Last week was Glorious Goodwood, arguably the finest flat race festival of them all, in terms of ambience if not race track quality. It was also a week that brought into sharp focus (again) the issue of non-runners. I have a few opinions (shock!) on both, and they form the backbone of today's post.
Let's begin with the good news, and Glorious Goodwood seems to be an annual gift from the sporting gods to horse racing fans and administrators alike. It is, quite simply, the way big summer festival meetings should be: very good, competitive horse racing (in the main); a beautiful setting; and, a relaxed informal environment from which to drink it all in, both literally and metaphorically.
I was lucky enough to be there from Wednesday to Friday, first as a Race Maker and latterly as a merry maker, and I can say unequivocally that both were tremendous fun. But before my personal experiences of the week, let's consider what it is that makes this such a special meeting.
After all, the racing is nowhere near as high class as Royal Ascot, Champions Day, or either of the Epsom and Newmarket Classic meetings. It's probably not even as good as York's Ebor meeting. But that rather misses the point.
Goodwood's triumph is to recognise its place in the racing calendar - chronologically and hierarchically - and to respond accordingly. It has had its stars, let us not forget: Giant's Causeway, Rock Of Gibraltar, Henrythenavigator, Rip van Winkle, Canford Cliffs, the mighty Frankel twice, Toronado and Kingman have all graced the feature race, the Sussex Stakes, with electric performances of varying current.
But their average SP of 11/10 confesses to the combination of the loaded dice that is 'weight for age' in this event - all bar freaky Frankel second time around were three year olds beating up older horses in receipt of weight - and the lack of depth in the field generally.
No matter, for any fan of the sport that has seen the likes of Frankel, Kingman or Canford Cliffs accelerate through the last furlong to put the race to bed has witnessed the purest essence of flat racing. Despite Wednesday's renewal of the annual feature being akin to a racecourse gallop, the manner with which Kingman initially took a moment to find stride and then barrelled his way down the track to score by a length, was striking. It was a snapshot of brilliance, and one of many pictures lodged in the memory of a fine... no, a Glorious... week.
So the actual racing plays its part, right enough, but the elements which really emphasize Goodwood's superiority in the summer festival stakes are twofold, one natural and the other entirely man-made.
The natural element is, of course, the unique unmatched setting: the Goodwood estate is a throwback to Jeeves and Wooster days, with the House and its grounds impeccably tended. That time warp bus/car journey to the course is a mere scenic amuse bouche for the feast which meets the eyes once inside.
Climb to the top of the Gordon Enclosure Stand (note, this is the mid-range ticket, not the most expensive, a microcosm of precisely why Goodwood works so well), and you have your pick of panoramas via a perspex panel.
Face the front, and you'll see the verdant helter skelter of the race track in the foreground. Beyond, and enveloping the course left and right as well, are rolling hills, trees, hay bails: things that rarely tickle the optics of us city folk.
Turn around and place your nose to the perspex - it might be glass actually, can't quite remember as it wasn't the end point of my focus - and you have a view across Chichester to the coast. A Glorious view, whichever way you look at it, quite literally.
And then there's the man-made contribution. At a time when racecourses - those that host flat racing particularly - have made bad press for their 'fashion police', nay uniform stasi, Goodwood adopts a more relaxed approach.
Sure, if you want to go in the Richmond Enclosure, gents are required to wear a suit, collar and tie. The uniform here is more pyjamas than morning suit, however, with beige or cream crumpled linen accoutred by a standard issue light blue shirt and, generally, a red tie. The number is topped in a very real sense by the ubiquitous panama hat. This is the 'posh' enclosure, and the dress code is so unimposing as to be appealing to someone for whom any kind of sartorial edict is mildly offensive.
Goodwood are essentially insisting that their members dress comfortably. Compare that to the top hat and tails dysfunction of Royal Ascot or Epsom Derby day.
Elsewhere, it's come as you are, and nobody really worries too much about it. Tailored shorts cavort happily with smart denim and the suits. Ladies love to dress up (and so, I'm told, do some fellas), and they're here too, in their thousands, especially on Thursday.
It was busy on Thursday, and on Friday, and on Saturday. The bars were doing good trade, but you don't get scraps here, at least not that I've noticed. The security is there, and it is generally well placed, well drilled, and understatedly effective. I don't think it's G4S...
There are bands: a marching band playing songs you've heard of and that were written in the last fifty years; a mobile steel drum trio; an oompah band that can turn their respective hands to fidget-forcing favourites, and who play on for a good hour after racing. Yes, Royal Ascot has its 'proms' after the last, but it's all a bit stuffy next to this.
Nick Luck suggested in a tweet after the end of the five day festival that Glorious Goodwood was 'God's own racecourse' and, while that's a bit cliché, you knew what he meant.
On the Wednesday and Thursday, I was joining a merry band of enthusiasts collectively known as Race Makers. The concept will be familiar: it's unashamedly 'borrowed' from the Olympics' Games Makers who did so much to ensure the smooth running and pleasant experience of/for games goers.
Race Makers similarly have the task of supporting and assisting the many novice racegoers who attend the bigger meetings. Their role is to smile, to guide, to offer an inside line. Not on the racing you understand, at least not necessarily; but rather on the best place to get a drink without waiting half an hour; the best spot to watch the horses in the paddock; what to actually look for when watching the horses in the paddock; how to read the racecard; where to buy a hat, a programme, a hot dog; and, of course, how to make a bet.
On Wednesday I teamed up with Dave Massey, a chap I know from Uttoxeter Twitterati days, and from Twitter, and as one half of the fledgling tipping service, Racing Consultants. Dave is steeped in racing - mainly jumps it should be said, but he didn't seem unduly 'out of water' on a fenceless flat track. He'd Race Maked... Race Made... Made Races... whatever... on the opening day and was, therefore, a grizzled veteran next to my nervous newbie.
Here's 'Chutney Dave' with three lads playing at being novices: they're actually some very clued in and enthusiastic racing fans who hang out on twitter under the monickers @lukeelder13 @mytentoryours and @adamwebb121 - incidentally, Dave is there too as @tenembassy - they're all worth a look if you use the old tweeter...
He's excellent company is Dave, never more than a sentence from a wise crack, or a 'do you know who that is?' interjection. We strolled down to the two furlong pole, decked out in our snazzy black and white Race Maker polo shirts and, naturally, the de facto panama titfer. Then we strolled back, first stopping to chat to people and make sure they knew all they needed to; and then being stopped by people who wanted to chat or didn't know all they needed to.
That's the thing with the Race Makers: it's organic and so people don't necessarily immediately know who you are, or what you do. But, when they catch on, they're not backwards in coming forwards.
I played second fiddle to Dave on Wednesday but, coming on markedly for the run, was happy to share parity with my Race Making buddy, Graham Wilkinson, on Thursday. Graham, like Dave, knows a lot about racing. A heck of a lot. And so we ambled up to the quarter mile pole once more and, this time, we decided we'd work through every table back to the half furlong marker, and the change of enclosures.
Between us, we probably spoke to a hundred people sat at forty tables. The time from 11am to 1pm whistled by in the chatter of so many conversations. Those who knew what they were doing offered and requested tips; those who didn't asked about reading the racecards, where the loos were, what each way meant, why the odds were different on different boards, and so on.
It was great fun. And it added value. Not just to the racegoers, but to the Race Makers too. To me. And Dave. And Graham. And all the other guys and girls who gave of their time to give something back to a sport they love and, in so doing, received more in return than they probably expected.
John Hanley, who heads the team, is as genial and knowledgeable a racing nut as you could wish to meet. He's a real 'people person', which is obviously ideal for his role. He spent time working out the best pairings. He spent time (over a pint, granted) asking me for my thoughts on the Race Makers concept. He knows it works, but he wants to make it even better. That's a great sign.
John thinks Race Makers should be rolled out more widely than just the major racing festivals and, based on my experiences with novice racegoers, I agree. But I think there's a time and a place for them. They'd be ideal at Sunday 'Family Fun Day' meetings, for instance, but pretty pointless at Monday Southwell cards, where you only go if you know how to bet, and you want to bet.
Another place they'd be ideal, in my view at least, is the big concert nights. Here you have a crowd convened on a racecourse, and the vast majority of them are not even there for the racing. Whilst the traditionalists moan about the invasion, this is such a MASSIVE opportunity for the sport to engage a new demographic. And what are they doing to optimise this opportunity? *drums fingers* *checks nails* *scratches behind* *whistles into the wind*
It's plain stupid when you think about it. 22,000 guys and girls in Newmarket to watch Tom Jones last Friday night. A completely arbitrary guess would be that maybe 15,000 of them had little or no previous interest/experience of horse racing at the track. Seriously, how short-sighted can the beaks be?! (The same beaks who are bemoaning generally dwindling attendances at HQ).
These are the places where, for me, Race Makers could make an enormous difference. Though it would mean the racecourses would have to allow Race Makers in for free, and let them watch the concert... which brings me on to my next point.
Tony Stafford, our venerable veteran Sunday correspondent, expressed his dismay at the racecourse management of Newmarket yesterday. Their 'crime'? Failing to honour entry to the track for owners of a horse that had been declared a non-runner. In this case, the horse was unsuited by the ground. But Newmarket's problem stems from a paranoia that owners are abusing the system to get free tickets for concerts and, heavens to betsy, a free meal ticket.
To clarify, these are the same owners that pay four figure sums each month to keep a horse in training, the vast majority of whom have more chance of winning the lottery than turning a profit on their ownership forays. A free dinner? And a concert ticket? Not on your nelly, my old china...
Now, there may very well be a nefarious undertone to a subset of the withdrawals. While that's not for me to investigate, it does raise two fairly simple candidate solutions to a problem which is actually far broader than Newmarket on a music Friday, and which is causing consternation to a deeper population than merely racecourse managements.
So what to do with a problem like non-runners? There is a lobby which suggests that the non-runner problem arose out of the 2006 decision to move from 24 hour to 48 hour declarations. That lobby contends that in requiring connections to 'finally' decide on running plans two days ahead of time, the vagaries of the British weather system come in to play, as does the scope for twice as many health issues to occur as with a 24 hour declaration.
Whilst clearly there must be some truth to that line of reasoning, it's not the nub of the issue. The cause of that is the ability for trainers to withdraw runners on a 'self-certificate'. Furthermore, it is the lack of control over the number of times a horse may be withdrawn, or a trainer may use his veto right. This has plainly led to abuse and, ultimately, to smaller field sizes, less attractive 'product', and lower betting turnover.
My - glaringly obvious, granted - solutions then are as follows:
1. Racecourses should introduce - and make owners aware of - a clear policy with regards to the hospitality rights extended to those whose horses fail to run on a self-certification basis. If a horse is withdrawn under vet's advice, or at the start, or due to a marked change in the going - say two going differentials - from the time of declaration and prior to racing, then in my view, the hospitality should be honoured.
Of course, the fine points are for the courses to establish, but the key is that a) they should establish clear rules, and b) they should communicate them. (Many tracks mail owners with entries to tell them about parking etc, so this can be very easily centrally administered).
2. Rules governing self-certification should be tightened ASAP. Self-certification was introduced in March 2008, and the number of absentees has rocketed in the six years since then. The idea is a good one, and it was introduced in good faith. But, as with most things, as soon as a loophole is discovered it gets used/abused. Currently, the only restriction on a withdrawn horse is that it cannot race within a six day period of the initial race date.
There are some trainers, and some horses, who persistently fail to run. If a horse is injured, or the going changes, or other unforeseen events occur (e.g. horsebox breaks down), then a self-certification is not normally required. This covers most eventualities, so the rise and rise of the self-certificate is more like self-mutilation to the sport, and it requires fairly urgent triage.
Changes could be straightforward to introduce. How about no more than two self-certificates for a horse within a one year period? Or perhaps an additional week of ineligibility for each self-certificate? Remember that in most cases, there are other ways to demonstrate the need to withdraw a horse, when that is a legitimate course of action.
Trainers who self-certify the absence of more than 5% of their entries (percentage is arbitrary and could well be wrong, principle holds) to receive a written warning as to their conduct, and notification that their right to self-certify may be withdrawn. Again, the details are for the authorities to fathom, but the principle is simple, egalitarian, and workable. I really don't know why this issue still hasn't been sorted (though I do know the BHA are all too aware - and frustrated - by it).
And finally, well done to Gary Johnson, aka ionianson, whose staggering £1,382.63 profit haul secured July's Tipping League first prize. Alfieboy, Elected, and Andynic all scored a profit of £750 or more, but in truth Gary was a furlong clear last month, and will be £100 in cash richer as soon as the postman rings his bell.
August's competition is underway. It's totally free to enter, and you could be getting some beer/betting/something else more practical tokens this time next month.
Click here to enter, or simply use the 'TIP' icon next to the horse you fancy on the geegeez racecards, and follow the prompts. Good luck!
What did you make of Glorious Goodwood? Enjoy it? Back any winners? And how about non-runners? Any thoughts on what to do about that? Leave a comment and let us know - I love to hear your thoughts, and so do others, as they're often/generally more well reasoned than mine! 😉