Chris McGrath: The Flat doesn't need to be fixed
Saturday 03 April 2010
However worthy their intentions, they have to remember one thing. You should never let a story get in the way of good facts.
The first week of a new turf season has renewed all the old grumbles about the lack of "narrative" on the Flat, and the torpor of its opening phase. This time next week, moreover, attention will be restored to the jumpers for our one, true National institution, at Aintree. It is only then, in the Classic trials, that things really begin to liven up on the level.
Meetings like the Craven, of course, are the ultimate aficionados' convention. The people at Racing For Change duly propose opening their blessed "premier" Flat season at the Guineas meeting, in early May. They then wish to contrive an all-singing, all-dancing climax to the domestic season in October, apparently at Ascot.
Such a project is not without its merits. You could certainly bring together some of the autumn's best races to make a bigger impact. That was the original idea behind the Ascot Festival and "Champions' Day" at Newmarket. Perhaps enough from each might be shoehorned together to achieve something more resonant.
But to describe yourself as the "moderniser", and your critic as the reactionary, is just a cheap shot. And the bottom line remains that much of the debate is predicated on hopeless misapprehension.
Flat racing, unlike jumping, is a truly integrated international sport. As such, its Premier League already has a fabulous climax. It is ridiculous to imply that all those Group One races at Longchamp on Arc day comprise a purely French occasion, or that the Breeders' Cup cannot meaningfully round off the career of a European champion, simply because it is in a different time zone and is not shown on terrestrial television.
A champion like Sea The Stars has a coherent and engrossing schedule of opportunities, from spring to autumn. And the way he was campaigned reiterated the reality, routinely misrepresented, that the Flat season has infinitely superior momentum to the jumps. If you happened to own such a champion, your choice for his swansong is likely to rest between the Arc, Champion Stakes or Breeders' Cup. The weakness of the British option is that its timing confines you to just one of the three, whereas you can feasibly contest both the others.
To compound that problem with some notional "competition" for the Breeders' Cup or Longchamp defeats the whole logic of the Pattern system – which obeys, not the fatuous priorities of self-important marketing men, but the professional ones of cerebral and accomplished achievers like John Oxx, trainer of Sea The Stars.
You cannot screw around with the requirements of the sport's defining contributors purely to satisfy half-informed intruders that tradition and complacency are not one and the same. In proposing a "premier" jumps season, running from Cheltenham's November meeting to the Festival, Racing For Change candidly accepted that professionals would persevere with the calendars against which they could measure past and present achievement. If you think Tony McCoy will consider himself champion jockey because he rides most winners in four months of "premier" racing, you can think again. And if jockeys couldn't care less which of them is "premier" champion, then why should anyone else?
By 2011, officially April will be neither the jumps season (Grand National or no Grand National) nor the Flat season. It is all cosmetic, of course. And that will only ever get you so far. By definition, a good story is not a predictable one. From Racing For Change's perspective, it is hard to imagine a better jockeys' championship than the one ultimately shared – in the very last race of the turf season, a nondescript handicap at muddy Doncaster – between Jamie Spencer and Seb Sanders. You can't organise that kind of "narrative". You can only make the best of it, when it happens.
To that extent, Racing For Change has already shown its true potential. Admittedly, it was always hazardous – as was remarked, here and elsewhere, before the race – to tell people that they could not afford to miss this great showdown between Kauto Star and Denman at Cheltenham. That might well have backfired far less palatably than in the intrusion, on merit, of another horse: the process of public education would have been uncomfortably hastened had Kauto Star not jumped up from that horrifying fall. The essential point remains, however, that Racing For Change demonstrated an effective capacity for improving racing's reach, when it does have a story to tell.
And, funnily enough, these unfocused first days on the Flat have already sown seeds of fascination. Frankie Dettori's sudden link with Mark Johnston – confirming the stable's growing role in the Maktoum empire – offers him the platform for a first genuine crack at the title since he last felt he had a point to prove, in 2004. He has all the incentive he needs, this time, in the fast-tracking by their mutual boss of Ahmed Ajtebi.
Then there is Kieren Fallon, who disclosed in these pages a week ago how passionate he is about retrieving the title he last won in 2003, before ill luck and judgement combined to menace his career. And then there is the young incumbent, Ryan Moore, who has never previously faced anything like such earnest competition.
The title race is all about momentum. And whatever they say, you may rest assured that every crappy winner, of every crappy race, will already be hoarded like gems by each of these riders. That's just a fact. But it may yet turn out to be the story, as well.
Fallon hopes Kay Gee Be will deliver justice
Having produced his parish priest as a character witness, David Reynolds got away with some remarkably indulgent penance on Monday when the British Horseracing Authority banned him for three months for hitting Kieren Fallon at Lingfield. Reynolds was also fined £10,000 but it seems astonishing that an owner could perpetrate what amounted surely, prima facie, to a criminal assault on a jockey and be welcomed back in time for the Newmarket July Meeting.
Reynolds, unlike the track's stewards, blamed Fallon for interference suffered by a horse in his part-ownership, The Scorching Wind who resurfaces at Kempton today, and presumably he will be among those watching on Channel 4. He may or may not see the justice should Fallon have the last laugh – his mount, Kay Gee Be (3.50 Kempton) has the pick of the draw and is always best fresh.
There is also scope for extra satisfaction for the rider of Pipette (2.05), Jimmy Fortune having been recently supplanted as John Gosden's stable jockey by William Buick, who rides Clairvoyance for his new boss. Fortune teams up with Buick's former employer, Andrew Balding, on a filly who has better form than Clairvoyance. It seems safe to assume that Buick will not be making his challenge between Fortune and the rail.
Turf account: Chris McGrath
Shamwari Lodge (3.15 Kempton)
Her stable has made its usual brisk start. Won first time out last term, over 6f, and that speed suggests she will readily adapt to this environment.
Salut Flo (3.30 Haydock)
This French import annihilated a subsequent winner on his British debut.
*One To Watch
Regeneration (M L W Bell) did not get home in the testing ground at Doncaster last weekend, but the way he travelled before fading illuminated heavy market support.
*Where The Money's Going
Character Building is 20-1 from 25-1 with William Hill for the John Smith's Grand National next Saturday.
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