability, disqualified for six months – twice as long, be it noted, as the thug who punched Fallon himself at Lingfield in March.
In both cases, thank goodness, these two colourful characters – who had engaged the curiosity of so many outsiders, for so many better reasons – could ultimately walk away with their reputations formally restored.
But was it a coincidence that both were initially treated so very clumsily? The racing authorities, not very convincingly, washed their hands of the decision to prosecute Fallon. But the ham-fisted case against Findlay surely implies that the same paranoid misapprehensions still thrive in their security department.
Even when Findlay had his ban overturned, during the week, his case was not offered as a precedent permitting owners to "hedge" win bets on their horses. But can anyone give one good reason why the rules should not be changed to that effect? Apart, that is, from the reds-under-our-beds delusions of those who cannot tell "inside information" from a horse breaking wind.
Turf Account: Chris McGrath
Forest Crown (2.45 Newbury)
Progressing quickly now, having controlled matters throughout at Nottingham last time before showing decisive acceleration. Up 7lbs but more to come – from the family of Storm Cat, she can summon upon some very smart genes – and her trainer excels with improving fillies.
Half Truth (6.20 Lingfield)
Well backed when too green for her debut and had more in hand than the winning margin at Bath next time, her apprentice jockey doing well enough to keep the ride today. As a half-sister to the top-class sprinter Fleeting Spirit, she is entitled to prove herself well treated for this handicap debut.
One to watch
Piddie's Power (E S McMahon)
Shaped nicely on all three starts in maidens without spoiling her initial mark, and looked unlucky not to strike once switched to handicaps at Beverley on Tuesday. She saw off all those who shared a decent gallop only to be reeled in close to home, the pair four lengths clear.
Where the money's going
Harbinger, The Tom Dascombe-trained Johnny Mudball, who made the most of a good draw at Newcastle last month but had promised more to come regardless, is 11-1 from 14-1 for the Blue Square Stewards' Cup at Goodwood a fortnight today.