Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Festival controversies

I received an interesting e-mail today from those nice people at SBAT about the 10 biggest controversies at the Cheltenham Festival.

Interesting departure, I thought, from the usual Festival build up angles. The infograph is below in full. 

Some of these controversies I remember well. No 10: I was at the rail for the £50m fall when Ruby Walsh asked the wonder mare Annie Power for a big one under absolutely no pressure at all, and took a crashing fall. The air was filled with the confetti of shredded betting slips. 

I do not believe for a moment that this was part of any conspiracy theory. However, it is interesting to see the scrutiny under which Walsh’s last fence blunders have now come. Kevin Blake from At The Races undertook some excellent research to split the myth from fact around Ruby's final fence choking. His exhaustive analysis found that: 

  • Ruby Walsh’s mounts fell or unseated him at the final obstacle more than twice as often as the average of the mounts of the other nine top riders examined here; and, 
  • Ruby Walsh’s mounts fell or unseated him when leading at the final obstacle almost four times as often as the average of the mounts of the other nine top riders examined here.

The bottom line is that the % of those final fence falls, whilst more significant than other comparable jockeys, is still very small at 5.27%. I wouldn't put anyone off backing one of his horses at the Festival on the basis of these findings alone.

No 4: Interesting to be reminded about the Foot and Mouth calamity of 2001. The cancellation of the Festival was a real kick in the teeth. Our gang had already done the pub lunchtime sessions to pick out the ante post value. The Festival tickets were safely pouched and we were licking our lips at the prospect of the mighty Istabraq attempting to take an unprecedented 4th Champion Hurdle victory. 

F&M gripped the country in an ovine paralysis. It's easy to forget how quickly panic spread through rural life and how we became regularly exposed to TV pictures of smoking pyres of burning carcasses. Sports fixtures were culled equally dramatically amid jostling from sports administrators, politicians and pressure groups. It was only a matter of time before the Festival also fell victim. Bacchy and I, in the aftermath, resolved never again miss a single day of the Festival. And whilst it remained a three-day festival, that's what happened. 

No 6: I laughed at the Paddy Power reference here. These days the bookie's crass adverts are more likely to wind me up as make me giggle. However, the ambush marketing at the 2010 Festival was a brilliant coup. Hollywood-style giant white letters spelling out the bookmaker's name sat proud on Cleeve Hill overlooking the track. Some farmer had been bought off for the stunt and the meeting's preferred bookmakers went absolutely nuts. 

Wikipedia tells me that sign was at the time the world's largest free standing advertising board. It stood 50 feet high, stretched 270 feet wide, cost tens of thousands of pounds and needed 1000 man hours to create it.

There are a couple of controversies in the list that are new to me. No 9, The banning of the Racing Post from the Festival from 2012 just seems bizarre and shrouded in a hint of obscurity. Money? Influence? Offence? We may never know. And, No 8, the attempted banning of the Festival per se in 1829 because of prostitution and pickpocketing just goes to show how tolerant we have become! Ha! Although the new rules (No 2) on early closing of hospitality bars are probably no bad thing. 

The most sour notes on this list are, of course, the equine deaths at No 5 and No 1. The deaths of horses at the Festival remain a blight on the championships. The 2016 tally of 11 is a horrendous toll. It is a fact that on average one horse a day dies in training or at a course. That’s pretty harrowing. 

But we need to look at this in context. There are about 17,000 racehorses in training in the UK. They are bred to race. Without racing there would be significantly fewer horses full spot. They are beautiful, magnificent animals that grace their surroundings and it is a privilege to see them in full flight. The vast majority are incredibly well cared for with excellent facilities and devoted stable staff. The authorities are incredibly hot on trainers who abuse or mistreat their horses. And casualty rates are declining, too, despite what Animal Aid will have you believe before the upcoming Festival. Racing is always going to present risks to man and beast. It's about managing that risk as sensibly as possible.

Whatever your Festival aspirations next week, have a blast and stay controversy free.

Top Ten Cheltenham Controversies - SBAT

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