Chris McGrath: Title race at point of no return as Hughes chases own shadow while Hanagan proves the man

Click to follow
The Independent Online

He calls himself Richard Hughes, and certainly the resemblance is uncanny. Nobody else, surely, could ride with such gloss, such insouciance. But seven rides at Newbury today, and then off to Wolverhampton – finishing in the 9.20? This isn't the Hughes we know and love. Tomorrow, moreover, he tackles Paul Hanagan on his own turf, the only Flat meeting of the day being at Hamilton.

You have to hand it to the man. Hughes has always been about quality, not quantity, but nobody can accuse him of being a dilettante now. Richard Hannon, his father-in-law and principal patron, considered his schedule yesterday and shook his head. "He doesn't need that," he said. "He's a top-class jockey. Doesn't need to be going to places like Wolverhampton. Still, I suppose this is probably his best shot, so he's got to give it a try. He won't catch that other fellow, though. He's too far ahead."

Certainly, this weekend could be Hughes' last stand in the title race. Yesterday Hannon sent him to Newmarket to ride half a dozen juveniles, and he drew a blank. Hanagan meanwhile rode a brilliant treble at Ayr, extending his lead at the top of the table to 18.

Had Hughes gone to Newbury instead, he might have kept up the pressure. Hannon saddled his 100th juvenile winner of the season, in Moriarty, promptly added his 101st, and remains much the most likely of the pair to win a championship.

Moriarty was following in some illustrious footsteps in the Haynes, Hanson & Clark Stakes, and some of his victims should also flourish over middle distances next year. But fulfilment looks rather more imminent for the winners of both Listed races on the card.

Delegator did well to win on his comeback, having lacked cover, and is likely to go for the Challenge Stakes at Newmarket before returning to the Breeders' Cup. Churchill Downs is also on the agenda for Dangerous Midge, who proved such a revelation that Coral introduced him at just 10-1 for the Turf.

Hughes is likely to be required in Louisville, of course. Even if he does manage to close the gap, then, he will leave the home front undefended for the final act. Hannon, equally, will be diverting some of his most productive charges overseas. Yesterday, indeed, he disclosed that he is keen to supplement Zebedee to meet older horses in the Prix de l'Abbaye at Longchamp on Arc day.

As it happens, Hughes teams up today with last year's Abbaye winner, Total Gallery. This race should presumably put the horse right for his return to Paris, having been given a three-month break since disappointing in the season's first half.

Hannon's big hope on the card is Libranno, who replaces Strong Suit in the Dubai Duty Free Mill Reef Stakes. Just like Strong Suit, who instead waits for the Middle Park, this colt lost his unbeaten record when sent abroad for his Group One debut last time. Hannon feels Libranno (2.30) wasn't himself that day, and his best form would seem to set the standard.

Senate and Forte Dei Marmi (3.05) are the standout improvers in the card's big handicap, but even that prize is overshadowed by the chaotically competitive William Hill Ayr Gold Cup. Hanagan must have found it hard enough to choose from six runners saddled by Richard Fahey, so what chance do the rest of us have, picking from 27? Let's leave it to the race specialist, Dandy Nicholls. Victoire De Lyphar has thrived since entering his care, but narrow preference is for another recent recruit, Redford (3.20).

Racing should unite to claim Tote weapon in struggle with bookies

Fell off the back of a lorry, I suppose. Whenever the Government starts talking about selling off the Tote, as it did once again on Wednesday, you wonder anew whether there has ever been a more barefaced case of handling stolen goods. But in these austere times, it is surprising the Treasury hasn't already melted down the gates of Buckingham Palace. Certainly, it would have no compunction about hawking the Tote at a car boot sale, never mind to the vultures circling over some complex, ambiguous "open market process".

The very next day, the British Horseracing Authority announced a formal partnership, Racing United, to reiterate unanimity among the sport's various stakeholders that they are not getting "a fair return from the betting industry". This felt a bit like the scene in Groundhog Day where our man punches the insurance salesman: it might feel as though you have done something to redress your frustrations, but the bottom line is that it's still Groundhog Day. In other words, it's that time of year again, when the BHA and bookmakers stand glowering on different sides of the Levy abyss.

On Wednesday, then, racing found itself jumping up and down in a helpless tantrum, wishing that life was not so bally unfair. And on Thursday, it jumped up and down in a helpless tantrum, wishing that life was not so bally unfair.

The BHA leadership is often accused of lacking gusto, but there are limits to what they can do. The recent negotiation of fixtures directly between racecourses and the Horsemen's Group must give them intimations of irrelevance.But before they ride off into the sunset they should recognise their big cue.

If it's the last thing they do – and, if they don't succeed, it might as well be – they must get the Government to recognise the Tote as the Trojan horse by which to lift the bookmakers' siege at last.

Though trousering 13.5 per cent of the win pool – never mind up to 30 per cent in unique exotic pools, such as the Scoop6 – the Tote routinely manages parity with the prices returned by bookmakers. By cutting deductions to 10 per cent, or even less, they could presumably under-cut not just the bookmakers, but the betting exchanges as well. If racing could organise itself to pay off the Treasury, it might never again have to worry about getting a "fair return" from the betting industry. It would be the betting industry.

Punters would benefit, too. At the moment, racing has an invidious stake in bookmakers making money out of mugs. And it is infuriated by the new, smarter exchange generation. All that could change overnight. And what about the untapped, global potential for pool betting on other sports? (A betting exchange, after all, is itself just another type of pool wagering.)

It's not that simple, of course. The Government would have to prolong or protect the exclusive pool-betting licence. You would presumably have to write off Tote Direct, a vital conduit from other betting shop chains into Tote pools. The Tote's existing staff and infrastructure would bring their own burdens.

But handing over the Tote to predatory interests would replicate the original, disastrously myopic state decision to legalise betting shops in the private sector. There are businessmen close to racing's corridors of power who clearly consider the Tote a sleeping giant. And this is where you need a body like Racing United. Because if the bookmakers really are making all this dough, and won't share it properly, then the sport's stakeholders know just what to do. If you can't join them, beat them.

Turf Account: Chris McGrath


Lithaam (5.45 Wolverhampton) Has slipped down to a very good mark – won over course and distance last autumn off a 13lb higher mark – and there were signs of revival here last time, travelling much better than recently before threading through traffic to finish on the heels of the placed horses.

Next best

Sour Mash (4.40 Newmarket) Drops in trip after going too freely at Goodwood last time, but break since implies that the race may have come too soon, following a generous second on his handicap debut. Had previously won a maiden over course and distance and, with few miles on the clock, entitled to plenty of progress.

One to Watch

Space War (J M Gosden) interrupted his stable's fabulous streak with an unlucky run at Sandown, stuck in traffic until bursting through into a close fourth. He had disappeared for two months after failing to show in his first handicap, but has returned on a very manageable rating.

Where the money's going

The favourites for the Autumn Double are in demand with Coral, Nationalism now 13-2 from 8-1 for the Cambridgeshire and Admiral Barry 9-1 from 12-1 for the Cesarewitch.