Chris McGrath: Novices at the BHA make a mockery of landmark day
Even among those still vexed by the misapprehensions and vanities that must be shed if the sport's new showcase is to achieve its potential best, it is impossible not to feel sympathy for the organisers of the inaugural Qipco Champions Day at Ascot.
Here we have the richest card in the history of the British Turf, decorated by a colt rated by no less a master than Sir Henry Cecil as without precedent in his experience. And yet the sport's regulators have somehow contrived to spread the rankest ordure across its grand new stage.
By some unaccountable, diabolical folly, the British Horseracing Authority decided to make its highly contentious new whip regulations effective from the start of this same week – giving jockeys just five days to adjust to a radical culture shock before riding Frankel and others at Ascot. Within four, one of the most seasoned and artistic horsemen of his generation had been found guilty of two highly marginal offences under the new regime. His cumulative, 15-day suspension rules Richard Hughes out of the ride on Strong Suit in the Breeders' Cup Mile at Churchill Downs next month.
Hughes surrendered his licence on the spot at Kempton on Thursday, and vowed that we will have seen the last of a superb talent unless the BHA revokes its "barbaric" new penalty structure. There are rumours that his peers may make some kind of protest at Ascot today, and they are certainly intending to withdraw their services from all three meetings scheduled on Monday.
So much for the legacy sought at Ascot today by certain big egos at the helm of the sport. Jolly well done, lads, and by the way, Strong Suit runs in the colours of the young sheikh whose Qatari homeland has underwritten today's big card – far and away the most tangible benefit from controversial revisions to the autumn calendar.
Even before the crisis escalated at Kempton, the BHA had seemed to be looking for trouble in expecting jockeys to alter the habits of years so quickly. Now one of the most intelligent and sympathetic of all riders, Hughes, has given a series of articulate and impassioned interviews after his impromptu gesture of disgust. And all the tap-room talk that might have been devoted to Frankel has instead been claimed by a sport at war with itself.
The unsparing new schedule of punishments was clearly devised as a deterrent, but it has quickly become evident that it is not just the jockeys who needed better opportunity to test the water. For Hughes to miss the Breeders' Cup after two such inoffensive rides seems so preposterous that the BHA has succeeded in turning the majority of industry professionals against it more or less overnight. The adjective chosen by most to describe their mood yesterday was "embarrassed".
Ascot today should have been an occasion for almost unqualified celebration. It is hard to imagine a more auspicious benediction: a horse for the ages, gilded by autumn sunshine on a day that might equally have been blighted by bad weather and worse going. Even those vexed by the fatuous insistence that everyone in the industry has an obligation to "get behind" the ludicrous Champions Series had been thrilled by the depth of the fields today. As things have turned out, we have been given far more alarming grounds for suspecting some fatal disconnection between the grass roots of the Turf and its notional leaders.
It is hardly surprising that these men think they can reach a new audience, whether through new whip rules or a new calendar, when so many among them are novices themselves – some of them interlopers whose self-regard has been lovingly nurtured in very different environments.
So far as the new autumn programme is concerned, today's card demonstrates the goodwill out there, or at least as to the response guaranteed by such enormous purses. For now, however, it remains predicated on a perilous misunderstanding. Anyone with a proper grasp of the international racing and bloodstock industries will recognise that a new climax to the domestic season should not compete with the Arc and Breeders' Cup, but complement them. While a slot in September would bring its own headaches, it would leave scope for those champions that have established local supremacy to meet fresh challenges thereafter. Instead they are being urged to reiterate their stature against familiar opposition.
It seems that every time the sport's leaders claim to see the bigger picture, they end up betraying a lack of perspective instead. And you may be certain that Little Englanders will never make the most of a great racing nation.
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