Information is far from a sure cure for ignorance
Education will always reduce ignorance. The same is not necessarily true, however, of information.
Information tends to be relayed in black and white. A horse owned by Harry Redknapp, for instance, was killed in a fall at Taunton on Thursday. Ballabriggs meanwhile resurfaces at Kelso today for the first time since winning a race that challenged the sport's biggest audience of the year with several highly distressing tableaux. His rider's performance at Aintree last April triggered a radical toughening of the whip regulations; yet the authorities will rush through a humiliating climbdown on Tuesday, exactly a week before the Cheltenham Festival. Oh, and the most accomplished horse due to run at that meeting, Kauto Star, fell in a schooling session last week. His trainer did not tell anyone for six days.
It would be irresponsible, in all these cases, to pretend there are no grey areas. Yet even those who follow the Turf professionally can be fairly ignorant about horses. In fact, you only start getting somewhere once you realise how every new answer raises a bigger question. Horses, after all, give us plenty of practice at being wrong. They teach you that the more you know, the less you know.
By the same token, those who profess utter certainty seldom prove reliable witnesses. That is true, within the industry, of any who cannot see the bigger picture; who sense no obligation to a world beyond the enchanted garden. But it is just as true of any who think racing's moral dilemmas can all be depicted, disparaged and resolved in black and white. Each extreme is as crude, emotive and arrogant as the other.
Those vigilant against both will see how one side attributes the loss of Redknapp's horse to "merciless exploitation"; and how the other perceives precisely the same in that rebuke. They will pray that modifications to the course at Aintree will allow Ballabriggs to defend a John Smith's Grand National that retains its magic, without making unconscionable demands of its participants. They will implore the regulators to keep their heads over the whip, after contributing culpably to a mood of hysteria. And, in respect of the issue that dominated the sport yesterday, they will indulge Paul Nicholls in an excruciatingly tense situation.
Nicholls clearly suspects that press and public would have lacked sufficient education to make a proper judgement of immediate information about Kauto Star's fall. It is somewhat disingenuous, however, to protest that the public cannot be informed of every minor setback. That is perfectly true, in principle, and no champion trainer has ever set himself such exacting standards in terms of candour with the public. But for no less a horse than Kauto Star to take not just the first schooling fall of his life, but a "very heavy one", scarcely qualifies as too commonplace to be worth airing.
Equally, Nicholls should not now be reproached for volunteering the information too late. For while we can all think of trainers who would be crucified in the press and media, in an equivalent situation, the reality is that it would never arise. The full story would never be told. Should the horse's prognosis deteriorate sufficiently to make a public bulletin necessary – and that would not be for some days yet – many trainers would confine themselves to saying that he had "knocked himself". They would certainly not explain how, or how long ago.
Nicholls has always been emotionally vulnerable through Kauto Star, whose rise was in tandem with his own. And he has surely accumulated enough credit for past services to be pardoned a dread of sudden, frenzied, ill-informed questioning and speculation. The moment he realised that his optimism might yet be misplaced, that the horse was actually only 50-50 to get to the Festival, he did something about it.
All this, by definition, will only concern those already sufficiently engaged to have some emotional or financial stake in Kauto Star seeking a third Gold Cup. And the stagnant betting over the previous week not only corroborates his trainer's claims that nobody in the yard had been too alarmed, but also that its staff are wholly innocent of cheap opportunism.
Apart from Frankel, Kauto Star is perhaps the only horse that can reach far beyond the sport. But one race, the National, will do so far more dependably. As such, the state of play with Ballabriggs is perhaps of more lasting significance. No National winner since Bindaree, in 2002, has since managed to win another race under Rules. It would be unsurprising for Ballabriggs to extend that sequence, having been caught out by the very different demands of this race last year. Let's just hope he manifests undiminished enthusiasm, because that will make it a lot easier for the rest of us to do the same.
Cheltenham countdown: 10 days to go
My top fancy for the festival: Jonjo O'Neill, trainer
I know most people will be going with the favourite, Hurricane Fly, but I'll take Binocular in the Stan James Champion Hurdle. He seems to be back in top form. I was very impressed with him at Wincanton – he looked terrific, and won very easily – and I think he's better than he's given credit for.
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