We were simply kidding ourselves, writes Tony Stafford. Friday May 15th sounded a nice date for racing in the UK to resume and, with three meetings in France today as the shining example and some of the domestic trainers suggesting they would be ready by then, we waited for Boris to offer some encouragement on Sunday night. No such luck.
The PM’s message, supplanting the old “stay home” slogan with “stay secure” while allowing extra outside time for exercising was hardly the hoped-for signal suggesting the return of professional sport in any form. Horse racing it appears, even behind closed doors, will have to wait its turn.
At least horseracing enthusiasts, starved of meaningful action for eight weeks, will have full coverage on Sky Sports Racing from all three returning reunions, Longchamp, Compiegne and Toulouse. Coverage from Longchamp starts with a bang at 9.55 with the five-furlong Prix Saint Georges, one of four Group races on the Parisian track.
Wall-to-wall action will ensue until late evening and whatever else is uncertain in these unnatural times, there will be a relief that betting on something tangible will at last be available. Bookmakers and the exchanges will be doing great business and in the way of such things, the possible resumption dates for the UK are probably most accurately signalled by Betfair Exchange’s special markets. June 1st (on or before), so two weekends on from the putative first date on Friday, at 5 a.m. today was a pessimistic 2.26 (5-4) for yes and 1.72 (8/11) for no.
Slightly less predictable was the market on Royal Ascot going ahead on the normal opening date of June 16 which was 2.84 (almost 15-8) for yes and 1.52 (1-2) for no. Racing had seemed to believe that the Royal meeting was sacrosanct, but maybe the monarch will be open to a date adjustment, or perish the thought, even accept a one-year blank. A restart of racing by July 1 was 1.2 or 5-1 on. No doubt the talks between government and the racing lobby, with the more vociferous trainers at its helm, will be continuing. For the sport to expect to be made a special case might be hard to gain much traction while so many others are still making life-changing sacrifices every day.
So let us enjoy the French for a change. At least their sport has a tradition where spectators are almost an after-thought, so sparsely have they traditionally attended except when the Brits come en bloc to the Arc. The Pari-Mutuel monopoly over generations meant a traditional culture of the morning Tierce bet in the coffee shops and bars and non-attendance at the sports. The betting there, like everywhere else, has benefited from technological advance and it is hard to argue with a racing administration that can produce three cards that between them offer around £800,000 in overall prize money on a single day.
I think I’ve mentioned before that when Racing TV (ex Racing UK) pinched Irish Racing from At The Races (now Sky Racing), few thought that having the French stuff dumped on them as a token was anywhere near an equitable exchange. But they quickly found an excellent equivalent to Racing UK’s outgoing professional Frenchman, Claude Charlet, in Laurent Barberin, whose patient unflappable style and genuine knowledge of his subject has been highly impressive. While many of Ireland’s races on busy UK days nowadays inevitably clash and require split screens or even delayed relaying, Sky has made a big move forward. Today will be a great opportunity and for its presenters represents something of a penalty kick.
The trio of fixtures reflects France Galop’s new-found flexibility where its financial muscle is shrewdly stretched throughout the day. Longchamp kicks off mid-morning, 10.55 a.m. in France, so an hour earlier here and there will be unbroken coverage throughout its ten-race card which concludes at 2.35 p.m. BST. It would be hard to imagine a single UK meeting on a Monday afternoon offering anywhere near as much as £230,000 yet remarkably that figure is comfortably outstripped by its near-neighbour Compiegne, around 60 miles to the north, whose own ten-race card weighs in at a hefty £350k.
Compiegne is an all-jumps programme with no race worth less than £30k. It offers decent fields throughout with the top trainers and jockeys all on show. Sky again will show all ten races from the 3.05 starting time to a 7.35pm conclusion. A good proportion of the evening mixed fixture at Toulouse will also be featured. This begins at 5.20 UK time, so overlaps Compiegne. Another ten-race affair begins with a hurdle race and two chases, with the remaining seven events on the Flat. Two of these are Listed (worth £38k each in total), while two more are confined to Arabians, including a Group 2, the finale at 9.42pm.
Toulouse, in the South of France, is one of the more important provincial tracks, and offers only £10k less overall prize money tonight than the £230k available at the Group race-sprinkled principal meeting at Longchamp.
Listening to Barberin, from his home in Bordeaux yesterday, I got the impression he would be in for the long haul today. It seems as though he hopes to abandon ship after the second Listed race at Toulouse, (7.20) when he and the cameras might be taking their leave, so Arabian horse fans could be denied. But that still leaves around 25 mostly high class French races to tickle the punters’ fancy. My own fancy, I must confess, has been tickled by one name, Je Deviens Moi – I want to be (or become) me! He runs in a conditions race at 5.05 at Compiegne and, while up in class, goes for four in a row.
I would hope that, following France’s example, when UK racing does return there could be at least one attention-grabbing card rather than some routine betting-shop dross that can do little more than stifle enthusiasm. Okay, we want opportunities for all owners and trainers, but in the crucial early stages, racing should have something special to offer. The good horses have been training towards their comebacks and the possible normal path to stardom. They will need suitable targets, especially as if we do have to wait for a start into June, the season will already have been drastically truncated.
The French have successfully averted one major political threat to their return and it came from a by no means inconsiderable quarter. It seems French Ligue 1 football teams were unimpressed by having their return to action delayed until September or whenever and tried a spiteful legal block against racing’s resumption. In Nicolas Clement, the trainers have got the right man at the helm!
Now the stage – Covid-19 permitting, and the numbers of fatalities and infections in France have been going down steadily – should be set for their mile Classics being run in three weeks. Let’s all hope for a problem-free day. At least the spectators won’t be getting in the way - not that they ever do over there!