Arguably, as racing years go, 2014 was not a rumbustious cartwheeling of champagne moments or as packed with giddy achievements as some previous years. Neither did it attract so many damaging and controversial headlines either. Maybe a solid year is no bad thing. It was, however, thrilling, emotional, notable, absorbing and, yes, some dispiritng or concerning aspects too.
Here are a few of the peaks, valleys and plateaus that have contributed to the geography of my punting year.
I sometimes crab and scowl a little about this fair isle’s finest racing festival: too many amateur races, too much domination of the season, too few decent facilities… And yet it remains the pinnacle of my year. Rightly so. The Cheltenham Festival is a place to make memories and celebrate equine excellence. And maybe find a winner or two as well. Fitting then, that Edward Gillespie who spent 32 years as the managing director at the course has been awarded an OBE in the New Year honours.
This year, Jezki winning the Champion Hurdle was a personal highlight. Given an inspired ride from Barry Geraghty in an incident packed race, this classy hurdler didn’t get his due respect until beating the Fly again at Punchestown the following month. I still maintain The New One was never winning the Cheltenham day-one feature (but he looks better still this year!)
On the subject of respect, Jamie Moore and father Gary got full payback for some grudging early season comments when their superstar two-miler Sire De Grugy won the Queen Mother Champion Chase. He finished the season unbeaten. Wonderful scenes. And then drama as Lord Windermere came from last to first to win the Gold Cup, where Silviniaco Conti - leading up the hill - finished out of the frame. Five or more were in contention at the last.
Sticking with the Moore clan a moment longer, 2014 was the year when Ryan took his already prodigious success to a new level. His talent has never been in doubt and he now has the global achievements to frank it: Britain, Ireland, France, Japan and then going down under to win both the Cox Plate with Adelaide and finally Melbourne Cup, with the German-trained Proctectionist. He ended the season with 14 Group One winners. More than this, the quality of his rides has been the hallmark of his class. Invention, confidence, clear thinking and single-mindedness separate him from the pack. He’s still ambitious too. In his Betfair column he gave his 2014 season a mere 8 out of 10! Moore’s ride on the Grey Gatsby to beat massively odds-on Australia in the Irish Champion Stakes was one of many highlights:
A breakthrough season for Helmsley-based O’Meara who landed his first group 1 with G-Force in the Betfred Sprint Cup, followed by Move In Time in the Prix De L’Abbaye as well as a host of other big handicaps: the Ayr Gold Cup and the Cambridgeshire to mention two. It is heartening to see the ranks of good northern trainers swelled by such talent. With 116 winners and £1.2m in prize money in 2014, O’Meara will soon be challenging Fahey and Johnston. If only he would turn his attention more seriously to the jumps, a division in which the North is embarrassingly weak right now.
It was hard to feel anything other than warmth and moist-eyed, tingly emotion at the performance of Treve in the Arc De Triomphe. The style of her swooping victory was sensation enough, without the stellar training achievement provided by the resilient, faithful Criquette Head-Maarek. Treve’s fragile season had been well documented and to peak a horse in that manner was special. As a bonus the Treve team decided to keep the wonder mare in training next season, too. Any doubts about the horse’s constitution or concerns around the reported ‘kissing spine’ we were assured, could be managed through a careful training programme. The prospect of Treve returning to Longchamp in October at five is proper dreamweaver territory.
Rules and Regs
The BHA had a few sticky moments in November. Firstly, after some sterling work by Simon Rowlands, aided by Google earth, the distance of the Grade 2 Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby was found to be a furlong short. Other races subsequently came under close scrutiny. And then trainer Neil Mulholland had one of the biggest successes of his career taken away from him because The Young Master was found to be ineligible for the Badger Beer Chase at Wincanton - only after he had been allowed to run. This is pretty basic stuff.
The Daily Mirror quite rightly received opprobrium for printing pictures of Wigmore Hall being put down after shattering a bone in his leg at Doncaster. Outrage was focused on the sensationalist nature of the reporting and on the one-sided views presented about horse welfare. David Muir, the RSPCA’s equine consultant, suggested there was no case for the sport to answer. “I can’t see that the vet has done anything wrong, or the racecourse either”, he said.
Britain has thankfully seen less in the way of painful revelations about doping and horse abuse prompted by Al Zarooni’s steroid scandal of 2013. In Ireland, however, successful national hunt trainer Philip Fenton was banned last month for three years after illegal medications were found at his stable during 2012. Hardly a swift resolution. Elsewhere, Fergal Lynch returned to race riding 10 years after being banned for deliberately stopping a horse, in collaboration with a crooked owner. Journalist Greg Wood prefaced the moment when he wrote “a small stain will appear on the integrity of British racing as Fergal Lynch walks into the paddock at Ayr racecourse.” The BHA’s view that “Lynch has satisfied us…that he has successfully reformed his character” cut no ice with Wood who argued that “For the cardinal sin of deliberately stopping a horse there should never be hope or expectation of a second chance.”
This is a bit predictable for an end of year round up, but it is only right to mark the passing of a number of stalwarts and luminaries of both the equine and the human world. Favourites I will recall with warmth and respect include former jockey and partner of Henrietta Knight, Terry Biddlecombe; head of the Scudamore dynasty, Michael; jockey and training legend Dessie Hughes; and Gold Cup winning trainer Toby Balding. Lochsong, See More Business, and High Chaparral also breathed their last.
My local track has built a new £1.8m greyhound circuit inside the existing racecourse. Entry to the dogs – like to most of the racing fixtures – is free. On the face of it, this is a good move and increases my leisure options considerably. It comes as part of a £15m refurbishment at the track. What’s not to like? Well, the down side is that seven of the venue’s 17 current fixtures have been flogged off Arena Racing to help pay for the work. This includes its two prized dates of Boxing Day and Easter Sunday. I’m not at all convinced by this move away from a focus racing. Although, as owner Lord Hesketh sagely pointed out to the BBC, "If this place is going to survive and prosper, it's going to have to operate for more than 17 days a year." So maybe I’ll hold fire. The jury is out.
The new man at the British Horseracing Authority faces a tough assignment. Racing’s human resources department appointed Nick Rust, formerly of Ladbrokes, to replace the widely liked Paul Bittar as its Chief Executive. The link with the bookies did not go unnoticed by many social media commentators who predicted doom for the poor punter. Though this interesting piece by Greg Wood (again!) put the issues in perspective:
“As much as I love race riding, it is not something I want to do for the rest of my life and, while I am not necessarily ready to retire now, I feel at a stage when I am ready for a change.” This ambiguous statement from Jamie Spencer announced his surprise retirement from the saddle in the Autumn. He had been replaced at Qatar Racing by Andrea Atzeni and Oisin Murphy and there was more than a hit of sulky bottom lip in the words. Spencer apparently rode off into the sunset with an unplaced effort in the Hong Kong mile. And in one of the most expected u turns of recent months, he was back plying his trade under the Lingfield lights in December. Many more showboating hold-up rides to come, it would seem.
Lest we forget the presence of the finest flat horse of recent years (if we ignore Sea The Stars), the first Frankel foal to sell (with his dam Crystal Gaze) at a special sale at Kensington Palace on the eve of Royal Ascot fetched a cool £1,150,000. What does austerity mean, exactly?