So the turf flat season has started. The traditional Doncaster fixture was less curtain-raiser and more curtain twitcher as nosy National Hunt and all weather neighbours peered out at the strange interloper in their midst.
Two meetings for each of the winter staples subsumed Donny's eight race card and, while some doubtless rejoiced, I have to concede to a significant level of apathy (if that's not an oxymoron) at the opening of the grassy gates.
Those who enjoy the international flat racing scene - I am squarely in their midst - may have had more cause for gratification with the wealthiest race day in the world, Dubai World Cup day. However, again, for me this is the ultimate misplaced shebang. Putting an uber-valuable flat meeting in late March is like, well, putting a race track in the middle of the desert...
Historically, I didn't hold such a firm view. I used to treat all codes the same, and welcome each new season with the same fresh and open mind. But it seems odd that Doncaster's two day fixture should be marooned with no further flat turf racing until Good Friday. What, pray, is the point of that?!
I do understand that the odd placement of Easter this year, allied to the second season commitment to wealthy Good Friday race days north and south of the border, has rendered the isolation of that opening meeting more stark. But still, it almost lends credence to the stance of Great British Racing moving the commencement of the Jockeys' Championship to Guineas weekend, the first May Bank Holiday.
Whilst my apathy for a championship for jockeys is even more pronounced than for the weekend's flat turf action, I do have some sympathy with what GBR are trying to achieve. They know the equine stars of the flat are more fleeting than their National Hunt contemporaries (Dubai World Cup winners aside), and recognise that that transience makes it difficult for the sport to 'stick' with those peripheral to it.
So it makes absolute sense, from a logical perspective at least, to attempt to bring jockeys to the fore. And, further, to do that around the core seasonal offerings. The problems then begin...
Obviously, traditionalists get upset about so much as the changing of the tea bag brand in the members' dining room. Thus, truncating a championship at both ends is seen as akin to heresy in some quarters. But upsetting the traditionalists has to happen if the sport is to reinvigorate itself and build on the momentum that has been growing for a few years.
After all, who will be the traditionalists when the traditionalists are all dead?
The next problem is the introduction of prize money. It seems plain stupid to offer a bonus pot of gold to the wealthiest members of any community, and I absolutely disagree with financially incentivizing the jockeys' championship. Those who want to win it want to win it. For those who don't (Ryan Moore, let's say), £25k in their back pocket is no persuader.
Now, in fairness, there are good prizes for other categories, such as top apprentice, and that seems more appealing; and there is great sense in shortening the championship fixture window in what has become a far flabbier fixture list than was once the case (many jockeys will ride two meetings a day six days a week, and a single meeting on the seventh for five months - that's too much, for anyone).
The counter-argument, summarized by Ed Dunlop, who claimed that "It appears to favour jockeys who are riding abroad at both the beginning and end of our domestic season" is bunkum, as jockeys may or may not ride abroad in that time. Fact is, there's only ever a very small handful of jockeys in the running for the title and they've often ridden abroad prior to the revised season in any case (Richard Hughes, for instance).
Moreover, in the case of Hughes, he received a signficant ban (50 days) in 2012 and still went on to win the title.
Perhaps of more concern from a PR perspective is the curious decision to attempt to hurl jockeys into the sound bite spotlight. With respect, jockeys are paid to ride, and the great majority of them do that with a professionalism and competence that is a credit to their field. There are few things less appealing (to me, at least) than the post-race "how do you feel?" interview, especially when it's with someone like Ryan Moore.
I single Moore out not because he's a poor interviewee - on the contrary, when presented with something other than the banal, he's tremendous value add - but because he belongs to the school that believe the owner and trainer should be the first to hear the rider's perception of events. Thus, when C4 extend the long pole towards Ryan's chin they usually get car crash TV.
Another thing this highlights is that, actually, jockeys are already in the media spotlight as a consequence of a previous agreement along similar lines. Reference the aforementioned long mike...
This is all a rather long-winded way of saying I couldn't give a flying dismount for the new, or the old, jockeys' championship, and I don't actually know of anyone who does. Punters punt, racing fans love racing (and horses), and the occasional jockey-hopper gets mildly moist by Mr A leading Mr B by six wins in late season. That's as exciting as the jocks' champs gets. Next...
The Dubai World Cup is another over-funded irrelevance. To offer a first prize of almost four million quid for a race at the start of most runners' season is abject beyond compare in the sport of kings (and, increasingly, sheikhs). It was won this year by the eight year old (yes, eight, that's knocking on for a National Hunt horse), Prince Bishop.
He stands every chance of mimicking the winners in 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2003, and 2001 this century who failed to win another race. It's a massive crock of gold for the competitors and, obviously, if you had a ten furlong dirt horse rated 110+, you'd want to be there. But it's of zero consequence to either the European or US racing circuit.
The under card is worth tens of millions too, and is generally as pointless. Clearly the sponsors are extremely important people in the sport globally, and naturally I respect their right to host a card comprised almost exclusively of Group 2's and Group 3's masquerading as top tier heats. But I don't have to get excited by it.
On a brighter note, I am very much looking forward to both the all weather championships and Aintree's Grand National meeting. Now in its second season, the former is shaping up into a real destination event, with good horses racing for good money. Not great horses racing for ridiculous money: that would be daft at this time of year, now, wouldn't it?
The Sprint, Mile, Middle Distance, and Marathon all look solid Group 3/2 races; and all are Class 2 at this time, presumably pending inevitable Pattern recognition in due course. It's a surprise to me that it seems some of those races will start without full fields, and if I had a horse rated 85+, let alone 95+, I'd love to have a tilt at the appropriate category.
[Sad but true side note: I had instructed a trainer to make a claim for Tarooq when he was in for six grand a few starts back. An old boy with bad, well, everything, he won that day over a sub-optimal distance and I bottled it. There was no claim. He has since won a second claimer, this time with a price tag of twelve grand, over course and distance, by eight lengths. Rated 95, he would have been assured a run in the £150,000 Sprint, over his perfect track/trip... if we could have kept him sound. Sigh. He's not entered, so I assume he's not fit. That was the six grand punt. It's times like those that I wish I was even moderately solvent (or at least not so risk averse).]
And then, at the end of Easter week, all eyes will be on Liverpool for those fences, those girls, and that race. I'll be up there reporting for geegeez on Thursday and Friday, and I can't wait.
I love everything about the meeting: the challenge of working out which horses are better suited to the very different Aintree test compared with Cheltenham; the pride and joy the locals exhibit across 'their' three days (shame on the sneering judgmentalism that accompanies the hackneyed snaps of lasses having a good time and caught with their (mainly metaphorical) pants down on Friday); and the show piece on Saturday which has, in recent times, become a lot more insurmountable as a punting puzzle than its fences now are.
Like all big meetings, it will mainly be fun bets for me with the occasional strong opinion. And, like most big meetings, if you're not in front after day one, it'll be a long haul to the jam stick on Saturday evening. There will be previews aplenty, and a winner or two in their midst. Just don't ask me for the winner of the National.
[Side note: I will obviously be attempting to find the winner of the National, and that will form the closing element of my
annual humiliation in the eyes of every relative, friend and passing acquaintance who assumes a man who can usually identify horse head from horse tail should readily be able to pick one amongst forty in a marathon crap shoot Grand National preview piece...]
After Aintree, then we'll start looking at flat turf racing. Fair enough?
Closer to home, we're planning an extreme makeover for geegeez.co.uk. Actually, the idea is that it won't be that extreme at all, but I recognize that the look and feel of the site has become a tad passée, and further, that the 'mobile user experience' is rather cackée.
We will be rectifying some of that very soon: specifically, we'll be deploying a new 'skin' with a couple of minor functional enhancements (login in the header bar on every page, sign in via facebook/twitter, and stuff like that).
One thing we won't be touching, for now, is the Gold functionality. There is nothing more than a glint in my eye in terms of creating a deliberate mobile friendly version of the cards, for two reasons:
1. It's a massive undertaking
2. They actually render pretty well on most devices (phones aside) already
Once the new look is in and settled - hopefully that second point will be instant, but sometimes things happen - we'll get back to the business of bringing more cool stuff inside Geegeez Gold. There remains bundles to add, and my commitment to making Geegeez Gold the best racing toolkit in UK is as steadfast as ever. We're making pleasing progress to that end. 🙂
Finally, just a reminder that the trial offer for Gold has changed. You can now get two weeks - yes, two weeks, woohoo! - full unlimited Gold access for a fiver. After that, if you can't be without it, it'll set you back just £24 a month. Or, if you prefer, you can take the same two week five pound trial with an annual £197 subscription option. That's a chunky £91 saving for those prepared to make the longer commitment.
Here's a link to get signed up. [NOTE: If you're a free member, log in first, and then click the link - that way your upgrade will be seamless, saving both you and me from admin aggro 😉 Thanks! ]
p.s. all Geegeez readers can access Stat of the Day every Monday (12/1 winner last Monday), and today's SotD can be found here.