Chris McGrath: Snow Fairy may reap the fruits while racing misses real harvest
Among the maddening misapprehensions that ignited all this heedless vandalism to the autumn calendar, there were also genuine missed opportunities.
You only have to look at Ireland's premier all-aged championship, staged at Leopardstown today, to suspect that the reforms – in one respect, at any rate – might not have been radical enough.
Only five horses take on So You Think in the Red Mills Irish Champion Stakes – two housed in the same stable, and another entirely by accident. Snow Fairy's connections had no intention of bringing her here, until some French pedant dusted off the obscure red tape that prohibited her from running at Deauville a couple of weeks ago. He has maintained his anonymity since, probably wisely, albeit the Leopardstown management might well be glad to send him a fat cheque.
In recent years, the top European performers over 10 furlongs have had their schedule stretched by lucrative opportunities elsewhere: in Dubai in the spring, and later on in America, Japan and Hong Kong. As a result, the traditional programme has increasingly lacked depth. The Coral-Eclipse Stakes and Juddmonte International are consistently beset by small fields, and today's race appears to compound the trend.
Originally, many hoped to bring the new Qipco Champion Stakes at Ascot forward to September, but felt constrained by proximity to today's race. Instead eye-watering sums have been thrown at a prize that might conceivably raise only one fresh question: namely, can horses that have been racing against each other all season reproduce the form in deteriorating ground?
Perhaps there wasn't the necessary goodwill, or perhaps there simply wasn't the imagination. But a more far-sighted solution would surely have been to pool resources with the Irish, and alternate the biggest pot in Europe. With so many good races run during September – either side of the Irish Sea, across various disciplines – the respective domestic programmes could easily have been tweaked to give due éclat to the rest of the card. But the main achievement would be to afford the winner due flexibility to participate in the big international races still to come.
As it is, Ascot's new October showcase has been predicated on a parochial misunderstanding. Everyone who grasps the priorities that govern the exposure of future stallions will recognise that new frontiers must be sought at the end of the season. Yet this reality is being inanely treated as invidious to the interests of the British sport.
Funnily enough, even as it stands today's race may not prove quite the cakewalk the odds imply. So You Think, imported after a sensational career in Australia, is yet to have his full capacity measured in the northern hemisphere. After being run down by one stayer at Royal Ascot, he managed to see off another in the Eclipse. Perhaps we need to see him take on horses like that at their own game, in the Arc, and then maybe the Americans in their own backyard, before we can assent to the billing that preceded him to Ballydoyle.
And it is not impossible that Snow Fairy will make life uncomfortable for anyone prepared to risk terribly short odds today. At her best, this filly has a lethal turn of foot, whereas So You Think tends to depend on the voracious reach of his stride. In a small field, especially, he would do well to stem the sort of acceleration Snow Fairy showed in Japan and Hong Kong late last year.
It remains to be seen whether she is quite back to that peak, but she certainly thrived as 2010 wore on. And she took a big step forward for her reappearance in the Eclipse – a long way behind So You Think, but extremely rusty after a setback in the spring – when chasing home Midday at Goodwood last time. While So You Think is the most likely winner, 6-1 is by no means a bad price about the filly.
Frankie Dettori, her rider, rushes over by helicopter from the big race at Haydock, where, once again, the odds against his mount look rather too long. The field convening for the Betfred Sprint Cup find the crown of divisional champion still vacant, with two of the key pretenders beaten last time. Hoof It, graduating from handicaps in the Nunthorpe, could not get involved after missing the break but remains entitled to cut it at this level, back over a sixth furlong. There was no accounting for Dream Ahead's tame run in France last time, however, and he did have the run of things along the rail in the July Cup previously.
Delegator (3.35) was hopelessly marooned by the draw that day, short of room, too. He had finally looked to discover his métier when dropped to this trip at York in May, coasting through the field, and his run at Goodwood last time can be excused as he was struck into. As long as conditions remain fast, 10-1 looks a very palatable price.
Perhaps the best bet on that card is the thriving Shernando (2.30), who is bred to do better again over this extra distance. At Kempton, in contrast, Modun (2.15) can show that he failed to last home after travelling strongly over the longer trip in the Ebor Handicap last time.
It's another hectic Saturday, all told, but the Irish have guaranteed maximum attention for their big race with its new, matinee slot. Some of us have long speculated what might be achieved for the profile of the Derby, if shifted towards television prime time. Sadly, however, it seems that the Turf's most radical gestures will largely be misplaced.
How courses have moved the winning post
Over recent years, the racing authorities have become rather too credulous – and sometimes downright paranoid – about the ostensible value of "inside information". Every single day, however, a small number of high-rolling exchange punters are cynically exploiting something far more substantial than mere gallops gossip. And many racecourses are eagerly sharing the spoils.
At The Races reckons on an interval of between five and seven seconds before their "live" images reach your television at home. There are varying delays on all other channels, too, prompting opportunist in-running punters to hire hospitality boxes on racecourses so that they can quite literally be ahead of the game.
As a result, they are perfectly capable of laying a jumper that has already fallen. Can anyone explain how this is ethically different from an "insider" laying an ante-post bet on a horse privately known to be injured or even dead, which larceny has been rightly prohibited?
In fairness to the betting exchanges, all in-running punters have their attention drawn to possible time delays in television coverage. But the more naïve among them are demonstrably unaware that the very tracks staging the event are also providing facilities for other people more or less to rob them blind.
The trade newspaper, Racing Post, recently estimated that Wolverhampton and Southwell are accommodating up to 30 in-running punters at each meeting, and trousering handsome fees. The managing director of these two courses was quoted lamenting that they are less profitable than corporate clients, as they don't use their caterers. "However, they are good customers," he added. "They're not louts, and they're very tidy."
Well, that's all right then. So long as these characters are keeping the carpets clean, who cares about the state of anyone's conscience?
Chris McGrath's Nap
Fulgur (3.45 Ascot)
Progress over shorter trips requires him to give weight to most here, but further improvement beckons in his first handicap at this trip, having looked ready for a stiffer test at Goodwood last time.
Smarty Socks (3.15 Ascot)
Comes with obvious risks, given his habit of missing the break, but clearly has the ability to defy this kind of mark judged on the way he has rattled home in each of his last three starts.
One To Watch
Spunky (Luca Cumani) acquired a lowly rating in three maiden spins and looked unlucky when raised in trip for his first nursery at Kempton on Wednesday, trapped in before flying into second.
Where the money's going
Ile De Re is 9-1 from 10-1 with the sponsors for the Betfred Old Borough Cup at Haydock today, while Nave is 20-1 from 25-1.
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