Chris McGrath: Turf should take tip and restructure its finances urgently

Click to follow
The Independent Online

He was given barely a minute to make his selections, so nobody should dismiss the idea on the basis of one, hasty experiment. As it was, Daring Dream at Ayr proved a perfectly decent effort – second at 7-2, seven lengths clear of the rest, while Midnight Fantasy was only beaten a couple of lengths at Wolverhampton, at 12-1.

What's more, the Prime Minister acknowledged that he had only picked them out for their names: one for supporters, the other for sceptics. But his use of the term "nap selection" confirmed to listeners of the Today show on Radio 4, a couple of days ago, that David Cameron is no stranger to the Turf. Given rather more time to study the form, then, he might yet propose a daily Yankee to the Treasury as the most practical way out of that £150bn deficit.

To get it past a coalition Cabinet, admittedly, he would probably have to make it an each-way Yankee. Those of a different political hue, meanwhile, will simply be relieved his instincts, in perusing the cards so swiftly, did not instead disclose a preference for Franco Is My Name in the first at Sandown.

While hardly a modern Disraeli, Cameron was raised in racing country (on the Berkshire Downs) and in his Oxford days could be reliably consulted about the prospects of a horse running in his father's colours at the time. Given that he has so many other Domesday challenges, however, it is perhaps too much to hope that he retains sufficient allegiance to promote the sport's own crisis anywhere near the top of his agenda.

The stomach-churning freefall in Levy yield, now at its lowest level in over a decade, is not merely a function of the broader recession. It also reflects the sly disappearance, offshore, of a great deal of betting turnover. So much for racing's Mephistophelian "partnership". After the Levy became tied to bookmakers' gross profits, racing engorged the fixture list to keep their tills ringing. But its philandering new bedfellows were never going to discover a sudden, uxorious interest in the sport's own prosperity.

The biggest favour Cameron could do racing would be to abandon any larcenous Government claims to the Tote. In racing's hands, revolutionary cuts in Tote deductions could yet pull the carpet from under the feet not only of the bookmakers, but even of the betting exchanges.

For now, however, the sport has a duty to acknowledge its own, immediate obligations in a time of austerity. Why should it be different from everyone else? After all, the seeds of the greatest prosperity are always sown in the discouraging soil of recession, but only by those with the necessary courage.

The textbooks of politics, philosophy and economy once studied by Cameron never contained any model of funding and distribution as elaborately dysfunctional as racing. Its income is contingent on capitalist efficiencies. Spending, however, is straight out of 1970s Bulgaria.

Other than on sentimental grounds, why do we need to keep unprofitable racecourses in business? Never mind that nearly everyone now views the grotesque expansion of the fixture list as a reckless folly. Even if you wanted to sustain betting shop fodder in the same volume, it could nowadays be provided almost entirely by all-weather tracks.

And now is the time to grasp the nettle, unless a consensus in favour of "premier" racing is to produce nothing more than marketing cosmetics. Tiers of fixtures should mean tiers of funding. Racecourses that do not pull their weight can be left to operate in a more pragmatic zone, where prize-money is not squandered on mediocre horses. Point-to-point meetings, after all, are hugely popular with public and competitors alike, with neither subsidies nor meaningful prize-money. But those that cannot find a corresponding niche might as well be boarded up.

Nobody should be deceived that the game owes them a living. Not racecourses, if they are incompetently or greedily managed. Nor the owners of slow horses, themselves the result of an avaricious boom in breeding, whose many opportunities ensure that prize-money, such as it is, is spread too thinly. Nor those trainers who struggle on the margins of a vastly overpopulated profession.

Yes, it is imperative to keep some organic connection between the grass roots and Ascot or Cheltenham. But there are different ways of preserving the variety and reach of the sport's basic catchments.

It is hard to imagine the Turf, notoriously factious as it is, becoming a model for the society imagined by a certain amateur tipster, when he arrived in Downing Street earlier this month: "One where we don't just ask what are my entitlements, but what are my responsibilities; one where we don't ask what am I just owed, but more what can I give..."

But the only alternative is to sit tight, and hope that the cavalry arrives. And if the Prime Minister can tip horses, then those who govern racing might at least pretend to be statesmanlike.

Vermeer vaults Abbey as Murtagh loses his belief

He has been hot favourite since last autumn, notwithstanding a chastening defeat on his reappearance. But with a week to go to the Investec Derby it looks as though St Nicholas Abbey has suddenly lost the confidence of Johnny Murtagh.

Yesterday the Ballydoyle stable jockey was so disappointed by the colt's work that he told Aidan O'Brien that he might now switch to one of their other contenders at Epsom. "Johnny thought St Nicholas Abbey might not have shown the same sparkle he showed last Tuesday," O'Brien said. "Therefore he won't make up his mind what horse he rides until the middle of next week."

Punters were not disposed to wait, however, and the news ignited a desperate scramble in the market. William Hill slashed Jan Vermeer to 11-4 favourite, from 6-1, and eased St Nicholas Abbey to 3-1 from 7-4. He was even bigger on Betfair.

St Nicholas Abbey has long been a dazzling worker at home, so it must be a worry if the fires are flickering at this critical stage. As it was, punters had to accept a fairly flattering interpretation of his performance in the Guineas to persevere with him at Epsom. Now they will be looking afresh at the Ballydoyle colts who actually won their trials, none more impressively than Jan Vermeer at the Curragh last Sunday.

And let's give some credit, in the meantime, to O'Brien for keeping punters in the picture. He quickly clarified the changing situation yesterday morning on his new website. Punters now know that if they are still confused, they are not the only ones.

Turf Account: Chris McGrath


Pastoral Player (3.20 Newmarket)

Temperament suspicions last year but gelded during the winter and made a promising return over course and distance in the spring, always going well but isolated from one who mugged him on the other side.

Next best

Eton Forever (5.20 Haydock)

Looks to have been set a fair rating for his first handicap, having pulled a subsequent winner well clear of the pack in a fast-run maiden at Kempton. Could prove even better dropped a furlong here.

One to watch

Nahab (D R Lanigan)

Has a useful pedigree and completed a promising education in maidens at Ripon, dropped out before finishing strongly for fifth, not given too hard a race. Strict form is modest, but that should be reflected in her first handicap rating.

Where the money's going

Chaos in the Investec Derby market following St Nicholas Abbey's lacklustre work yesterday extended to renewed support for Cape Blanco, the stablemate previously thought likely to go to Chantilly instead. He is 8-1 from 10-1 with Sky Bet.