Chris McGrath: Why marketing men face an uphill struggle to reform Flat season
Saturday 14 August 2010
As a rule they're too busy with clients who can offer them both dough and credulity. It must drive the marketing men nuts, then, when they try their luck with horseracing – and find that we can generally give them neither.
They expect us, in our slow, ruminating way, to simper ingenuously as they breeze through their presentations and flipcharts. "Sign here, please," they then say. "A thumbprint will do." More often than not, however, we furrow our brows, shake our heads and tell them they have got it all wrong. That the new vistas they open up for us are, in fact, cramped by their own, parochial misapprehensions.
It has become an article of faith among reformers that the Flat season tapers to an inadequate climax. They duly propose shoehorning some of the autumn's best races on to one card, notably by transplanting the Champion Stakes from Newmarket to Ascot. As innovators, of course, they assume the moral high ground – and imply an unworthy, reactionary reflex in any criticism.
But they have to recognise that elite Flat racing is an international sport, with a comprehensible and trusted structure. A stallion prospect, come the autumn, will contest the prize that best promotes him to breeders using proven terms of reference. In contrast with the best jumpers, who cross the Irish Sea at the very most, Flat champions routinely run in different continents, different hemispheres. And their season already has a terrific climax, one that integrates Pattern races from every point of the compass – Britain included.
These realities are reiterated, this weekend, by one of the most remarkable thoroughbreds on the planet. For not only is it possible to identify Goldikova's quest for an unprecedented third consecutive success at the Breeders' Cup, at Churchill Downs in November, as an obvious and fitting culmination to the 2010 season. It also holds true that her career can only be measured because she operates within the same matrix of opportunity as her great predecessors.
Nor are these merely arcane considerations, such that might only satisfy the industry. You cannot hope to excite a new public through counterfeit glitz. You have to demonstrate that you are showing them something meaningful.
Sure enough, Goldikova's third consecutive success in the Prix Rothschild, just 13 days ago, gives her parity with Miesque as the only other European thoroughbred to win 10 Group One races. Now if she can follow up her success last year in the Prix Jacques le Marois, run over the same course and distance tomorrow, she can claim the record outright.
Miesque herself won this race twice, and likewise the Breeders' Cup Mile twice – ridden by the man who now trains Goldikova, Freddie Head. This legacy helps to place her heir's claims to greatness in proper context. Equally, however, anyone who saw just one of her races has ample pretext to find out what happens tomorrow.
For her biggest rival is Paco Boy, the British colt who failed to run her down by just a neck at Royal Ascot in June. And to use that race as a guide to their relative merits requires you to take a view on another talent for the ages, in Richard Hughes.
With Paco Boy's trainer, Richard Hannon, apparently bringing inexhaustible reserves into the autumn, Hughes looks a very fair bet to make up a deficit of just a dozen winners on Paul Hanagan and win a first championship. Even now that his judgment is clearly more nuanced than in younger days, however, there are still people who cling to the old prejudices against Hughes. And they will dependably complain that he permitted Goldikova first run at Ascot, leaving his own mount too much to do.
In reality, if anyone warranted criticism that day it was Olivier Peslier on the winner. He sent her coasting clear about 500 yards out, and she became pardonably inattentive at the end of a straight mile. Hughes, in contrast, was only able to get such a strong finish out of Paco Boy because he had nursed his energy through the race. Had he committed earlier, and Peslier later, Goldikova would probably have won a good deal more cosily.
The obvious caveat about the mare confirming the form is instead the fact that she has since produced a generous effort to win again, while Paco Boy has been left in quiet recuperation. But much the same was true last year, when Goldikova annihilated Aqlaam by half-a-dozen lengths in this race.
The least Hannon can hope is that Paco Boy consumes plenty of her petrol, in the hope that she can have less in reserve should he take her on with Canford Cliffs later in the season. That might even be in Louisville, albeit Hannon has never quite come round to the Breeders' Cup since the day he lost Mr Brooks at Gulfstream Park in 1992.
That is part of his own history and should be respected. But the same is also true of the way all great races connect us with the champion horses and horsemen of the past. Kept in their proper setting, in terms of both time and place, they can connect future generations to that past, as well. We are no more than trustees of these races. To start wrenching them here and there, merely to gratify ignorant, egotistical interlopers, would be a shameful dereliction of duty.
From Newbury to Kentucky is great Brittain's dream for Zaidan
Plenty who have since tried and failed still expect to be taken very seriously, but the man who came closest to plundering the Kentucky Derby will doubtless be treated with fond condescension as he talks about going for the race with Zaidan next year. For that reason alone it would be gratifying to see this colt win the Matalan Washington Singer Stakes at Newbury today for Clive Brittain, the septuagenarian who in 1986 saddled Bold Arrangement to be foiled only in a photo at Churchill Downs.
Zaidan has won both starts to date, a maiden at Doncaster in the spring and then the Chesham Stakes at Royal Ascot. By Street Cry, a sire who excelled on dirt, Zaidan still looked green that day but cut through the field, and both form and time look pretty solid.
The same is also true, however, of Native Khan's debut at Newmarket last month. If not quite as ostentatious as Saamidd, another Street Cry colt, who won by seven lengths at Newbury yesterday, Native Khan had a really taking way about him and could develop into the big-race weapon craved by Kieren Fallon.
Fallon got a spry tune out of Borderlescott at Goodwood last month, so it was dispiriting when the horse returned lame. Yesterday, however, Robin Bastiman revealed that the veteran sprinter may yet be fit to go for his third consecutive Coolmore Nunthorpe Stakes next Friday.
"He was programmed to go on the horse-walker four or five days, but he was going mental so we gave him a canter," the trainer explained. "He was so full of himself. Maybe he just tweaked a muscle, who knows? My son Harvey rode him and the horse unshipped him. He does that when he's really well, so the vibes are good."
Turf Account: Chris McGrath
Smarty Socks (4.0 Doncaster)
His tendency to lose ground at the start will be factored into the odds, and looks worth chancing after retrieving his best in just four starts for his new trainer. Missed the break badly at York last time, but hurtled through before idling in front and is only 5lb higher here.
Sarasota Sunshine (3.40 Newbury)
Swatted aside at odds-on off this mark last time but well worth another chance. She had also had just nine days to recover from an improved effort for her new stable, looking well ahead of a mark that is unchanged today.
One to watch
Big Issue confirmed himself a smart young colt in winning his maiden at Salisbury during the week, but look out also for Glanusk (RM Beckett) who made a promising debut in fourth. A son of the top-class Dansili, he betrayed his inexperience before knuckling down well through the closing stages.
Where the money's going
Tajneed, whose four course wins include the 2008 running, could have the best of the draw in the William Hill Great St Wilfrid Handicap at Ripon today and was yesterday halved in price by the sponsors to 7-2, from 7-1.
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