Well that was a fantastic sporting weekend, wasn't it? Britain now has a world heavyweight champion, world tennis team champions, and a record scorer in consecutive Premier League games.
But it's not all sweetness and light. Such is the nature of the British media - and social media - that no sooner has someone reached the top of their game, they become scrutinized for their 'daytime' behaviour. I have only one issue with this: it is very difficult to find a blemish-free sportsman, which makes for depressing reading much of the time.
Tyson Fury, our new heavyweight champion, has lived out a Hollywood storyline. Born three months prematurely, weighing one pound so legend has it, he is the son of Irish travellers. His father has been in prison for gouging someone's eye out and Fury has been cited by his sport for homophobic comments.
Jamie Vardy's story of rags to riches is equally compelling but with only a slightly less bitter sting in the tail. Vardy, who set a new record when scoring in his eleventh consecutive Premier League game at the weekend, was released as a youth by Sheffield Wednesday. Thereafter he went on to play for non-League Stocksbridge and FC Halifax before returning to the professional ranks with Fleetwood Town, themselves joining the Football League for the first time. He moved to Leicester three years ago and this season has rediscovered the golden touch that successive managers up the football pyramid have admired.
Sadly, he too has an off-field incident which has sullied his recent sporting achievement. In August this year, Vardy was involved in an alleged racist jibe at a fellow casino visitor, calling an oriental man a "Jap". Without in any way condoning his behaviour, I rather suspect Vardy is a bit of a yob more than he is a racist, despite the colour (no pun intended) of his comment.
Thankfully, there's also good old Andy Murray, a proud Scotsman whose biggest controversy involved comments about England which echo the sentiment of most of his nation. The frequency with which those words have been regurgitated every time Murray achieves anything of significance in his sport attests far more to our side-swiping (social) media tendencies than to Dunblane's most famous citizen's nationalism.
At the end of the day, we watch sport for what it is: athletic theatre. But, in the case of so many, wouldn't it be that much nicer if we could actually display affection and reverence for top achievers without them making us feel dirty because of misdemeanours outside of their sporting arenas?
Meanwhile, back on the race track the action was captivating, though also not without controversy. The big race in Britain was Newbury's Hennessy Gold Cup, won in breathtaking fashion by Alan King's Smad Place.
The eight-year-old grey produced a superb display of jumping in a front-running master class. From a pure sporting perspective, it was close to perfection. But for those of us who insist on wagering on outcomes, there was a slightly sour taste left in the mouth.
Much was made of Smad Place's prep run a few weeks ago, and I imagine it did assist his performance over the weekend. But the more material difference was surely the wind op that the winner had over the summer. After all, although he had improved for his first run in previous seasons, this represented a clear career best on his eleventh chase start and 23rd race overall.
If it sounds like I'm trying to belittle the Hennessy winner, I'm absolutely not. To repeat, it was a sensational effort and hugely enjoyable, despite the fact I - and if you read my Hennessy preview, quite possibly you - backed the second horse, Theatre Guide, at early odds of 20/1.
My issue is with the fact that the notification of breathing operations is still left to a trainer's discretion, meaning if we as punters happened not to be tuned in on that particular day, we remain unaware of a material change. It is very hard - for me at least - to envisage Smad Place winning the Hennessy off that mark on last season's form, or on the embryonic form of that Kempton bow in early November.
I've written extensively about wind ops here and here, and continue to lobby for their publication on racecards. I do this not because they are some sort of panacea leading to certain riches for those backing such beasts. Of course not.
Rather, it is about the availability of information, all of which is of lesser or greater utility, and which it is for the bettor not the beaks to determine the merit on a case-by-case basis.
The two - actually, three - arguments levied against the introduction of such information are thus:
- The horsemen are extremely reluctant to go public
- The information has no betting utility
- It is too hard to implement
I've touched on the second point already, and I think the third is a red herring. There is an existing parallel, that of gelding operations, which has been subsumed into the data gathering and dissemination process. While breathing operations are a slightly more complex area - there are different types of surgery and a horse can undergo more than one intervention - it is far from beyond the wit of man to address technologically and from a process perspective.
Indeed, give me a day with the business and technology bods at BHA and we'll have this nailed with time for a long lunch and a pint.
No, the real issue here is with the horsemen. Trainers and breeders particularly.
The fact is wind ops are commonplace. How commonplace is anyone's guess, as we don't currently have the data. But some trainers routinely intervene in the off season with significant subsets of their squad. They don't necessarily want people to know about this, and some go as far as to suggest that their owners also don't want people to know about this.
The implication is some sort of inside information, regardless of the fact that it is often inside misinformation.
With regards to the breeding side of things, in jump racing the fashion is for horses to be more akin to elephants than ponies. Big horses fetch the biggest sums, their longer strides and greater presumed lung capacity making for 'bigger engines'. But the big lads and lasses tend to suffer more from breathing issues under duress, for reasons I've outlined in those two posts above.
So much of this is conjecture principally because the information is not freely and empirically available. It is currently piecemeal and ad hoc, based on whether or not the horseman in question has been canvassed for, and wishes to share, a view.
I will continue to push for the central storage of this information, and the public dissemination via RDC-backed data feeds of the same, and I feel that day is getting closer. This was one of a number of 'information items' discussed at the recent Horseracing Bettors' Forum, with the below a quote from the subsequent press release we issued:
HBF is broadly in approval of additional data and data streams being made available but will seek clarification of exactly what these might be. HBF strongly supports any measures which would make data available in a timely and robust manner.
Hopefully, the aspiration to introduce more data to the wagering mix is something which will deliver concrete progress in 2016, a year in which maybe, just maybe, Smad Place will win the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Elsewhere over the weekend there was Grade 1 action aplenty.
Identity Thief was a game winner of the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle having bungled the last flight, and here is a horse that has improved from a rating of 138 last season to somewhere close to 160 after two runs this. Trainer Henry de Bromhead is one of the best in the business, and who is to say that the Thief's improvement has topped out?
He'd likely need to run to north of 170 to win a Champion Hurdle, that ten pound increment deemed possible in light of a twenty-plus pound step forward already this term. His trainer suggests he's "come back twice the horse this year" so there are worse 33/1 shots if you're tempted to move your ante-post portfolio on at this time.
Sunday in Ireland saw Long Dog show that his bite was worse than his bark, the Mullins horse just touching off stable mate, Bachasson, in the Grade 1 Royal Bond Novices' Hurdle. The runner-up lost little in defeat and could be very hard to beat on a sound surface. As for the winner, it's likely there are better novices in the deep Closutton battalions.
In the 2m4f Hatton's Grace Hurdle, also a Grade 1, Arctic Fire was much the best. Switched off at the back of the field, he was brought to the fore at the last hurdle and danced away on ground that might have been slow enough for him, against opposition that was certainly slow enough for him! He's still only six, and I wonder if he might be asked to stretch out to three miles for a tilt at the World Hurdle this term.
No bigger than 14/1 for that longer event, and 7/1 with Willie Hill to win any event, he's not a price I'm attracted to despite the lingering memory of that belting run in last year's Champion. One for later in the season when the non runner no bet concessions are kicking around.
The Drinmore Chase, a third Grade 1 on the Fairyhouse card, was won in dominant fashion by No More Heroes. Last term's Albert Bartlett third is now 5/1 favourite in most books for this season's RSA Chase, though it is worth noting that no Drinmore winner has bagged an RSA Chase since the Fairyhouse race's current incarnation in 1994.
No More Heroes is a really nice sort, but I don't see him winning the RSA. Second was Monksland who, despite close to optimal conditions would be just shy of what's needed at Grade 1 level; and Free Expression in third didn't really get the run of it. He made a mistake at a crucial time and just seemed to run up the back of a couple in a packing field. He could get closer to the winner next time without necessarily reversing form.
Week by week we're seeing more of the winter stars limbering up for the big Christmas and Spring pots now and, despite temperatures dropping, things are hotting up nicely on the track. It promises to be a breathless season! 😉